The State Water Resources Control Board released a plan to help restore salmon migration by increasing the amount of water flowing through the Lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta. That water would come at the expense of agricultural producers who depend on those tributaries to irrigate crops.
“We’re really talking about pulling water out of the hands of longtime users in pursuit of fishery goals that, you know, may be questionable,” said Chris Scheuring, an environmental attorney with the California Farm Bureau Federation. “Agriculture and urban users have long pursued a trajectory of a more efficient use of water…we’ve certainly got to do that with fishery’s goals too. We just can’t throw water at the problem anymore.”
As it stands now, the three tributaries that would be affected by the State Water Board’s plan can run as low as ten percent when it comes to unimpaired flows. The new plan would require 40 percent of the water flow to be unimpaired, with a stated interest in restoring salmon migration. “That’s a very big number in the context of the fabric of human settlement and the human economy,” Scheuring noted.
The plan to further reduce the amount of water available to agriculture comes at a time when farmers are already wrestling with the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. “Our farmers are being hit from the front and from behind at the same time. Surface water and groundwater supplies are both kind of being pinched off here, so you’re going to see big human impacts,” said Scheuring.
Those directly involved with agriculture would not be the only ones affected by the plan, as many rural economies rely heavily on the success of agricultural production. “What’s going to happen when you have to meet those unimpaired flow requirements in those three tributaries? What jobs are going to be lost? What land is no longer going to be farmed because of that?” asked Roger Isom, President and CEO of California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association.
Isom related what occurred in the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley when growers lost more than 500,000 acre-feet of water because of the biological opinions pertaining to delta smelt. “If you look at the cotton perspective, from the imposition of the two biological opinions, in four years we lost 20 gins and over 1,000 jobs. That’s one single commodity,” Isom noted.
The State Water Board will be accepting comments on the plan until July 27 and will move forward with the final adoption in August.