River-Flow Plan Moves to Written Comment Stage

Taylor HillmanWater

River-Flow Plan

At the final public hearing on a disputed plan to benefit fish in the lower San Joaquin River system, government fishery agencies said the plan doesn’t go far enough, water agencies said alternative plans would help fish more without requiring as much water, and a member of the State Water Resources Control Board requested more information about the plan’s potential impacts.

Written comments on the plan will be accepted through March 17. Known as the revised Substitute Environmental Document of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, the proposal would affect flows in three San Joaquin River tributaries: the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. It recommends between 30 percent and 50 percent of the rivers’ unimpaired flow be dedicated to fish; the water board says unimpaired flow averages 20 percent under current conditions.

The last of five public hearings on the plan, known by the short-hand term SED, came last week in Sacramento.

Although the water board’s plan suggests a range of the rivers’ unimpaired flow be dedicated to fish, board staff have recommended using 40 percent as a starting point. During the Sacramento hearing, fisheries agencies said that’s not adequate.

Jeff McClain, National Marine Fisheries Service division manager for the Central Valley, described the 40 percent recommendation as “a good start, but we want to make it clear that we don’t expect to achieve recovery with that 40 percent.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency environmental scientist Erin Foresman suggested that flow conditions recommended from February to June should be revised, to reflect year-round support for the natural production of San Joaquin River fish populations migrating through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, including large summer cold-water reserves in local reservoirs.

Board member Dorene D’Adamo asked technical questions of staff and of presenters, including about potential benefits of flows during the month of June.

Water board Deputy Director Les Grober noted that in the past, planners have focused on flows during the April-May period, adding that “the tails of that period are terribly important.” D’Adamo asked to see figures on the presence of fish during June in all water-year types.

“The numbers seem to go up in wet years, so if we are looking at higher movement in wet years when there is a reduced impact on water supply, that seems to be closer to the sweet spot,” D’Adamo said. “But if we’re looking at a year type where the water supply impacts are much higher—such as in critically dry years—water supply impacts are about 40 percent. That’s a big water supply hit, and I’m looking to compare that to the fish presence in those critically dry years.”

In response to public comments that the plan’s analysis of its impact on groundwater is inadequate, D’Adamo requested additional data on the combined effects of the SED and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

The director of government affairs for the California Cattlemen’s Association, Kirk Wilbur, told the board that’s a key concern.

“The failure of the SED to account for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will reduce water supply even further and increase harmful effects on farmers and ranchers,” Wilbur said.

David Ahlem, president and chief executive officer of Hilmar Cheese Co., said reduced water supplies for dairies would affect the regional economy.

“If a milk supply is not readily available, dairy processors will be forced to close or relocate out of state.,” Ahlem said.

Michael Carlin, deputy general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, pointed out its agreements with the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts to share Tuolumne River water, and described the San Francisco agency’s water contracts with communities to the south.

“San Jose and Santa Clara are not permanent customers; they are interruptible,” he said. “Would you like to tell the mayor of San Jose that we have to interrupt his water supply because we no longer have a reliable source of water to serve them?”

Carlin agreed on the need to take action for fish, but disagreed with the SED proposal and said water agencies are looking for “a better way” to achieve fishery goals.

“We are actively exploring voluntary agreements and we will continue to explore voluntary agreements because in the end, that is going to be a better way to go,” he said.

The president of the Turlock Irrigation District board, Joe Alamo, said according to the district’s analysis, 2014 and 2015 would have had a zero allocation for all of its farm customers if the SED had been in place.

“This SED as written does not give us the room to work with the various agencies to do the things that the river needs and deserves. Our agencies can either prepare for a decade-long legal battle, or we can actually do something meaningful for the river without harming our region,” Alamo said.

Written comments may be addressed to Jeanine Townsend, Clerk to the Board, State Water Resources Control Board, 1001 I St., 24th Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814.

Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com. Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.