Farmers Consider Impacts of River Plan

Taylor Hillman Water

Water rushes through an irrigation canal
Affected irrigation districts, farmers and others have started poring over thousands of pages of documents that detail a state water board proposal to reserve more water for fish in the lower San Joaquin River watershed.

The State Water Resources Control Board released a revised plan last week that proposes to leave more water in the main tributaries to the San Joaquin—the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers—during periods it considers key for “at-risk native fish species.” The proposal from board staff recommends that between 30 percent and 50 percent of the rivers’ “unimpaired flow” be dedicated to fish, compared to an average of 20 percent under current conditions.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said water supplies directed to fish should be subject to the same efficiency standards as those affecting farmers and homeowners.

“For years, regulators have been requiring increasingly more water in the name of environmental protection, but fish populations have continued to decline,” Wenger said. “Regulators have no idea how many more fish—if any—would result from dedicating even more water to environmental purposes. But we do know one thing: This will hurt people.”

Wenger estimated the board proposal could dry up as much as 240,000 acres of Central California farmland—with no guarantee the redirection of water would help the fish it’s intended to benefit.

The board said its plan aims to enhance the flow of water through the system for protected salmon and to maintain salinity standards through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The proposal would result in significant impacts to water supplies on the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley, from San Joaquin through Stanislaus and Merced counties.

Water and agricultural organizations estimated the board proposal could result in an average of another 350,000 acre-feet of water being dedicated to outflow, which would come on top of restrictions on deliveries to other water users that resulted in a redirection of approximately 1 million acre-feet of usable water this year alone.

Farmer Gary Darpinian, who grows cling peaches, almonds and walnuts within the Modesto Irrigation District, said he is concerned the board proposal could dramatically influence how much water he will have to irrigate his farm; the district receives surface water from the Tuolumne River.

“If the districts are required to release that much water, it’s going to have a very serious impact on how much water is left,” Darpinian said. “The other thing that I would be forced to do, without question, is to drill more wells.”

Jake Wenger, a Modesto-area farmer and MID board member, said the board proposal would require the district to restrict agricultural water supplies to an average of 20 inches per acre.

“There’s a lot of commodities grown in our region, but not a single one of those can produce a crop on 20 inches per acre,” he said.

Farmer Ron Macedo of Turlock, who serves on the Turlock Irrigation District board, agreed that the proposal from the state water board would likely force growers to pump more groundwater—and said it comes at a time when implementation of the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will lead to additional regulation on that source.

“With all of the groundwater regulations that are being put on the books, you could really devastate agriculture here in this whole San Joaquin Valley,” Macedo said.

Farmers are doing their share when it comes to water efficiency, he added, such as investing in measuring devices and in drip and micro-irrigation. And, he said, irrigation districts act sustainably by saving water during wet years.

“It is up to the state to put in other infrastructure to capture this water,” Macedo said. “We need more storage to transfer water in wetter years in ways that are environmentally sensitive. You can’t just take away from the districts that have saved water.”

Other irrigation districts in the affected region expressed similar concerns. The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts called the plan “misguided.”

“Increased flows without accurate scientific knowledge backing these flow requirements do not take into account the proactive water conservation and fish habitat improvements that these two districts have taken seriously for years,” the two districts said in a joint statement.

An economic impact report prepared for the Merced Irrigation District in July said the board proposal “would have adverse economic consequences for Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties, a region beset by high unemployment and other impacts of a lingering recession and drought.” The document predicted the plan would cause the Merced County economy to shrink by $231 million.

A coalition of local governments and organizations in Stanislaus and Merced counties expressed opposition to the plan, saying, “Our region has never been more united on this issue,” and citing impacts to economic growth and groundwater supplies, a primary source of drinking water for local communities.

CFBF President Wenger described the approach outlined in the board plan as untested, unproven and unpromising, given past results, and also cited the impact to the regional economy.

“Forcing farmland to be fallowed—as this proposal would surely do—degrades the unique environmental resource represented by California farmland, and will hurt people and the economy throughout the region and state,” he said. “It would create another area of chronic water shortage and economic distress, without any proven environmental benefit.”

Wenger said Farm Bureau will urge the water board to revise the proposal and work with local water managers and communities to create “a balanced plan to help the environment without causing needless suffering” to people in the affected areas. He said the plan must also comply with the state’s longstanding system of water resource allocation, must afford operational flexibility and must emphasize other factors affecting fish populations, such as predation and habitat.

Comments on the proposal are due on Nov. 15. The board said it would hold public hearings Nov. 2 and Nov. 10 in Sacramento, and Nov. 4 near Modesto, and that it would consider approving the proposal at a public meeting in early 2017.

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