Merced elected officials and community members alike gave the State Water Resources Control Board a tongue lashing Monday during a public hearing on the board’s Bay-Delta Plan.
Officials called the state board members “the grim reaper,” “the assassin squad” and “domestic terrorists” for their proposal to send 40 percent of Merced River’s water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to boost salmon populations, which critics have characterized as a “water grab.”
“Water is life in this region, and you appear to have no other purpose than to take that life away,” Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, said.
The hearing was the only chance for farmers and other groups to speak directly to the board, which released its draft proposal in September. The hearing, which resumes Tuesday morning in Modesto, started Nov. 29 in Sacramento and continued Friday in Stockton. The board will hold another session in the capital Jan. 3.
Before the hearing started, farmers rolled into downtown Merced on their tractors with signs that read “Farmers Fed-Up.” By 9 a.m., a standing-room-only crowd filled the Merced Theatre.
Scott Koehn, a board member for Merced Irrigation District, told the state officials that the San Joaquin Valley’s farmers are humble people who don’t typically protest.
“Our community is not prone to protesting or shouting to garner attention – it’s just the opposite,” he said. “I believe this community represents some of the most moderate and humble people you’ll ever find. In fact, I think until recently, many of the people outside holding signs this morning or that drove tractors here today would welcome you into their home and offer you the shared interest in improving the viability of salmon in the river. We are reasonable.”
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, summarized the feeling in the room with a quote from the 1976 film “Network” – “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
Costa noted the state’s water system is “broken” and acknowledged tradeoffs are inevitable. But, he asked the water board, “Where is the balance?”
“Food is a national security issue. When are we going to start treating food like the national security issue it is?” he said.
Farmers feel they’ve been dealt a particularly bad hand in the past five years, living through California’s historic drought, facing strict groundwater pumping regulations, and now risking future restrictions to surface water used to irrigate crops. In the upcoming years, farmers also must conform to new state laws increasing the minimum wage and requiring overtime pay for farmworkers.
“2016 was a terrible year for us,” said Joe Scoto, a prominent Merced County farmer. “We had so many laws and regulations that came down upon us that we just can’t take it anymore to do business in this state. And this big water grab … is going to be one of the largest since the Owens Valley. And if that happens, along with the Sustainable Ground Water Management Act, it will devastate this community and our county.”
Other county leaders addressed the state water board, giving examples of how the plan would affect the community outside the agricultural sector. City officials from Livingston and Merced, as well as education officials, expressed worries about the quality and impact on available drinking water. District Attorney Larry Morse II said the plan would impact the quality of life here, including public safety. Merced County Assessor Barbara Levey said the plan would affect property values and economic development.
“It’s not just an ag issue,” said Breanne Ramos, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau. “So much of our economy is driven by ag. It’s not just the growers who are affected. It’s a ripple effect.”
Many commenters pointed out that Merced County already has a low socioeconomic status, with a high unemployment rate – 9.5 percent in November – and 25 percent of residents living in poverty, according to census data. The loss of irrigation water would only worsen the county’s plight, they said.
Felicia Marcus, the state water board’s chairwoman, said the board is being pulled in both directions, with environmentalists saying the proposed 40 percent flows are too little while farmers say they are much too high. She said while the board appreciates critique, suggestions on how to improve the Bay-Delta Plan are more helpful.
“Our challenge is to navigate all of those strong feelings, look at data and try to find the best answer we can,” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about the staff proposal out there … that’s creating a lot more heat than light.”
State and local officials during Monday’s meeting could not agree on a number of salmon the proposed plan would benefit. Many quoted 1,100 salmon, but Marcus said that number was incorrect and misinterpreted.
Many commenters pointed to the Merced Irrigation District’s S.A.F.E. Plan as a compromise. The plan agrees to higher flows down the river, but only at certain times. It also suggests targeting predatory bass, rehabilitating salmon habitat and improving the existing salmon hatchery on the Merced River.
However, MID and state officials have not met to discuss the settlement plan.
MID officials also question the legality of the state water board’s method of implementing the Bay-Delta Plan, saying it would bypass the district’s senior water rights.
The board will accept written comments until Jan. 17 and plans to respond to the comments around May. The Bay-Delta Plan is scheduled to be adopted by the state water board in summer 2017.