Ag Today October 5, 2016

Debate grows over SJ River plan

Oct 4, 2016 at 6:43 PM

By Alex Breitler

Record Staff Writer
A state official on Tuesday defended plans to permanently allow more water to remain in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries in an effort to help struggling fish species.

The proposal, released last month, has come under attack from farms and cities that rely on those tributaries, particularly in Stanislaus and Merced counties.

San Joaquin County also has a stake in the matter. Increasing flows on the Stanislaus River could make it harder to import water from New Melones Lake, water that east county farmers need so they won’t have to pump as much from below ground. Thousands of Stockton residents also rely in part on New Melones water.

Eric Oppenheimer, with the State Water Resources Control Board, told the California State Board of Food and Agriculture that the proposal to leave more water in the rivers was based on evaluation of a “tremendous” amount of scientific research.

“We’ve determined most of the science points to the fact that flow is a major factor of the survival of fish,” he told the board.

Roughly speaking, about 20 percent of the water is allowed to remain in those rivers today, without being diverted to homes or farmland. The state’s plan would initially increase that to 40 percent, with a potential range of anywhere from 30 to 50 percent.

The target is less than the 60 percent that the state has previously said would be needed to fully protect wildlife, if other needs weren’t taken into consideration.

“There are many out there who think our proposal doesn’t leave enough in the stream to reasonably protect fish, and many out there with a counterview that we’re proposing to leave too much in the stream,” Oppenheimer said. “It puts us in a really challenging position.”

About 228,000 acre-feet of extra water would be left in the rivers each year, and that water will have to come from somewhere. State officials say there would be anywhere from a 7 percent to 23 percent reduction in the amount of water available for humans.

Farmers would likely pump more groundwater to make up for the loss, at a time when other state regulations seek to limit groundwater use.

Michael Frantz, a farmer and board member of the Turlock Irrigation District, told the ag board Tuesday that the plan is “heavy-handed” and warned there would be severe economic impacts. He said officials should attempt to control predatory fish that chomp down on the very native species that the state is trying to protect.

“Certainly more flow does help with the predation issue … but it doesn’t solve all the problems,” Frantz said. “Until we deal with this significant stressor, no amount of water will make this problem go away.”

Gov. Jerry Brown has also weighed in on the matter, saying in a letter two weeks ago that water users should be encouraged to enter into voluntary agreements to improve conditions on the rivers without having to go through a lengthy fight over water rights. Talks are underway now.

Public comments on the state’s plan are due by Nov. 15, though water agencies have asked for more time to absorb the roughly 3,500-page document. Public meetings to share more details are expected in early November.