By Jim Johnson, Monterey Herald
SALINAS >> At odds over the operation of the Salinas Valley Water Project and the South County reservoirs during a historic drought, an influential group of Salinas Valley agri-businesses and the Monterey County Water Resources Agency find themselves increasingly facing off.
On Tuesday, the disagreement, which has sparked a legal claim from the Salinas Valley Water Coalition alleging mismanagement of the water project and the reservoirs, came to a head during the county water agency’s board of directors meeting. Assistant general manager Rob Johnson made a presentation seeking to debunk the coalition’s claims that more water could be released from the reservoirs to offset irrigation groundwater demand during the drought. Johnson’s presentation included a series of what he called misconceptions offered by the coalition and the “reality” of the situation involving potential impact on Salinas River steelhead, water rights and water project benefits. He argued that National Marine Fisheries officials had already made it clear that releasing more water from the reservoirs could result in fines and possibly even jail time for agency staff.
In response, coalition President Nancy Isakson blasted agency staff for making the presentation without notifying the coalition in advance and promised a detailed answer. Rio Farms proprietor Bob Martin, a member of the coalition, said the agency staff had “just woke a sleeping giant” in the coalition and its members, calling the presentation a “sham” and promising they would not “sleep much longer.”
Earlier this month, the Salinas Valley Water Coalition filed a legal claim against the county water agency alleging “ongoing, unlawful operation” of the Lake Nacimiento and Lake San Antonio reservoirs had deprived its members of water to which they argue they are legally entitled through the Salinas Valley Water Project.
The coalition’s claim, dated Sept. 2, argues the county water agency has failed to adhere to the reservoir operation guidelines. Included in that would be conservation water releases designed to help recharge the water basin as set forth under the Salinas Valley Water Project. The claim argues the project’s supporting documentation indicates there should be enough flow to both meet water demands through 2030 and provide enough water for the federally threatened steelhead population.
For more than a year, the coalition and others have argued the agency should prepare to release more water from the reservoirs to offset the demand for irrigation groundwater during the drought.
The claim, which the Board of Supervisors of the county water agency and the agency board of directors have not formally responded to, notes that the coalition’s members and other Salinas Valley property owners have already paid $50 million in special assessments for the water project. It alleges the agency has misspent some of those funds on other water projects such as the Interlake Tunnel while the reservoirs are “deteriorating and in disrepair,” and seeks the return of “excess” payments and unspecified damages.