As agencies call a pause to the California Water War, the combatants look like a frieze of ancient Greek soldiers carved on a temple wall.
Water users with allotment rights to the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers are being pressured by the state of California, which wishes to divert water from the Sacramento River through a tunnel or tunnels to the north-south state and federal canals. The state Water Quality Control Board, noting the loss of Sacramento River water from the WaterFix project (Jerry Brown's tunnels or Gavin Newsom's tunnel) would harm the already grievously harmed Delta water quality, proposed a larger contribution from the three above-named rivers, which flow into the San Joaquin River and then the Delta. A couple of the articles below will give you an idea of the local response to the water board's proposal. In an earlier Badlands Journal article, we noted that Gov. Newsom had replaced the chairwoman of the water board, although he did not follow US Sen. Diane Feinstein's suggestion of replacing her with the Modesto-based former Secretary of the state Department of Food and Agriculture, Bill Lyons, Jr.
A theme in the controversy somewhat submerged at least in the Central Valley press is San Francisco's interest in this. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission supplies Tuolumne River water to East Bay municipalities, San Francisco, and Peninsula municipalities. The political constellation in the high heavens of the moment feature two former mayors of San Francisco (Feinstein and Newsom) and a former San Francisco District Attorney, US Sen. Kamala Harris.
At the moment, this alignment of Tuolumne River water users seems to be giving Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts an edge perhaps not enjoyed by irrigation districts on the Stanislaus and Merced rivers.
But, at the moment, there is a pause in decision making among the local, state and federal agencies; bargaining and voluntary agreements are being mentioned; and lawsuits in abundance are being drafted.
The issue remains crucial: will the Delta be allowed to endure, or will the fresh water necessary for it to endure be syphoned off among many agricultural, industrial and municipal users?
‘That’s a blatant lie.’ Rift on Modesto Irrigation
“We do have a fractured board at this time, very fractured. We have a division here,” said board member Larry Byrd in the middle of a this week’s fireworks lasting about an hour. “Everyone in the room is wondering what the hell is going on.”
A few audience members joined the fray and accused the newly formed board majority of plotting to sell or transfer MID water from the Tuolumne River to other users, perhaps as part of the district’s crucial negotiations with state water officials. The state water board recently approved a proposal that would swell Central Valley rivers in the spring, leaving less in reservoirs for thirsty farmers in the summer and fall. MID and other water agencies have sued to block what’s locally called the state water grab, but negotiations could offset the decision or the lawsuits.
Speaking from the audience, Todd Sill, Ryan Honnette and Emerson Drake suggested that the new board majority had fired MID’s former lawyer, Ronda Lucas, to make it easier to transfer water elsewhere.
Drake suggested that certain board members are dismissive of women and said Lucas would not “allow a water sale to San Francisco.”
A 2011 proposal for such a sale brought heated objections from crowds of people, effectively forcing then-board members to abandon the idea in 2012.
On Tuesday, Byrd strenuously objected to being removed as MID’s envoy to a committee of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority charged with negotiating on behalf of various water agencies. Byrd had served seven years in that capacity and was not consulted before MID board chairman Paul Campbell appointed board member John Mensinger to replace Byrd.
Byrd and Nick Blom, both growers representing mostly rural areas, previously controlled board decisions, joined by Campbell. That changed when Campbell began siding with the board’s John Mensinger and Stu Gilman, who represent mostly urban areas.
A rift had formed in October, when Byrd and Blom launched an investigation of suspected illegal activity by board members, General Manager Scott Furgerson and other unidentified “agents.” Mensinger called the move “outrageous” and “a declaration of war,” and by November, the investigation had been called off.
At that time, a letter from the investigating law firm to Mensinger, Campbell and Gilman indicated that Lucas’ advice about another probe involving former employee Gary Soisethwas at the root of Lucas’ termination. Soiseth was then running for re-election as mayor of Turlock; he lost the race to Amy Bublak.
SHIFTING BALANCE OF POWER
The shifting alliance on the MID board became apparent in early December, when the urban representatives elevated Campbell to board chairman, with Mensinger as vice chairman; Byrd and Blom dissented.
Either Byrd or Blom had presided as chairman since Mensinger was elected five years ago, he noted. “Now you object to the fact that you’re no longer controlling everything and making every decision,” Mensinger said. “To make this (committee appointment) into some kind of massive issue is going a little bit crazy. ... The majority of the board will make decisions and run the agency the way we think it should be run.”
Campbell said Mensinger had asked for the appointment and Campbell agreed. To confer with Byrd would have violated the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law which prevents discussion among more than two members of a five-member panel outside of public meetings, on a given issue.
Byrd and Mensinger jousted Tuesday over Lucas’ termination, announced in November. Byrd said he and Blom had no idea why she was let go.
“When you say you had no idea, that’s simply not true. That’s an absolutely false statement,” Mensinger said.
Byrd retorted, “That’s a blatant lie, what you just said,” and audience members soon joined the bickering.
“IF YOU WANT A WAR, FINE”
“You think we’re just dumb farmers and ranchers?” said Sill, a Waterford-area man identified by the district as Byrd’s ranch manager. “It looks like you’re dividing this board and getting rid of legal so you can do some type of water sales. If you want a war, fine, we’ll have a war.”
Mensinger responded, “I’m not going to be bullied by you or anyone in this room.”
Les Johnson, who has attended board meetings off and on over many years and once ran for the board, said, “We don’t want to lose our water. We’ve got to get this board going again in the right direction.”
After Mensinger’s committee appointment was affirmed on a 3-2 vote, with Byrd and Blom again dissenting, grower Robert Frobose said the new majority had “spit on all of us. We own this district, not you. ... We’re going to play hardball and protect our water rights, what’s rightfully ours.”
Later, the board split again in a discussion about hiring an outside law firm instead of another attorney to replace Lucas as general counsel. The district spent about $3.5 million on legal matters in the past year, not counting money used to settle claims. Staff will gather information for a later vote.
Federal commission accepts MID, TID plan for river flows. Will state water board agree?
A federal environmental analysis recommends relicensing the Don Pedro hydroelectric project and accepts a Modesto and Turlock irrigation district plan for well-timed flows to boost salmon in the Tuolumne River.
The flows, combined with other measures to assist spawning and outmigrating young salmon, would commit less water to the environment than a State Water Resources Control Board plan that’s unpopular in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
But the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is considering a new license for Don Pedro, balanced the environmental measures with projected economic impacts to the region, district officials said. FERC’s environmental review released last week is considered a major milestone in efforts to relicense a facility, 40 miles east of Modesto, that supplies electricity for homes and businesses in most of Stanislaus County.
Most of the measures to benefit salmon were first proposed in a management plan for the Tuolumne, and the complete package was incorporated in a 15-year voluntary agreement that was negotiated last fall with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Water Resources.
FERC’s environmental review is not final. The State Water Resources Control Board needs to approve the voluntary agreement before the terms are folded into the FERC relicensing of Don Pedro.
“Approval of our voluntary settlement agreement will be the last regulatory hurdle to complete the FERC license,” TID Board Member Michael Franz said Friday. “We remain hopeful the state water board will accept the agreement.”
The MID, TID and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission are opposing a Dec. 12 state water board decision, which requires 40 percent unimpaired flow in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers. They charge the water board requirements would result in drastic irrigation cuts, severe damage to the region’s farm-based economy and water rationing in Bay Area cities.
Local officials were relieved last week when Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed a more moderate water board chairman, Joaquin Esquivel, and pledged support for voluntary agreements with water districts to increase depleted salmon populations and improve the San Joaquin-Sacramento delta.
The irrigation districts could present a more detailed voluntary agreement to the state water board in the coming months, though a decision could be a year away.
Terms of agreement
MID and TID say their agreement to increase salmon is not an attempt to avoid the environmental issues but is supported by scientific studies and the districts’ historic knowledge of the river. The districts would join with water agencies in the San Joaquin and Sacramento river watersheds in a $1.7 billion program for restoring salmon and reviving the delta with an additional 700,000 acre feet of water.
The flows, including dry year relief, would start immediately after approval and would be pegged to annual precipitation in the Tuolumne watershed. To help salmon smolts moving downstream, pulse flows of 2,750 cubic feet per second would last for 20 days in March in normal to wet years. The plan calls for 18-day pulse flows in below-normal water years, two-week flows in dry years and nine-day pulses in critically dry years.
To visualize the river running at 2,750 cubic feet per second, water ran at 3,000 cubic feet per second between the Tuolumne’s banks over the weekend to allow for storm runoff.
During a multiyear drought, the districts would maintain the environmental flows in a below-normal water year. The two districts, San Francisco and state officials would confer on what water is available for fisheries in an extended drought.
The state expects the MID, TID and San Francisco to work on identifying an additional source of drought relief for fisheries. One possible solution is banking excess water underground after wet winters and extraction to support additional flows in a dry spell.
In other proposed measures recognized in the federal environmental analysis, Don Pedro reservoir’s minimum level could be lowered by 50 feet, freeing up 150,000 acre-feet for water needs in the longer droughts predicted with climate change. In addition, minimum streamflows would be maintained for aquatic species in the lower Tuolumne.
In October, water releases of 1,000 cfs would clean gravel in the streambed for spawning. The MID and TID would still meet obligations to agriculture and Modesto water customers under the new flow regime, except in critical water years, “when only 88 percent of irrigation demand would be met compared to 92 percent under current conditions,” the federal analysis says.
Efforts to control nonnative bass that feast on the young salmon would include a permanent barrier in the river, fishing derbies and netting.
The districts also propose a $38 million fund for habitat improvements.
The permanent barrier and fish-counting weir are not recommended in the federal staff analysis, which doubted that efforts to suppress predatory species would be effective. “Similar predator removal efforts by the California Department of Water Resources did not noticeably reduce salmon mortality,” the document says.
The staff analysis predicts that flow and habitat measures will improve conditions for salmon and decrease habitat for predatory fish.
Terms of the voluntary agreement with the state do not include a salmon hatchery on the Tuolumne. The MID will present details of the voluntary agreement at landowner meetingsset for 5:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Waterford Community Center and 5:30 p.m. Feb. 28 in the district board room in downtown Modesto.
FERC plans to hold public meetings in Modesto on the environmental document in late March.
Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, serving water users on the Stanislaus River, were not able to complete agreements with the state agencies before the water board decision Dec. 12 approving the 40 percent unimpaired flows for the three rivers. Those two districts, along with MID, TID and Merced Irrigation District, are opposing the Dec. 12 decision in lawsuits.
“We were fairly close to getting to an agreement,” SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk said. “After (the Dec. 12 water board decision), we were under the impression we were going to keep negotiating with the state. For whatever reason, we have not been invited back to the table.”
Some prime areas for salmon habitat improvements on the Stanislaus have been identified and a study on predation was funded last year.
“The second phase would be starting some predation suppression on specific reaches of the Stanislaus and checking to see how it (affects) mortality of salmon moving out of the system,” Rietkerk said.
Voluntary agreements shared with State Water Board. Will they replace disputed flow plan?
The top state agencies that manage water and wildlife resources in California submitted a package of voluntary agreements with water districts to the State Water Resources Control Board on Friday, as an alternative to controversial flow requirements approved in December for the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers.
The agreements, hammered out in the waning hours of Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration and favored by Gov. Gavin Newsom, combine increased river flows with a larger set of tools for restoring salmon in rivers that feed into the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta.
The departments of Water Resources and Fish and Wildlife, which are negotiating the voluntary accords, followed through with their promise in December to provide details of proposed agreements to the state water board in March.
The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, and other local water districts, have strongly opposed the water board plan approved Dec. 12, which requires 40 percent unimpaired flow in the rivers, charging it would severely damage the farm-based economy in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
The MID and TID issued statements Friday in support of the tentative agreements. “Gov. Newsom’s commitment to the voluntary agreement concept has been evident since the day of he took office,” TID General Manager Casey Hashimoto said. “He’s dedicated significant amounts of his administration’s time and resources to work collaboratively with water users and environmental communities to advance the voluntary agreement framework.”
Representatives of more than 40 groups, including water users, conservation groups and state and federal agencies, signed onto the package of agreements and committed to a further analysis of the measures to achieve environmental goals in the delta.
The parties are not entirely in agreement with the proposals released Friday but are committed to trying “to reach voluntary agreements that advance California on the path toward sustainable water management,” says the cover letter, signed by officials from city and county water agencies, water contractors and irrigation districts including Westlands in Fresno County.
Oakdale, South San Joaquin and Merced irrigation districts did not reach agreement on tentative deals with the state before the Dec. 12 water board decision. The Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy were among conservation groups that signed the cover letter.
In a formal statement Friday, the State Water Resources Control Board agreed with the concept of the agreements. “The board recognizes voluntary agreements have great potential to improve ecological outcomes by combining flow and habitat restoration activities, and could result in more timely and durable ecosystem improvements than flow alone might achieve.”
The board, which oversees water quality and water rights in California, said its staff, with support from the parties, will review the agreements and continue to work on the second phase of its Bay-Delta update focused on the Sacramento River and tributaries.
Board staff also will work with the water districts in finishing up the agreements, and “looks forward to a meaningful public discussion on the challenging, but critical and necessary, update of the Bay-Delta plan,” the statement said.
Last month, Gov. Newsom appointed Joaquin Esquivel as water board chairman, replacing Felicia Marcus, to bring more balance to state water policy.
The first phase of the Bay-Delta water quality plan approved in December relied heavily on February-through-June flow measures in an attempt to double the salmon population in the lower San Joaquin tributaries. Local irrigation districts said it would require giving up massive amounts of water in wet years. In addition, restrictions in the plan could drain reservoirs like Don Pedro in consecutive dry years, cutting off water to farmers.
The districts, which have filed lawsuits challenging the decision, also charged that flows from the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers were imposed separate from any requirements for water users in the Sacramento River system.
With the voluntary agreements, MID and TID would release an additional 100,000 acre-feet of water per year in the Tuolumne for environmental purposes. Additional water from the upper San Joaquin, Sacramento, Feather, Yuba, American and Mokelumne rivers would flush the delta with 700,000 acre-feet of water.
The additional water from the Sacramento system would come from land fallowing, reservoir storage and groundwater substitution.
The nonflow measures in the agreements include habitat restoration, almost 300,000 cubic yards of gravel to encourage spawning, 5,500 acres of tidal wetland in the delta, as well as floodplain and fish passage projects.
“The key is the broader set of tools,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency. “The water board really has authority to regulate the flows and not necessarily require these other things ... The thinking is the water board staff can startto do some analysis on the (proposed) agreements, together with the parties that have been working on this.”
Work on the agreements is expected to continue through the year. The state water board could consider adopting the overall plan near the end of the year.
Save the California Delta Alliance (STCDA)
2019 Status of the Water Wars
(Excellent article from perspective of residents of the Delta -- blj)