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STOCKTON — Hundreds of people turned out in Stockton, Modesto, Merced and Sacramento for public hearings with the State Water Quality Board in December and January to speak out on plans to increase water flows in three of the region’s rivers.
Most, but not all, argued the state’s plan would deny too much water to agriculture and cities in the Central Valley.
Board Chair Felicia Marcus explained the purpose of the hearings was to give stakeholders in the region a chance to be heard and to minimize misunderstandings.
“These issues are hard enough to deal with without misinformation, either imagined or real,” she said.
The State Water Quality Board has been studying the ecosystem of the San Joaquin River and its tributaries as they flow to the Delta. It says flow objectives on the San Joaquin River have not been updated since 1995, and that the Bay Delta ecosystem is in a state of crisis.
Over the past two decades, it says, salmon and steelhead, including those that spawn and rear in the San Joaquin’s tributaries and migrate through the Delta to the Pacific Ocean, have steeply declined. It says studies point to flow as a major factor in the well-being of the fish.
To remedy the situation, the board has issued a substitute environmental document, or SED, in which it describes a multi-phase plan to reduce salinity in the Delta. Its first phase calls for increasing flows from the Stanislaus, Merced and Tuolumne river between 30 and 50 percent every February. It has suggested 40 percent as a starting point.
Almost everyone who spoke at the hearings opposed the plans but for myriad different reasons.
Those representing agricultural interests said increasing river flows would cut farmers’ allocation of surface water by 14 percent, which would cause economic harm to growers who are already hard hit by the drought.
San Joaquin County Supervisor Kathy Miller spoke at the Stockton hearing at Civic Auditorium and said the county finds itself caught between two state-mandated water goals: one to increase the health of the Delta ecosystem and the other to recharge the area’s depleted groundwater supply. The issue is further complicated, Miller said, by the state’s plan to export water out of the Delta.
“The SED fails to actively analyze all the impacts and unfairly burdens the San Joaquin region rather than focus on water exports that cause the greatest harm to fish,” Miller said.
San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar made an emotional plea to state leaders not to make the Stockton area’s economic troubles worse.
“Water is life,” she said, adding that increasing flows could harm the area’s farmers and businesses, which would hurt the economy and, in turn, drive up crime.
Environmental groups and some Bay Area interests, on the other hand, argued 40 unimpaired flow wouldn’t be enough to rehabilitate the salmon.
Lea Castleberry, the deputy chief of staff for the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors, for example, argued that a 40 percent flow increase would not be enough to help fish restoration and called for flow adjustments to start at 50 percent.
Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager Steve Knell said the plan appears to be an effort to get more freshwater into the Delta at the same time the state is planning to use tunnels to pump water out of the Delta to the southern part of the state.
He and South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Peter Rietkerk made a presentation at the Stockton hearing demonstrating their belief that the state’s averages supporting flow increases hide the impacts the districts would suffer in times of drought.
They said that storage in New Melones Reservoir would go to zero in 13 of 90 years modeled by the state with unimpaired flows.
“It makes you wonder if the end game of water conservation is to take the water away from us,” Rietkerk said.
Both OID and Modesto Irrigation District argue that flow is not the only factor in bringing back fish populations.
OID spent $2 million digging a deeper channel near Honolulu Bar east of Oakdale to create friendlier salmon habitat, a solution Knell said required no alteration of river flow.
MID has said reducing predators, such as striped bass, would be as effective at increasing salmon population.
The hearings began Nov. 29 in Sacramento. One more is scheduled for Sacramento, Jan. 3. The public comment period was supposed to end Jan. 17, but it has been extended to March 17.
The State Water Quality Board is expected to issue a decision in July.