More water for rivers, less for farms and cities

Residents around Tulloch Reservoir would face increased chances of a drawdown of the lake level under proposed state rules for river flows, say officials with the South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts.

Overworked for many decades, the lower San Joaquin River upstream of Stockton may get some measure of relief – though it will come at a cost.

State officials on Thursday proposed permanently boosting flows on three smaller rivers feeding the San Joaquin, a major move intended to strike a fairer balance between the needs of the farms and cities that divert most of those rivers today, and the needs of struggling fish species.

One of those rivers is the Stanislaus, and the plan will significantly increase the chance that Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts will, during drought years, get less water from New Melones Reservoir and instead need to drain down Tulloch Reservoir to meet the needs of customers, say the general managers of those districts.

That almost happened in 2015. The news prompted some Tulloch Reservoir area residents to vent outrage over environmental laws and the Calaveras County Water District to build a deeper intake in Tulloch Reservoir so it will still be able to provide drinking water to the Copperopolis should drought cause a draw down.

“In essence, we’ll be seeing more 2015 years going forward. Not good,” Steve Knell, the general manager of Oakdale Irrigation District said in an email discussion of the proposed state rules.

Peter M. Rietkerk, the general manager at South San Joaquin Irrigation District, agreed.

“If implemented, this will only result in lower reservoir storage, less water for ag and urban use, reduced recreation opportunities for foothill and mountain communities and continuing impacts to fish populations in the Stanislaus as we’ve witnessed in 2015 and 2016,” Rietkerk said.

State officials say the proposed rules will benefit fish.

Historically, as little as 20 percent of the water has been left in the rivers for fish. Thursday’s proposal boosts that number to a range centered on 40 percent during the critical months of February through June.

That’s still shy of the 60 percent that scientists have said would be needed to create a healthy, functioning ecosystem on the San Joaquin. But it’s a large enough increase to take 288,000 acre-feet of water away from frustrated farmers each year. That’s enough water to fill a reservoir almost the size of New Hogan Reservoir.

Whether Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels are built or not, Thursday’s proposed changes – along with future flow proposals expected for the Sacramento River and the Delta itself – could go a long way toward determining the fate of the estuary.

“We don’t get to ignore the needs of agriculture, the needs of fish and wildlife, the needs of recreation and the needs of power generation in favor of one particular use,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board. “Our task is to try our best to maximize and balance them all.”

“This will not be easy,” she added, “but it is necessary.”

Sub: Strong reaction

Irrigation districts that rely on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers – including Manteca-based South San Joaquin – called the state’s plan “the worst kind of government overreach.” They warned Thursday that cutting into their supply from rivers will require them to suck up more groundwater instead.

This, as the state simultaneously implements new regulations to make groundwater use more sustainable.

“To me it’s a bit of a contradiction,” said Rietkerk. “You’re looking to pull away surface water that would be used to meet the (groundwater) sustainability targets ... You’re really leaving the region with its hands tied.”

The state estimates that Thursday’s plan would cost the region’s agricultural economy about $64 million per year, or about a 2.5 percent hit. Water users would be allowed to enter into voluntary agreements to reduce water use, which could ease the pain for other users.

Still, the region is likely to fight the plan with passion, just as it did three years ago when the state pitched a similar proposal that didn’t take quite as large a chunk out of local water supplies.

In a summary of their lengthy report, state officials said it remains clear that more water is being taken from the Delta and its feeder streams than fish can withstand. The flow rules have not been updated since 1995 and, since then, a number of studies have found that the lack of fresh water is a significant reason for the decline of species, though not the only reason.

Jon Rosenfield, a biologist with the environmental group The Bay Institute, said Thursday that leaving 40 percent in the rivers isn’t enough.

That’s still less than half of each river. It’s less than state and federal wildlife agencies have recommended. And on the Stanislaus in particular, which has somewhat higher flows than the other two streams, flows of 40 percent might not make much difference, Rosenfield said.

“I’m not an all-or-nothing guy, and I want to move in the right direction,” he said. “But we’ve got fish in critical condition. We actually need to cure the patient.”

Local impacts

For San Joaquin County, higher flows may be a mixed bag. The water could help flush the south Delta, perhaps improving water quality for Delta farmers at certain times of year, and theoretically the water could help to reduce future algae blooms and hyacinth invasions.

The city of Stockton also releases treated wastewater into the San Joaquin and draws drinking water from the river at its new $220 million drinking water plant on Empire Tract. So improved water quality could be good news there, as well.

However, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of crops in the east county are partially reliant upon water imported from New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River. Any reduction in diversions from the Stanislaus could force farmers to draw more heavily from an already declining groundwater table.

“My fear is this is going to be extremely impactful to the district,” said Scot Moody, general manager of the Stockton East Water District.

And though some of the central Delta farmers he represents could benefit from fresher water, Stockton attorney Dante Nomellini said he believes the proposed increase in San Joaquin flows appears to be an effort to shift responsibility for the damage caused by state and federal water exports onto upstream water users.

San Joaquin County recently agreed to spend $20,000 on a study with Stanislaus County documenting the economic impacts of the state’s plan. Controversially, the plan will not require water from farms or cities that rely on the San Joaquin upstream of the Merced, where officials in a separate effort are trying to bring back salmon runs to a long-dead portion of the river.

Hold the salt

Somewhat lost in the discussion of higher flows, the state is also proposing to weaken south Delta salinity standards that are already routinely violated by the state and federal water projects.

State officials say the change to the salt rule will not harm agriculture in the area. That claim has long been disputed by south Delta farmers.

Public workshops on both proposals are scheduled for November, with possible approval in early 2017.

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