San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation

Farmers battle Water Board over their water rights
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SJFB Second Vice President David Strecker presents comments during the second of five hearings on proposed unimpaired river flow increases. Photo by Vicky Boyd  

California Water Quality Control Board members received an ear full during the second of five hearings on proposed changes to the Bay Delta Water Quality Plan that would increase unimpaired river flows and relax south Delta water salinity standards.

Citing data from various studies, board chairwoman Felicia Marcus said the increased flows were needed to aid floundering species, some of which are almost extinct, as well as meet federally mandated water quality standards. "The Bay Delta is in trouble and has been for some time," she told the crowd of nearly 300 in Stockton on Dec. 16.

commented on parts of the 4,000-page draft Substitute Environmental Document that covers the San Joaquin River's main tributaries – the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers – and the south Delta.

Among the speakers was David Strecker, a Delta area farmer and San Joaquin Farm Bureau second vice president. "I feel the weight of a couple thousand family farmers on my shoulders to defend all of their water rights," he said before his presentation.

During his three minutes of comments, Strecker pointed out the proposed river flows could have economic consequences beyond just agriculture, the county's largest industry. Reduced water diversions could mean fewer crops and fewer job opportunities for workers.

As San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar pointed out earlier in the day, the resulting economic hardships could lead to even more crime in the county, Strecker said.

He highlighted the headway local irrigation districts had made in increasing returning salmon numbers by improving habitat and spawning beds. Strecker also called on the board to look at other non-flow improvements to aid fisheries, including dredging to create cold water pockets, predation in the Delta by non-native fish species and removing non-native plants.

SJFB plans to submit more detailed comments on the proposal before the March 17 deadline. "We're looking at ways to open up dialogue between both sides," he said.

Bay Delta Plan update

The Substitute Environmental Document, considered Phase I by the water board, examines increasing unimpaired flows in San Joaquin River tributaries to between 30 and 50 percent – with a starting point of 40 percent – from February through June each year. That's about double what the rivers currently hold during that time period, according to the state.

The document acknowledged that surface water users within the plan area would likely turn to groundwater, increasing pumping by 105,000 acre-feet annually. At the same time, growers within the critically overdrafted East San Joaquin sub-basin must develop a sustainable groundwater management plan to balance pumping with groundwater recharge.

As part of the SED, the board also has proposed relaxing Delta salinity standards. Currently measured at three points in the south Delta, salinity must not exceed 0.7 EC (a measure of salinity) from April through August and 1.0 EC from September through March.

The board has proposed a year-round objective of 1.0 EC, measured along three stretches within the south Delta and then averaged.

After the March 17 deadline, water board members and staff will respond in writing to each comment before issuing a final Substitute Environment Document, expected in May. Based on that schedule, the board expects to adopt a final plan in July.

The board is conducting similar evaluations of Sacramento River tributaries and the central Delta, a process known as Phase II and that is about a year behind Phase 1. Phase III will involve implementing changes made during Phase I and II by overhauling water rights.

Flow, salinity proposals draw ire

Before the presentations began, Bob Brocchini, who has permanent crops in San Joaquin County, said he couldn't stay for the entire hearing. But the issue was pressing enough to attend for as long as he could.

"A lot of my land gets water out of the Stanislaus or from South San Joaquin (Irrigation District), so it's very important that we have control over our water," Brocchini said.

SJFB board members Joe Valente and Dave Simpson, who both also sit on the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District board, attended to hear the comments as did SJFB board member Paul Sanguinetti, also president of Stockton East Water District.

During a panel presentation, Peter Rietkerk, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, highlighted the roughly $1 million in annual investments his district and the Oakdale Irrigation District together make to improve fisheries along the Stanislaus River.

Since 1993, the two districts have contracted with the Oakdale-based consulting firm, FishBio, for fish monitoring and habitat improvement projects. As part of that, FishBio counts the number of fish and identifies each species caught in a rotary screw trap in Oakdale.

Rietkerk questioned the rationale that increasing flows will increase fish populations.

"There's no scientific data supporting that," he said, adding they have collected more data on the Stanislaus River than state and federal agencies combined.

During most years, farmers who receive water from the two districts likely wouldn't see reductions. But during exceptionally dry years, they could experience significant delivery reductions under the proposed unimpaired flows, said Steve Knell, OID general manager.

"What this means is the drought will be longer and it will be deeper, which makes recovery more difficult," he said. Several people also questioned why water is being exported to the south San Joaquin Valley when those flows could be used to help improve water quality in the Delta.

"Why is the SED silent on exports to the south San Joaquin Valley?" San Joaquin County Supervisor Tom Patti asked. He also noted the timing of the document release and hearings, saying the public was the least able to respond during the holidays.

John Herrick, a Stockton water attorney representing the South Delta Water Agency and Central Delta Water Agency, questioned the proposed relaxed Delta salinity standards, saying they weren't supported by science.

He also wondered whether the proposal to measure salinity along stretches within the Delta and average results was an attempt to meet water quality standards, which have routinely been violated.

"You'll never see the high numbers," Herrick said about averaging. "You will make sure you never see the high numbers so how will you know there's a problem?"

He blamed the Central Valley Project and the Friant Dam for reducing San Joaquin River flows and increasing Delta salinity levels.

About 922,000 tons of salt annually flow down the San Joaquin River into the Delta, where most of it remains. "San Joaquin River water doesn't leave the area," Herrick said. "The only place it goes is applied to the land – it doesn't become drainage or groundwater or exported through the export pumps. The salt stays in our area."

That salt, applied in irrigation water, builds up in Delta soils and reduces crop yields, he said.

Others speakers told water board members their proposed 40 percent unimpaired flows were too low and they should consider up to 60 percent as the water board's 2010 flow criteria report stated was needed to improve fisheries health.

James Cox, president of the California Striped Bass Association who has run professional fishing charters for 25 years, said his group favored higher flows.

"All of the spawning success is in years with the highest flows," he said. "All of the anadromous fisheries benefit from the high flows. So many people try to make it as fish versus people. The point that has to be made is there are so many more benefits to the flows than just the fish – drinking water, preventing salt water intrusion and recharging groundwater."

He also disputed the role predation played in salmon survival, saying studies have shown spawning survival and water flows have the greatest impact. "Predation has the lowest impact," Cox said.