Gov. Jerry Brown wants to see an amicable solution reached when it comes to protecting endangered fish on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.
The governor wants the State Water Resources Control Board to enter settlement discussions on each of the respective watersheds. If alternatives to the state’s initial proposal to ramp up unimpaired flows to 40 percent between February and June can’t be reached, the water board could vote later this year on the plan as presented that the state concedes will have significant impacts on farming and the economy of the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
The state has also extended the comment period deadline for that plan until March 17. The state board has already received more than 500 letters from people within the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District.
The settlement talks and extended comment period came about after the water board conducted three public hearings in the 209. Those hearings took place only after the state agency had indicated they were only going to discuss the plan at a Sacramento hearing. That triggered protests from local officials as well as members of the California Legislature from the 209.
SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk said impacted districts are being cautiously optimistic.
They hope the settlement talks will put everything on the table that can be done to protect fish instead of just looking at ramping up unimpaired flows for six months each year.
Rietkerk said that includes looking at better timing of releases, habitat restoration, hatchery management, addressing predators, water temperatures, more restrained water releases, and cool water pools behind reservoirs among other options.
Rietkerk noted the Stanislaus River is the only one of the three rivers that has been operating under a biological opinion issued by the federal government. As a result the SSJID and OID have taken the lead in addressing fish issues on the Stanislaus River.
They also have more than a decade of hard data on fish in the Stanislaus River at their disposal as well.
Rietkerk, along with OID General Manager Steve Knell, made a presentation at the Dec. 16 hearing in Stockton indicating there were tangible and scientific-based solutions to help the fish on the Stanislaus River that provide environmental benefits without depriving farms and cities of needed water.
Knell told the water board that the Stanislaus River is a blueprint for sustainable and responsible water management.
The state plan was a result of a directive from the California Legislature in 2006 for the water control board to devise a plan to increase fish population within five years. Besides being overdue the solution focused only on unimpaired water flows.
The state plan calls for commandeering 360,000-acre feet of water between February and June each year to bump up the unimpaired flows on the Stanislaus, Merced, and Tuolumne rivers to 40 percent. The state contends that will lead to a maximum of 200 more fish on each of the three rivers on an annual basis.
In exchange roughly 240,000 acres of farmland will be permanently fallowed under drought conditions that exist today, 2,000 to 3,000 jobs tied directly to agriculture would vanish, and annual losses to the economies of San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties will hit $260 million.
If the state plan were in place for the 2016 water year, the SSJID would only have had 105,000 acre feet of water or a 64 percent reduction in supplies. That would have limited water deliveries to 56,000 acres to 12 inches per acre of water. Almonds, as one example, need 36 inches of water just to stay alive.
The situation is made even grimmer by another state demand that more water be left in reservoirs year round as cold water pools for fish. That calls for New Melones Reservoir that has a 2.4 million acre foot capacity to go no lower than 700,000 acre feet of water at any given time. New Melones over the weekend was at 858,814 acre feet or 36 percent of capacity.
It is the lowest reservoir level in the state among the eight big reservoirs. Shasta Dam —with a capacity of 4.5 million acre feet — is at 82 percent of capacity.
The state also wants a permanent cold water pool of 800,000 acre feet at Don Pedro (39 percent of capacity) and 300,000 acre feet at McClure Lake (29 percent of capacity).