(From left) Brent Barton of GoldRiver Orchards joins SJFB President Jim Ferrari and SJFB First Vice President David Strecker at the Capitol for the rally. Photo by Vicky Boyd

By Vicky Boyd

More than 1,500 farmers, community leaders and urbanites from the Central Valley took their disdain for proposed unimpaired San Joaquin River flows to the state Capitol during a rally a day before the State Water Board was to hear public comments.

Organized by Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, the event was designed to send a loud message to the State Water Resources Control Board that proposed flows would devastate communities and the Central Valley economy with what the board has called "unavoidable impacts."

"What arrogance," Gray told the crowd. "These are unacceptable, unbalanced, unscientific and can only come from a state agency that's completely out of touch with reality."

Should the water board follow through with its current proposal, Gray vowed Central Valley lawmakers would fight it in the Legislature, in the courts and, if need be, take it to the voters as a ballot measure.

Following Gray's lead, speaker after speaker blasted the proposal as being "insane," containing "flawed science" and having been developed without dialog or transparency. Several speakers also drew chants from the crowd of "stop the water grab" or "fight, fight, fight."

Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Ripon, praised participants for taking the time to travel to Sacramento, especially with harvest starting.

"We're not only talking about water," he said. "We're talking about the very lifeblood of our economy, the lifeblood of our communities and the economic driver of our entire constituency. And friends, it's time to stop the bleeding."

U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, questioned the water board's reasoning behind efforts to divert water to the ocean.

"This is a state water grab like we've never seen before," he said. "Let them hear every day that we're not stopping until we preserve our water and focus on the future. We need to build more (storage), not shut down what we already have."

San Joaquin County Supervisor Tom Patti said State Water Board members need to be reminded about where their food comes from.

"It's the farmers — farmers feed the state," he said. "Our farmers in San Joaquin County who I represent and the others up and down the state for generations have provided the food to residents in the cities, in the communities, in the state and now globally."

Patti said there are solutions, but the water board and governor have lost their moral compass. "You do not make a decision to the benefit of one community and sacrifice another. It's unacceptable," he said. "We're not going to lay down while you grab our water. We stand up and figh

Purposed unimpaired flows

The State Water Board had originally planned to adopt the proposed Phase 1 unimpaired flows at the end of the two-day meeting, Aug. 22. But an agenda released Aug. 15 said the "final decision will be continued at a future board meeting to allow final action by the board members." After two days of testimony, the board set Nov. 7 for final changes and formal action.

The board's proposal would maintain an average of 40 percent unimpaired flow – or 288,000 acre-feet between Feb. 1 and June 30 – in the Lower San Joaquin River and its three main tributaries. Within those months, the flows could range from 30 to 50 percent – 174,000 to 485,000 acre-feet – under an "adaptive" management program to meet fishes' lifecycle needs.

As part of an update to the Bay Delta Water Quality Plan, it also involves increasing salinity levels in the south Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The impact of the unimpaired flows would likely be less during years with above-average precipitation, say water district managers. But during years with below-normal rain and snow, the proposed flows could devastate Central Valley agriculture.

Phase 2, which isn't as far along, is examining unimpaired flows of up to 65 percent for the Sacramento River and its tributaries along with cold water targets. It also includes water quality standards for the internal and northern parts of the Delta.

Exercising free speech

More than two dozen buses, many organized by Farm Bureaus from Tehama County to Tulare County, helped transport participants to the rally. Among those was San Joaquin Farm Bureau's bus, which left Stockton with every seat filled.

Don Barton, president of GoldRiver Orchards in Escalon, said this was the first time in the 106-year history of the family nut growing and processing business that they've gotten involved. But he said the unimpaired flows were too important an issue to ignore. Joining him at the rally were 14 employees. "If the state takes 40 percent of our water as unimpaired flows, all of that unimpaired water from the Stanislaus River would flood our trees," he said. "We'd lose hundreds of acres, and we're flushing fresh water straight to the Pacific Ocean. It's an insane water policy. This is the time to let Sacramento know we don't approve of the insane water policy they're pursuing."

He pointed to the myriad studies that the Oakdale Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District have paid for over the years. In that research, the FishBio consulting firm found that improving spawning grounds and well-timed pulse flows of water improved fish numbers significantly. Yet Barton said the board chose to ignore the data submitted during public comment periods.

"We have science on our side," he said. "I don't know what will resonate with this agency of unelected officials, but we're left to do what we have to do. We're going to execute our free speech right and let them know."

Scot Moody, general manager of Stockton East Water District, said his district had also contributed funding to some of the OID and SSJID salmon projects. Stockton East delivers water to nearby farmers as well as to much of the city of Stockton.

The district receives water from New Melones Reservoir as well as through New Hogan Reservoir and the Calaveras River. As a result, Stockton East could be affected by both Phase 1 and Phase 2. "If the state gets what they want, we're out of business," Moody said. "New Hogen would be empty 90 percent of the years."

Although the State Water Board's current proposal only affects the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, SJFB President Jim Ferrari said the Sacramento River basin is next.

"It's starting on the Stanislaus and it's going to move up through our county, and the water that they're going to force us to put down the river is not going to be replaced by groundwater," he said. Ferrari was referring to an assumption by the board that as unimpaired flows increase, water users would just pump more groundwater. But the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires water basin managers to eventually balance water extractions with recharge.

Paul Sanguinetti, who farms east of Stockton, said he attended the rally because of what the board has in store for the second phase.

"I want to be able to come home and still have an operation," said Sanguinetti, also SJFB and Stockton East board members. "If I don't have any water, what do I have? What are my kids going to do? It's not only right now. It's the future of agriculture in California."

Should the water board prevail, he said it also could affect allied ag industries, such as fertilizer and equipment dealers. "It will have a trickle-down effect if you cut the head off of the rest of its body," he said.

SJFB First Vice President David Strecker, who farms in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, said the Phase 1 proposal also will reduce water quality in the south part of the Delta. "This is about the future of my family's ability to farm," he said. "We have to stand up to them for our water."

Keeping the momentum going

After the rally, Strecker said he was impressed not just by the overall number of people who showed up at the Capitol but also by the diversity.

"I'm glad there were cities and representatives from different areas of the state that are impacted," he said. Republicans, for example, joined Democratic colleagues on the Capitol steps to blast the water board's proposal.

Despite the strong showing, Strecker said the industry needs to continue to apply pressure. "We need to keep this work going through social media and traditional media," he said. "And within SJFB, all of our members should know about keeping the drive going to stand up for their water rights."