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Phase 1 of the Bay Delta Plan imposes new February through June flow standards on the lower San Joaquin River (pictured) and its three main tributaries: Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. Photo by Vicky Boyd

One month vote delay changed nothing

By Vicky Boyd

Despite an 11th hour proposal brokered by state resource department leaders, the State Water Board voted 4-1 recently to adopt 40 percent unimpaired flows for San Joaquin River tributaries to aid ailing fish populations.

But board members left open the possibility of revisiting the voluntary settlement proposal crafted by water agencies once more details became apparent.

Water district and agricultural representatives said they were disappointed by the outcome and were mulling their options.

San Joaquin Farm Bureau First Vice President David Strecker said he wasn’t surprised by the Water Board’s vote.

“Despite them even delaying this decision (for one month), It’s pretty obvious they had already made their decision a long time ago,” he said. “Nothing changed. Despite them saying they wanted to negotiate, they never showed up to the table to negotiate and they kept changing the people who did show up.”

Strecker said he anticipated water districts would file lawsuits during the 30 days afterward in which they’re allowed to do so.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “(Water Board members) say they’re trying to do this for the fish, but they won’t give an explanation about why they’re lowering water quality in the Delta and all of the predation of fish being eaten by non-native species.”

Strecker said SJFB would stay involved in one way or another, with the Water Committee and full SJFB Board of Directors providing direction.

Tom Orvis, chairman of the Oakdale Irrigation District Board of Directors, said they had hoped for the best but realistically expected the Water Board to vote as it did.

The next move? “Very simple. Within the next 30 days, the districts will file suit, and we’ll go from there,” he said. South San Joaquin Irrigation District spokeswoman Troylene Sayler said her district was equally disappointed.

“We’ve been negotiating with the State Water Board for months and months, and unfortunately when the vote was cast last night, that pretty much put an end to those negotiations,” she said. “There still may be some opportunities to work together with them to hopefully bring some resolution. However, we don’t have a lot of hope at this point.”

The SSJID board had already discussed options before the vote and will be conferring with legal experts to determine the next step, Sayler said.

San Joaquin River plan
Phase 1 of the State Water Resources Control Board’s effort to update the Bay Delta Plan requires San Joaquin River tributaries maintain an average of 40 percent unimpaired flow – or 288,000 acre-feet – between Feb. 1 and June 30. Within those months, the flows could range from 30 to 50 percent – 174,000 to 485,000 acre-feet – under an “adaptive” management program.

The additional flow requirements, which total nearly 300,000 acre-feet of water annually, apply to the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers.

The plan also requires a minimum 700,000 acre-foot “cool pool” be left in New Melones Reservoir at the end of the water-use season Sept. 30. OID and SSJID hold senior water rights to the first 600,000 acre-feet in the reservoir, which has a capacity of 2.4 million acre-feet.

Based on an analysis of the 40 percent proposal, OID General Manager Steve Knell has previously said 60 percent of the time the district wouldn’t feel the effects. The other 40 percent of years would be disastrous. And 10 percent of the time, the district could only make about one-sixth of normal water deliveries.

In addition, Phase 1 sets year-round salinity standards for the south Delta of 1.0 EC (a measure of salinity) measured at three channel segments averaged together and one fixed point. Current standards are 0.7 EC April through August and 1.0 EC September through March measured at four fixed points in the Delta.

A Phase 2 draft – which covers the Sacramento River and its tributaries, as well as salinity standards for the north and central Delta – is expected to be released within the next few weeks.

The last time the Bay Delta Plan underwent a full update was in 1995, and the existing plan was adopted in 2006. The state began work on the current Bay Delta update in 2009.

Alternative ‘settlement agreement’
On the day the Water Board was to vote on a final Phase 1 plan, Chuck Bonham, California Department of Fish and Wildlife director, and Karla Nemeth, Department of Water Resources director, presented a compromise plan to shore up ailing fisheries in many Northern California rivers.

Because Water Board members had just seen the proposal and not had time to review it or vet it publicly, they could not act on it during the meeting.

The settlement framework covers waterways from Shasta Lake to Millerton Reservoir. It would reallocate more than 700,000 acre-feet of water from farms and cities, leaving more water in the rivers and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for steelhead and salmon. The plan also includes building spawning grounds, temporary barriers to reduce non-native bass predation on young salmon and other fishery habitat improvements.

To fund the proposal, which carries a $1.7 billion price tag, agricultural irrigation districts and municipal agencies would add a surcharge on water deliveries, generating $800 million. The state would contribute $900 million, using water-bond proceeds and other sources, Nemeth said.

Modesto Irrigation District, Turlock Irrigation District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission were among the 14 water agencies involved in the voluntary settlement agreement.

In addition to improving gravel spawning beds, water districts that rely on the Tuolumne River committed to increasing annual flows to an average of 313,000 acre-feet from the current 216,000 acre-feet. Absent were agreements on the Stanislaus and Merced rivers.

Orvis said districts, including OID, weren’t that far apart on a Stanislaus River proposal.

“I think the districts will continue to be involved in talks as long as they’re in good faith,” he said. “At the end of the day, (a proposal) has to be something we can all live with and our constituency can live with. I think there’s still room to talk – we just weren’t there yet. Forty percent flows are unacceptable, period.”

Faith in science
William Paris, a Sacramento attorney representing MID, said the voluntary settlement wasn’t something just cobbled together in 30 days, as some speakers had suggested, but had been in the works in some form for the past five years. “Your plan includes flows and nothing else,” Paris told the board. “We have a lot of faith in the science we developed on the Tuolumne, and we have a lot of faith that we put into the Tuolumne management plan.”

He said the districts were prepared to begin many of the flow and non-flow improvements contained in the settlement this year. In return, settlement supporters asked the board to delay their vote until March so they could provide more details.

“If the board approves the (Bay Delta) plan, nothing happens but litigation, and you won’t achieve the progress and commitment you hear today,” Paris said. “Adopting the plan leaves us no choice.”

Justin Fredrickson, a California Farm Bureau environmental policy analyst, said the settlement contains nearly $2 billion in funding along with science-based flow and non-flow measures.

“There were several objectives to help fish that I hope weren’t lost on the board or anyone in the audience,” he said. Water Board member Dorene D’Adamo of Turlock praised the proposed settlement and made an unsuccessful motion to table the Phase 1 vote so staff could have time to compare the two plans and see how they could be integrated.

“It would be best to line things up and see what we’re getting,” she said. “We know what we’re getting in the (Phase 1) SED, but we don’t know what this voluntary agreement will produce.

“The improvements could happen immediately – that’s something big for me. If we adopt today rather than checking all of those things, I feel we would be initially drawing the line and crossing those things out. I really take these districts at their word.”

D’Adamo also pointed out that water districts’ threats of legal action against Phase 1 approval “would be a big distraction and take up a lot of resources and time and take us a step back.”

But water board chairwoman Felicia Marcus said she was miffed by the threats.

“If people say they have to litigate and will leave the table, they never were interested in talking,” she said. After a marathon meeting that lasted past 7 p.m., the Water Board voted 4-1, with D’Adamo dissenting, to adopt the Phase 1 Bay Delta plan.