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Updated: Farmers describe problems with river-flow plan

Issue Date: December 21, 2016
By Christine Souza
California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger, center, provides testimony before the State Water Resources Control Board regarding the agency’s river-flow proposal that would divert more water from farmers and communities to salmon. Other panelists include Stanislaus County Farm Bureau executive manager Wayne Zipser and Modesto farmer Bill Lyons Jr., former secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Photo/Christine Souza

People from the northern San Joaquin Valley left their farms, classrooms and local government buildings to voice opposition to a plan by the State Water Resources Control Board that would affect the flow of water for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries—the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. The board says the purpose of the plan is to leave more water in the tributaries during periods it considers key for at-risk native fish species.

An estimated 1,000 people poured into the Modesto Centre Plaza in downtown Modesto on Tuesday, to listen to the hearing and provide public testimony regarding how the board's plan would affect farmers, local government services and the regional economy.

The proposal, known as the revised Substitute Environmental Document and released in September, recommends between 30 percent and 50 percent of the rivers' unimpaired flow be dedicated to fish; the board says unimpaired flow averages 20 percent under current conditions. The starting point suggested by staff is 40 percent. If adopted and implemented as proposed, local irrigation districts estimate up to 240,000 acres of farmland would be dried up in order to redirect water to fishery uses.

During a panel presentation by the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, farmer Paul Wenger of Modesto told the board that his grandfather settled in the area "because of the soil, the weather and the water." Wenger spoke of the early farmers who settled the region and developed the area's water infrastructure, adding that current farmers are interested in a solution that balances the needs of farmers and the environment.

"What we do here is family farms. We are proud of what we do. We will show the way for folks. We want healthy environmental and river systems; we can do it," said Wenger, who is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Wenger reminded the board that it is the farmers and their communities that would be harmed by the proposed river-flow plan.

"We're the ones that are affected. When you have people from out of the area say, 'This is a great solution,' then why don't you put your money on the table?" he asked. "Actions have to have consequences, and other people's actions will unfortunately have undue consequences on us." 

Modesto farmer Bill Lyons Jr., a former California Department of Food and Agriculture secretary, discussed his family's environmental restoration efforts and called for a balanced approach to solving the state's salmon struggles.

"This flow requirement, some people describe it as a water grab. I don't define it as a water grab, I define it as a water taking by the state. Yet, I see very little if any mitigation, and no compensation to those communities that are the most affected," Lyons said. "There are opportunities to work together in collaboration; I just hope that these are just more than meetings and that staff will work with the irrigation districts. I think you can come up with a fair, reasonable and balanced approach."

During a separate panel presentation, Turlock Irrigation District board member Michael Frantz called for a multifaceted approach.

"What we have attempted to show is that there are alternatives other than just flow to improve the fishery. There is best available science that has been conducted on the Tuolumne River that predicts much better results than proposed in the bay-delta plan," Frantz said. "The plan you propose has high human costs and predicts low returns for the environment."

Farmer Paul Vermeulen of Dunlop Almond Hulling in Modesto acknowledged he does not fully understand the entire scope of the board plan, but expressed his concerns about how reduced flows could impact his future.

"At 27, I bought our family's farming operation. I spent over $1 million to do so. I learned the value of having a water supply, since my crops dropped 20 to 40 percent when the allotments were curtailed," Vermeulen said. "If this proposal was passed two years ago, I would have received zero water. That means only one year after I bought the family farm, I would have lost five generations of family farming." 

At a similar meeting on the board proposal a day earlier in Merced, Mariposa County cattle rancher Tony Toso, a partner and chief financial officer at an agricultural appraisal firm in Hilmar, said no one wants to deplete fish populations or put them in peril, but added that it is important that the state not lose sight of one of its most important resources—agriculture.

"When you contrast the potential impact on California farmland and agricultural products that are in the billions vs. 1,100 salmon, this proposal just collapses under that enormity," said Toso, who serves as CFBF second vice president. "I would implore you to put this (proposal) aside and look at other, more reasonable, well-thought solutions to this problem."

Merced County Farm Bureau President Joe Scoto emphasized to the board that as business owners, local farmers recognize the hard work by past generations to build water infrastructure, schools, businesses and towns, and talked about the importance of maintaining agriculture for the future.

"The State Water Resources Control Board's proposed unimpaired flow requirement would literally collapse our community, dismantle our economy and destroy our sustainability," Scoto said. "Our future as the fifth-largest county in U.S. in total value of agricultural products sold would vanish."

Panelists from the Merced Irrigation District suggested that the board consider the district's Merced River S.A.F.E. Plan (Salmon, Agriculture, Flows and Environment), which they said provides certainty for both the environment and for local water supply in eastern Merced County. 

In recommending the SAFE plan as an alternative, MID general manager John Sweigard said, "We're willing to put flows in the river and do these things now. Your only other alternative is a regulatory, legal process that, I would say, it would be a decade or longer before anything gets done. We think that that is a waste of time when you've got something in front of you right now."

Merced County staff pointed out challenges with the board proposal, saying lack of available surface water would result in very little groundwater recharge; cause problems with water quality; increase land-subsidence concerns; and cause impacts to disadvantaged communities.

Merced County Assessor Barbara Levey said the area depends on the Merced River.

"The losses that would be imposed upon Merced County growers and property owners under the bay-delta plan are tremendous. These losses will impact our economy through lost jobs, lost revenues, lost opportunities and reduced property values," Levey said.

A previous meeting on the board's proposal was held last Friday in Stockton. The final meeting is set for Jan. 3 at the CalEPA headquarters in Sacramento. Public comments on the proposal are due by Jan. 17.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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