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CFBF president's message: Congress got it right, but will California regulators?

Issue Date: January 4, 2017
CFBF President Paul Wenger, right, testifies before a state water board hearing on river flows in Modesto as Stanislaus County Farm Bureau Executive Director Wayne Zipser listens.
Photo/Christine Souza

In the closing hours of the 114th Congress and with one of the last signatures by President Obama on a bipartisan bill sent to his desk, the long-awaited drought bill known as the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act became reality. This bill will help provide relief to areas of the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California that remain drought stricken, even as rain and snow have benefited our Northern California reservoirs, with rivers periodically running near flood stage.

The WIIN Act will provide much-needed flexibility in the operation of state and federal water projects. It will put the needs of people on a better standing relative to the rigid interpretations and application of the Endangered Species Act and resulting biological opinions that created a regulatory drought that has exacerbated the four-year drought of 2012-15.

Ironically, while many of our congressional leaders were working in a bicameral and bipartisan fashion to help address and hopefully alleviate part of the California water crisis, the State Water Resources Control Board was holding hearings about doing just the opposite: proposing its own regulatory drought, in the form of a Substitute Environmental Document, or SED, for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

The board scheduled five hearings, starting with a Nov. 29 meeting in Sacramento and concluding with another Sacramento hearing on Jan. 3. Hearings were also held in Stockton, Merced and Modesto, where more than 2,000 concerned and irritated citizens showed up to voice their opposition to the board's proposed water grab in the name of increasing salmon populations.

It became clear the issue is not really about salmon, but rather about flushing increased amounts of water out to sea by reducing the amount of water that communities, farms and water districts can capture in reservoirs to provide water during drought. The financial impact to the impacted communities and the people who live in them will be in the billions of dollars. The SED itself has tagged the potential increase in salmon to be 1,103 fish, with an economic impact of $250 million—or $58,000 per fish.

The real irony from the SED is that those who wrote it, those who have advocated for increased water flowing unabated to the ocean and those making the final decisions have no financial stake and will feel no repercussions from their own actions.

There have been many proposals to increase salmon numbers in the rivers through a comprehensive strategy that includes functional water flows, habitat restoration and enhancement, reduction of predator fish and facilitating more effective spawning outcomes.

Farm Bureau has been involved in these discussions. We deny that the issue at hand is one of farms versus fish. Farmers focus on results, not on process. Unfortunately, the river flow proposals are about process, not about commonsense results.

In October, the water board announced plans to follow a similar path for increasing water flows in the Sacramento River as well, again resulting in reduced water storage in reservoirs. It's almost laughable that the studies show the impact from the increased flow requirements would have little impact in wet years, but significant hardships in dry years. No kidding, they needed to spend money on a study for that?

The very reason our grandparents invested in the water system we have today is the realization that there will be periods of drought, and that water stored in reservoirs, combined with groundwater and with wise, efficient use of resources, will see us through.

Overarching all these discussions is the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, with Groundwater Sustainability Agencies for the most challenged groundwater basins to be established by July.

As I've sat through several meetings with water board staff explaining the proposed SED and resulting flow requirements, one of their "solutions" to reduced water availability from surface reservoirs is the increased pumping of groundwater. This would be funny, if it weren't so seriously scary and flawed.

The good news is that Felicia Marcus, the water board chair, responded to the many requests for more time to respond to the 3,581-page SED. The initial deadline of Jan. 17 has been extended until March 17. The additional two months for comment will help, given how the hearings coincided with the holiday season.

The most important thing to do now is to voice your opinion and submit comments.

Though counties, cities, irrigation districts, businesses and organizations will submit extensive comments, it will be the individual letters of concern that will help carry the message of how damaging this proposal really is. I have never seen a more complete or broad-based denouncement of something as I witnessed at the Modesto hearing last month. The impacts will be felt by everyone in the affected communities and beyond.

Now is the time to fight. Now is the time to stand up and be heard. Our forbearers invested heavily in time and labor during challenging times, to provide us with the water infrastructure we have today. Let's respect and honor their sacrifices by showing up, standing up and never giving up.

As the sign at my farm says: WORTH YOUR FIGHT—Don't Go with the Flow!

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

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