Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube

River flows: Water agencies, farmers say plan would cause pain

Issue Date: July 18, 2018
By Christine Souza

Saying the state water board appears to have ignored or discounted the significant impacts on people from its plan for stream flows in the San Joaquin River watershed, water agencies, farm organizations and other groups organized opposition to the plan in advance of its potential adoption next month.

The final draft plan from the State Water Resources Control Board, which recommends reducing water diversions to increase flows in the main tributaries of the San Joaquin for native salmon, remained mostly unchanged from its earlier version—despite extensive testimony from people in the affected area about the plan's predicted economic toll and despite local alternative proposals to increase benefits for fish while reducing economic losses.

The board's final update, released July 6, affects flows in the San Joaquin and its three tributaries—the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers—and calls for a diversion target of 40 percent of "uninterrupted flows," with a permitted diversion range of 30 to 50 percent, depending on conditions. Though previous requirements to increase flows have largely failed to recover native fish populations, the plan indicates diversions are necessary from Feb. 1 to June 30 annually. The proposal also updates salinity requirements in the southern Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Comments on the plan are due July 27, although affected water agencies have petitioned the board to extend the deadline. The board has scheduled a meeting to consider adoption of the proposal for Aug. 21-22.

"Farm families and rural communities would suffer from this proposal," California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson said. "It would impose a high cost on rural communities while providing little or no benefit to fish."

The board also released an early framework document proposing revised flow standards for the Sacramento River and its tributaries, recommending total unimpaired annual runoff in the range of 45 to 65 percent.

"If implemented, farmers and other human users of water are going to take a significant hit from this," CFBF Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said.

Scheuring said farm organizations and water districts have advocated for a concept called functional flows, which he described as "the idea that we time water use for environmental and human purposes in a manner that doesn't present irreconcilable conflict, and that substitutes non-flow conservation measures whenever possible."

"We prefer a method that frees up water that demonstratively rehabilitates fisheries without damaging people in the affected regions," he said. (See Comment)

A CFBF analysis of the San Joaquin River plan and of comments from affected irrigation districts showed that farmers in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced river watersheds would lose an average 350,000 acre-feet of water per year under the board proposal. In dry years, losses would increase to approximately 800,000 acre-feet.

The plan would reduce capacity in New Melones, Don Pedro and New Exchequer reservoirs by a combined 1.8 million acre-feet, the CFBF analysis said, and indirectly increase pressure on groundwater in the affected region at a time when state law mandates local plans to halt groundwater overdraft trends.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which rely on water from the Tuolumne River, expressed opposition to the board plan, describing it as a "water grab." The districts estimate up to 240,000 acres of farmland would go fallow to redirect water to fishery uses—contributing to hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and income losses for the region.

"Our communities, our farms, our drinking water, our businesses, our fish—and ultimately our futures—are jeopardized by this unelected State Water Resources Control Board," MID board president Nick Blom said. "Right now, they're targeting the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, but the whole state should pay close attention as to what's coming next on their agenda."

The Merced Irrigation District, which draws water from the Merced River, called the plan "irresponsible."

"The district has maintained for years that simply diverting senior water rights away from our community for the benefit of others solves nothing. It devastates one of the most disadvantaged regions of the state and does nothing to benefit salmon or other wildlife," district General Manager John Sweigard said.

The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, which rely on the Stanislaus River, called the plan "myopic and scientifically unsupported."

The affected irrigation districts have proposed alternative plans to balance water needs of native fish, urban users and agriculture, but said the water board staff ignored those alternatives in preparing the final draft plan.

"We want solutions too," Turlock Irrigation District Assistant General Manager Michelle Reimers said. "The Tuolumne River is our zone of responsibility and we want a healthy ecosystem, but it has to be balanced with human interest."

During a conference call with reporters, water board chair Felicia Marcus said the board has a long road ahead before talking about implementation, but added that the traditional approach involves a proceeding to amend people's water rights.

"We still have to have a robust conversation about how to implement it, which will answer some of the more complex questions about how we calculate things," she said.

CFBF President Johansson said any implementation plan "must respect water rights priorities and avoid injury to other legal water users. Local communities need to be part of the solution, not a target of regulation."

In updating flow requirements for the Sacramento River and its tributaries—the Calaveras, Cosumnes and Mokelumne rivers—the board recommended flow requirements from 45 to 65 percent of unimpaired flows. A draft proposed plan and staff report analyzing alternatives is expected to be released later in the year for public review and comment.

"That is the next shoe to drop," Scheuring said. "I think people on the Sacramento River are watching the San Joaquin River process very closely, to see what's coming to them next."

For more information and CFBF analysis of the San Joaquin River proposal, see, choose Water and look for the tab reading "Unimpaired flow standards."

(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.

Special Reports



Special Issues

Special Sections