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Lawsuits await after water board adopts flows plan

Issue Date: December 19, 2018
By Christine Souza

Irrigation districts along three Central California rivers say they will be suing the state of California and—simultaneously, in some cases—negotiating with it, now that the State Water Resources Control Board has voted to redirect significant flows along the rivers in an effort to improve fish populations.

The state water board voted 4-1 last week to adopt the first phase of its disputed Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which requires districts along the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to leave 30 to 50 percent of "unimpaired flows" in the San Joaquin River tributaries to help fish. Board member Dorene D'Adamo voted against the plan after offering amendments that were rejected by the full board.

Districts, farmers and residents of the affected region have protested the plan, saying it would do little to restore salmon and other fish populations while cutting water supplies to the northern San Joaquin Valley.

The board vote had been postponed a month, to allow districts to negotiate voluntary plans with state agencies, and leaders of those agencies reported to the board that significant progress had been made. But the board voted to proceed with its plan—and affected irrigation districts said they now have little choice but to go to court.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which jointly operate Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne River, expressed disappointment in the board's decision.

TID board member Michael Frantz, who operates a nursery in Hickman, said the districts negotiated in good faith.

"We put a tremendous amount of energy and science into developing an acceptable plan for both the California Department of Water Resources and California Fish and Wildlife, but apparently it wasn't good enough for the state board," Frantz said. "The districts most certainly will be going to court to preserve their legal rights, while we continue to perfect our deal with the state of California."

MID board member Nick Blom, who farms in Modesto, said the district remains open-minded about a voluntary settlement—and said the water board vote will delay conservation work on the river.

"It is status quo until the lawsuits are over, which could be five, 10, 15 years down the road," Blom said. "With our settlement, we would have started doing water flows, restoration and the floodplains early next year. Now, we're not going to change anything until the lawsuit is over."

Speaking before the board, state Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham and Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth described proposed alternative settlements made while working with more than a dozen agencies.

They outlined details of a plan that includes investments in fisheries improvements by water agencies and the state, including flow and non-flow measures for the San Joaquin River and Sacramento River tributaries to improve conditions for fish that could begin as early as next year.

Justin Fredrickson, environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau Federation, called the proposed compromise agreement "a very comprehensive, unprecedented package covering the whole bay-delta watershed," adding that the proposal included strategic flows of water, an increase of flow through delta tributaries of 740,000 acre-feet annually and $1.7 billion from water users and the state for infrastructure and research (See Comment).

Representatives of Sacramento Valley water users, who were part of the negotiated alternative proposal, said they expect the state water board to soon release its proposal to update flow requirements for the Sacramento River and its tributaries—including the Feather, Yuba and American rivers.

"You have this amazing set of agreements put together that really start to integrate flows and habitat in a way that we have never seen before," Northern California Water Association President David Guy said. "We think that's the path in California that's going to lead to success."

Maurice Hall of the Environmental Defense Fund described the proposed alternative settlements as "really promising concepts," but many environmental groups urged the board to reject the voluntary settlements and adopt its plan.

The water board directed its staff to evaluate the proposals involving the Tuolumne River and Sacramento River watershed, to be considered as part of a comprehensive analysis of the delta watershed during 2019.

Regarding next steps for the Tuolumne River, Frantz said the Turlock and Modesto districts will start developing the compromise proposal with added analysis to be ready to present to the water board in the coming year.

The Merced Irrigation District, which draws water from the Merced River, vowed in a statement to take any and all action necessary to protect the region's water supply.

"Every resident in California should be concerned," General Manager John Sweigard said, adding, "This can happen to any community in the state of California."

The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, which have rights on the Stanislaus River, said they tried to reach agreement with state officials, but were unable to do so. The districts said their commitment to settling the continuing issues has not ended, and encouraged the state board "to provide a bit more time to foster continued dialogue toward reaching settlements."

(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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