Should state dedicate more flows for salmon? No, plan could hurt San Joaquin Valley farms

California’s 32nd governor is often remembered as the man who built things.

Pat Brown’s contributions included freeways, universities and a vast State Water Project that now provides water for 25 million Californians.

Half a century later, his son is hoping to make his own lasting contribution to our water system with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP. Unfortunately, a regulatory sideshow playing out on a parallel track threatens Gov. Jerry Brown’s ability to succeed.

This week, the State Water Resources Control Board began public hearings on a proposal calling for major increases in flows on the San Joaquin River, one of two rivers that feed the Delta. The Delta is the fulcrum at the core of our state’s water system, and protecting its water quality and native fish populations – salmon, in particular – has been a daunting challenge for multiple administrations.

The BDCP – a colossal, $23 billion plan calling for construction of two 35-mile tunnels – is Brown’s answer. But perhaps the state water board, whose members Brown appoints, is not on the same page.

The board’s controversial proposal would redirect water supplies away from San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties, without any demonstrable benefit to salmon or the rest of the Delta ecosystem. The staff’s own impact analysis forecasts “significant and unavoidable” damage to the region’s economy. But the fine print is more dire:

  • Reductions in water deliveries would fallow 128,000 acres of farmland.
  • Agricultural-sector income losses would total $187 million a year, a major hit in a region stuck in a lingering recession.
  • With less water and power available, rates for both would rise, further straining households.
  • Job losses would exceed 1,200 a year.
  • Cuts in hydropower production would create the need to buy costly supplemental power from carbon-producing conventional sources, undermining California’s goal of getting 33 percent of its energy from renewable resources.
  • To account for lost surface water, users would increase groundwater pumping by about 25 percent, overdrafting the water table and increasing energy use and costs.

If the water board had scientific support to make this costly venture worth the risk, that would be one thing. But it doesn’t. The board assumes greater flows will benefit fish but fails to provide any supporting evidence to back it up.

More broadly, this expensive, alarming exercise raises key questions for Brown:

What about the BDCP? Why is the water board pursuing this separate agenda, rather than integrating its efforts on the San Joaquin with the more holistic BDCP approach? What about the Delta Stewardship Council, and its plan? Do any of your people even talk to one another?

That our government agencies are failing to work cooperatively toward a common, well-defined goal is not a new story. But in this case, given the potentially devastating consequences for our region, it merits fresh attention.

Moreover, the governor recently traveled to Colusa, the heart of farm country, and vowed to ensure Delta improvement efforts do not tread on “historic” water rights. We believed him, which makes the water board’s insistence on pushing forward with its proposal for the San Joaquin all the more troubling.

Given the concerns, a growing list of state and federal lawmakers, farmers, residents, business owners, labor representatives and community leaders have signed a proclamation urging the board to put on the brakes and rethink its approach.

It’s the right thing to do. And for a governor looking to echo his father’s legacy of thoughtful management of California’s water supply, it’s a no-brainer.

Public meeting and comment

A public hearing on the flow proposals for San Joaquin River tributaries started Wednesday and continues today and possibly Friday in the Coastal Hearing Room of the California EPA Building, 1001 I St. in Sacramento. Both hearings start at 9 a.m. You can also read documents and comment until March 29 at:

Allen Short is executive director of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority.    

Source: Sacramento Bee