Holding signs reading, “Use Science, Not Fiction,” “Worth Your Fight” and “Valley Water Matters,” hundreds of farmers, farm employees, students, state and federal lawmakers, community leaders and citizens from the Central Valley and elsewhere in California traveled to the state Capitol in Sacramento to rally against what they described as a “state water grab.”
The rally came the day before the State Water Resources Control board planned two days of public hearings on its plan to redirect water in three Central California rivers for fishery restoration.
“Our irrigation districts have told them how harmful their plan will be to our farms and economy. Our public health officials have told them how damaging their plan will be to our drinking water and our quality of life,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, who organized the rally. “Rather than listening, the water board has dismissed our concerns.”
Gray described the “unimpaired flows” proposal as “a plan that kills the economy in an entire region of the state.”
The first phase of the plan affects flows in the San Joaquin River and 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. The water board is expected to make a final decision at a future meeting.
Addressing the crowd that included members of county Farm Bureaus from across the state, California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson noted that farmers and other water users have been asked to conserve and do more with less, and that water reserved for environmental restoration should meet that same standard. He said the board plan offers no guarantee that increasing flows will benefit fish and the environment.
“We know that just shoving more water down a stream doesn’t create more fish,” Johansson said. “It is simply a waste of water, and we cannot afford to waste water in this state. That wasted water means less food, less jobs, lower property values and poorer communities throughout the state.”
“SB 579 forces the board to recognize that our farms and our lands can be used to create habitat, and that controlling predators will also save fish,” Johansson said. “SB 579 forces the board to acknowledge and accept that there are win-win solutions that allow the environment, our farms and our communities to all thrive.”
Turlock Irrigation District board member Michael Frantz, who operates a nursery in Hickman, said, “We can do better for the environment and maintain a healthy economy and healthy communities.”
“By the state’s own admission, the plan would only generate a few hundred fish,” Frantz said. “Turlock and Modesto and the city and county of San Francisco have a better plan—we can get more fish with less water. We continue to urge the state of California to take a good, hard look at our science.”
“It takes water to grow food and fiber,” Miner said, “and this plan takes away a lot of water. That means much farm acreage will go out of production.”
Merced County Farm Bureau President Gino Pedretti III, a diversified farmer and dairy operator, said he would like the state water board to understand the detrimental economic impact the plan would have on valley communities.
“Smaller communities in the eastern Merced water basin, which are really disadvantaged communities, will be worse off than they are right now,” Pedretti said. “Disadvantaged communities rely on groundwater for their city water, and water quality will be affected. Public schools that rely on groundwater will be affected, so there will be added costs to this that will affect everybody.”
Billy Grissom, a farmer and rancher from Hilmar, said with no water allocated during the drought in recent years, he had to drill wells and spent close to $1 million to increase water efficiency on his farm. He said he is concerned about the future of agriculture and local communities.
“I probably pay over $100,000 a year in property tax and a lot of personal taxes. If they take the water away, that hurts the county and it will hurt my whole family,” Grissom said. “I’ve got a 17-year-old grandson I’d like to see step into my place.”
Les Heringer, who manages M&T Ranch in Chico and is a member of the Butte County Farm Bureau, said he is just as concerned about the second phase of the state water board’s plan, which addresses requirements for flows in the Sacramento River and its tributaries.
“Water is a precious resource, and our goal is to use it wisely and protect the resource at the same time,” said Heringer, who was part of a group of Sacramento Valley farmers attending the Capitol rally.
“The current proposal for mandatory minimum flows in the Sacramento River runs counter to all the cooperative efforts that have been ongoing in the Sacramento Valley for many years,” he said. “Mandatory minimum flows would seriously harm farms along the Sacramento River that have utilized river water for over 100 years to operate sustainable farms.”
Walnut farmer Jim Ferrari of Linden, who is president of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation, said the state water board plan “does not affect our area yet, but it’s coming to us next. We’re already in a depleting situation and this is going to exacerbate our (supply) problems. When the state starts restricting groundwater, it’s going to be that much worse for us.”
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)