Farm Bureau Sues to Block Flows Plan for Lower San Joaquin River
By David Kranz, Manager, Communications, California Farm Bureau Federation
A plan for lower San Joaquin River flows misrepresents and underestimates the harm it would cause to agricultural resources in the Central Valley, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation, which filed suit recently to block the plan.
Adopted last December by the State Water Resources Control Board, the plan would redirect 30 to 50 percent of “unimpaired flows” in three San Joaquin River tributaries—the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers—in the name of increasing fish populations in the rivers. The flows plan would sharply reduce the amount of water available to irrigate crops in regions served by the rivers.
In its lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, the Farm Bureau said the flows plan would have “far-reaching environmental impacts to the agricultural landscape in the Central Valley,” and that those impacts had been “insufficiently analyzed, insufficiently avoided, and insufficiently mitigated” in the board’s final plan.
“The water board brushed off warnings about the significant damage its plan would cause to agricultural resources in the Central Valley, labeling it ‘unavoidable,’” CFBF President Jamie Johansson said. “But that damage can be avoided, by following a different approach that would be better for fish and people alike.”
The Farm Bureau lawsuit says the water board failed to consider reasonable alternatives to its flows-dominated approach, including non-flow measures such as predator control, food supply and habitat projects for protected fish, and said it ignored “overwhelming evidence” that ocean conditions, predation and lack of habitat—rather than river flows—have been chief contributors to reducing fish populations.
The water board’s analysis of impacts on agricultural resources “is inadequate in several respects,” the Farm Bureau said. The lawsuit says the board plan fails to appropriately analyze its impact on surface water supplies and, in turn, how cutting surface water would affect attempts to improve groundwater under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act—all of which would cause direct, indirect, and cumulative effects on agricultural resources.
“California farmland is a significant environmental resource, providing food, farm products and jobs for people throughout the state, nation and world,” Johansson said. “Before cutting water to thousands of acres of farmland for dubious benefit, the state must do more to analyze alternatives that would avoid this environmental harm.”
The California Farm Bureau Federation works to protect family farms and ranches on behalf of nearly 36,000 members statewide and as part of a nationwide network of nearly 5.6 million Farm Bureau members.
Science Shows Increased Water Flow Doesn’t Save Fish, Paul Wenger Says
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
California Ag Today is continuing our coverage of the State Water Resources Control Board’s plan to take 40 percent of the water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers to feed into the San Joaquin River to increase flows for salmon. There is major pushback by affected farmers. We spoke with Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, at their 98th annual meeting in Monterey this week. He farms almonds and walnuts in that area, and he and his family would be seriously impacted; they would be forced into more groundwater pumping.
“It just seems the same old adage,” Wenger said. “If we put more water in the rivers, it’s going to be better for the fish. We know that it hasn’t worked with biological opinions. We know it hasn’t worked in the Sacramento, it hasn’t worked in the delta. We need to go after some of these other predatory species: the striped bass. They’re an introduced species.”
Wenger said there’s a lot of data saying that just won’t work. “The studies have been done, the science is out there. Just to say that we’re going to keep adding water to the problem [and] we’re going to get a different result is ridiculous. We have a finite resource of water today. We have growing needs for it for urban [and] foreign environmental flows, but also for farming and manufacturing.”
Wenger believes that the Water Board always makes rules quickly are not invested in the outcome.
“As I tell the folks, you come up with the ideas, but you’re not invested. You’re investing my future. You’re investing my resources, and other farmers’, but when we have these environmental groups say, ‘This is a solution.’ Why don’t you put your money up?”
California Ag Today conducted an extensive interview with Les Grober, assistant deputy director, State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB, Water Board) Division of Water Rights. We published Part 1, “Water Board’s Point of View on Increasing San Joaquin River Flows,” on November 28, 2016.
Grober explained the Water Board’s water diversion plan to adjust the flow objectives on the San Joaquin River to protect fish and wildlife. The plan, specifically, is to divert 40 percent of water flows from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers that flow into the lower San Joaquin River.
California Ag Today: We asked Mr. Grober to explain how the Federal Water users on the Westside of Fresno and Kings Counties were granted a mere 5 percent allocation this year, and why many did not receive their full 5 percent.
Grober: The 5 percent allocation is due to the junior water rights of those growers and to the interconnections of so many things — priority of right, hydrologic conditions, and minimal protections or fish and wildlife. Anyone who thinks it’s all due to fish is simplifying a very complex situation.
California Ag Today: Regarding the water hearings that are scheduled over the next few months, is the Water Board trying to give information to farmers and others would be affected by the decreased water should the Water Board’s proposal go through?
Grober: The ultimate goal is to make people even more prepared to provide comments to the Board at the scheduled hearings. It’s part of a public process where, if we did not get our economic figures right, we want [accurate] information from the stakeholder to make it right.
We thought we did a good job in an economic analysis on how we thought the proposed taking of 40 percent water would affect the communities and farmers. We clearly heard from many people who thought we did not do a good job, and my response is: Good, show us why, make a proposal and take it to the Water Board hearings, and then we can adjust it.
California Ag today: The Water Board has a 3,100-page report all about saving the salmon.
Grober: The reason we have a big report is because we are making a proposal and we’ve shown our work. Although it is work for people to look at it and review it, we have tried to make it easy so that people can see if we have made mistakes, if there are things that are left out or if we have made an incorrect assumption. That’s why we’ve shared it with everybody and here’s your opportunity for setting us straight.
It won’t help to vilify different people who are making good use of the water or to vilify or disparage the implementation of our laws and what we are required to do. We have a great process I think, as hard as it is, a public process where we can work these things out in the open, just to use it and deal with each other professionally.
-Les Grober, assistant deputy director, State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB, Water Board) Division of Water Rights
California Ag Today: We are sure you are getting a lot of information from farmers and city leaders about this not being a good use of the water.
Grober: These problems are not so simple that they could be reduced to a sound bite. I think we would have solved the salmon problems by now, but because we are in the drought situation, we are dealing with a precious resource, which is water. Everybody wants the water but there’s not enough to do all the things we would like to do with it.
California Ag Today: But there are many people in California who feel that more water for fish instead of farmers is reprehensible.
Grober: It won’t help to vilify different people who are making good use of the water or to vilify or disparage the implementation of our laws and what we are required to do. We have a great process I think, as hard as it is, a public process where we can work these things out in the open, just to use it and deal with each other professionally.
California Ag Today: But we’ve heard from experts that have been studying this, that the increased flows have not really helped these species. Do you have proof that they have?
Grober: It’s hard to show proof one way or the other because recently we have not increased flows to see what effect it would have. That seems to be a notion that is out there, that we have somehow done something to increase flows in recent years, and that’s simply not the case.
If anything, flows have gone down. And in the recent drought years, as I said, even the minimal flows that were required were adjusted downward. You would have to show me that evidence that flows have gone up and there has been no response to those higher flows. I do not believe that there is any.
California Ag Today: So, the Water Board wants 40 percent of unimpaired flows?
Grober: When we say the requirement is 30 percent to 50 percent of unimpaired flows, it is 30 percent to 50 percent of that amount, which means just the opposite. It means that 50 to 70 percent of [flows] for February through June would be available for consumptive use.
That is frequently misunderstood and turned around. That is still from February through June, so it means more than 50 to 70 percent since other times of the year this water is available for consumptive use.
California Ag Today: Is the Water Board looking at the fact that if the water is needed for the species, it is going to force these growers to use more groundwater? That is a direction in which we do not want to go, especially in a region that has not yet had critical overdrafts. How does the Water Board look at that domino effect forced on these growers in order to survive, stay in business and produce the food in this major Ag production region?
Grober: Implementing that 30 to 50 percent of unimpaired flows would mean less surface water available for diversion. So our analysis of the potential environmental effects and overall effects of the program, based on recent drought information and other information, shows we would see increased groundwater pumping.
California Ag Today: Is the increased pumping weighted at all in the proposal, because overdraft groundwater pumping is not sustainable?
Grober: By our analysis, the area is already in overdraft.
California Ag Today: What? Why would there be overdraft pumping in an area that has great irrigation districts such as Modesto and Oakdale Irrigation Districts delivering surface water? We did not think growers in those districts would be overdrafting.
Grober: Sure. Within those irrigation districts themselves, they are not overdrafting. That’s why the analysis we do goes into that level of detail. The irrigation districts that already have a source of surface water actually apply much more water than they need just for the crop, so they are recharging groundwater within those districts, and even with this proposal, would continue to recharge groundwater. It is all those areas outside of those districts that don’t have access to surface water that are pumping groundwater.
California Ag Today: There is a lot more pumping of groundwater on the east side near the foothills.
Grober: Based on the information that we have, the total area — not just the districts that have access to surface water — but the total area, is already overdrafting groundwater. And there are many areas on the east side of these districts now, up into areas that were previously not irrigated, converting now to orchard crops. So with the information we have, there are large areas of production using water from the basin. The entire area is to some extent pumping more groundwater than there is recharge.
California Ag Today: We’ve been concern about this.
Grober: That’s why the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is going to be good, because the local areas are going to have to get on top of that information and on top of the management.
Les Grober Explains Increasing San Joaquin River Flows
This is part 1 of a 2-part series.
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
California Ag Today conducted an extensive interview with Les Grober, assistant deputy director, State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB, Water Board) Division of Water Rights, regarding the Water Board’s proposal to adjust the flow objectives on the San Joaquin River to protect fish and wildlife. The plan, specifically, is to divert 40 percent of water flows from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers that flow into the lower San Joaquin River.
Hearing on the Potential Changes to the Water Quality Control Plan for the San Francisco Bay-Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta Estuary: San Joaquin River Flows and Southern Delta Water Quality and on the Adequacy of the Supporting Recirculated Draft Substitute Environmental Document.
Hearing begins at 9:00 a.m. on the following dates:
November 29, 2016 Joe Serna Jr. CalEPA Headquarters Building, Byron Sher Auditorium, 1001 I Street, 2nd Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814
December 16, 2016 Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium, Main Hall, 525 N. Center Street, Stockton, CA 95202
December 19, 2016 Multicultural Arts Center, 645 W. Main Street, Merced, CA 95340
December 20,2016 Modesto Centre Plaza, Tuolumne River Room, 1000 K Street, Modesto, CA 95354
January 3, 2017 Joe Serna Jr. CalEPA Headquarters Building, Coastal Hearing Room, 1001 I Street, 2nd Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814
California Ag Today: At a recent public workshop in Sacramento, Les Grober, you cited some statistics that show the Water Board really has not done a lot—or much of anything particularly—in the San Joaquin River in terms of helping salmon. Is this accurate?
Grober: Yes. I did not discuss specifically the flow benefits or the fish benefits, but I did explain there are times between February and June when flows are critical for salmon. During the months of March and April, especially, less than 10 percent of the water flows than would be there normally if you were not storing it or diverting it.
California Ag Today: So the Water Board proposes taking 40 percent from the rivers to help the salmon?
Grober: I posed the question, “If there is a species that has adapted to 100 percent flow, how likely would it be that it could be successful with less than 10 percent of that?” If you look at the overall statistics between 1984 and 2009 for the three tributaries (Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers), the average flow during the February through June period was 40 percent on the Stanislaus, 21 percent on the Tuolumne, and 26 percent on the Merced.
California Ag Today: So you need water from all three tributaries to accomplish the objective?
Grober: Currently, there are flow objectives only for the San Joaquin River at Vernalis where the San Joaquin River flows into the Delta. The current objective skews the flows so they are coming from just the Stanislaus River, which has problems achieving those flows at all times because it is all coming from one location. It also does not achieve the fish protection goals because it’s all coming from the same location.
So, based on the core science, we are proposing to establish objectives on the three salmon-bearing tributaries to the San Joaquin River. This is about reasonably protecting fish and wildlife in the San Joaquin River.
California Ag Today: So the Water Board is not trying to protect the salmon at any cost, which is the mandate from the Endangered Species Act?
Grober: The proposal is not establishing flows that provide absolute protection. We are establishing flows to reasonably protect species—in this case—fish and wildlife.
California Ag Today: The Water Board earlier proposed the need for 60 percent to be unimpaired flows?
Grober: The science developed over the years has shown that if you were not going to consider any other uses of water, like agriculture, drinking water or anything else, the number you would need is 60 percent of unimpaired flow.
California Ag Today: Due to agriculture pushback, the new goal is 40 percent?
Grober: That is why what we are doing now is very hard. We’re doing the balancing that says we have the science that shows the need for increased flows. We have all the information that shows how important the current uses of water are now for agriculture and municipal supply and hydropower. so how do you come up with a balance that takes into account all of that information?
California Ag Today: We have been following closely the extraordinarily increased flows through the Delta and to the Pacific Ocean, which seemed to be No. 1, a total waste of freshwater, and No. 2, at least a few acre-feet could have been pumped into the San Luis Reservoir for cities and farmers.
Grober: It would be interesting to see the numbers that you are citing because, during this recent drought, in particular, there have been greatly reduced flows throughout the system—not in any way—by any stretch—increased flows. In fact, the Water Board approved emergency change petitions not to increase flows, but to do just the opposite.
In general, they have relaxed or shifted downward required flows so there would be more water available to be smartly used for multiple purposes, not just for fish and wildlife, but also to get more water for public interest uses.
California Ag Today: We know that flood control pulse flows are difficult to capture, but it seems that some of that great volume of water could be pumped southward.
Grober: Many times, people will fail to notice or acknowledge that during periods of high rainfall and high flow, a lot of water goes out because it cannot be captured. So very large quantities of water go out because of flood flows and high flows.
This is not to say that there are no constraints, at times, on what can be diverted or exported to protect fish and wildlife due to objectives, the State Boards, the Water Quality Control Plan, or biological opinions. But much of that water that people look at and say, ‘Why is that all going out?’ — a lot of that is flood flows that cannot be captured. So it ends up looking like a very big number, but it is not a number that can be captured because, as you can imagine during wet years and high flow times, it is almost too much. People can’t capture it.
California Ag Today: So there is not even an effort to export that water to those who need it — farmers and communities?
Grober: Like I said, there have been constraints on export pumping. But those constraints are intended to provide some protections for fish and wildlife, while at the same time they are opportunities for getting water for other uses. So I see a lot of overstatements.
California Ag Today: Again, when there are pulse flows, why can’t we collect them and exported them? Why can’t we just turn up the pumps to capture some of the extra water moving through the Delta to export it to farms and cities?
Grober: There are constraints on what are called reverse flows in Old and Middle Rivers (OMR), which is a critical area of Smelt risk. This is part of the biological opinions intended to protect smelt and salmon at critical times that happen to coincide occasionally with higher flow events.
That is one of those times when it’s kind of striking a balance as well. The flows are still not optimal for the protection of the species, but certainly, from the water supply perspective, they are not seen as optimal for the water supply. That makes all of this so very hard. How do you strike that balance?
California Ag Today: You talk about striking a balance. It seems that the environmental side gets nearly 100 percent of what they need and Ag gets nearly zero.
Grober: Where is Ag getting zero?
California A Today: There are Federal Districts on Fresno County’s Westside that for several years have received zero water allocation. This past season, they were promised 5 percent, but they were not able to get the entire amount.
Grober: If I may, it is clear that you have a certain view on this.
California Ag Today: Absolutely. It just does not seem that agriculture has a seat at the table.
We’ll continue Part Two of this series tomorrow. We’ll discuss, among other things, that if the proposal goes through, farmers would be forced to use more groundwater.