State Water Board Ignores Comments from Regulated Public

The final draft Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan update for the lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta (Plan) from the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) seemingly ignores hundreds of letters, extensive public comment and a significant number of one-on-one meetings with various stakeholders and experts regarding the effects of altering stream flows in the San Joaquin River.

The Plan’s recommendation is pretty much unchanged from its earlier very controversial version released in September 2016 and is intended to increase the required flows left in rivers for the protection of fish and wildlife, but significantly reduce water available to water users in the Lower San Joaquin River Watershed and some of the coastal areas. The recommendation caused a loud outpouring of vitriolic comments from stakeholders and legislators in the press and at public Water Board hearings about the economic damage and loss of jobs to communities. The final Plan with some slight wording changes calls for a diversion target of 40 percent of “unimpaired flows” from February through June with a permitted diversion range of 30 to 50 percent, depending on conditions for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers through to the San Joaquin River.

When the Water Board released the final Plan on July 6 it met with the same backlash. Concerns came from a variety of water rights holder’s such as farmers and ranchers, but cities, counties and water districts rebuking the Water Board saying this Plan will remove some of the nation’s most fertile farmland from production and seriously harm northern and central California economies.

While the Water Board acknowledges the diversions can create financial and operational challenges for local economies and estimates the Valley could lose up to 1,300 jobs, it asserts that it is necessary to provide enough water for vulnerable fish and wildlife. However, agricultural associations disagree with the Water Board’s estimates and counter with job loss numbers in the neighborhood of 6,500 positions and economic losses of $1.6 billion centered in a part of the state that already struggles with poverty and a lack of resources.

This Plan to help fish will likely cause farms and cities to cut back substantially in their use of water with no guarantee that the plan will be successful in protecting fish and wildlife. The science is not clear that more water alone will help fish thrive. There is a fair argument to be made that the price of water will skyrocket supposing any is available for purchase. Cities, counties and water purveyors must supply water to their customers which are businesses as well as residents. A loss of 40 percent of their supplies is a significant setback.

Should the Water Board adopt the Plan in August as indicated, very probably a number of lawsuits will be filed. Written comments on the changes only must be received by the Water Board by 12 p.m. on Friday, July 27, 2018. The Chamber submitted comments in protest of the September 2016 version and is planning to comment on the final Plan.

Valerie Nera, Policy Advocate