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New California Water Plan Aimed At Boosting Fish Habitat

Credit / Curtis Jerome Haynes
 

Credit / Curtis Jerome Haynes

(AP) — California water officials on Friday released a plan to increase flows through a major central California river, an effort that would save salmon and other fish but deliver less water to farmers in the state's agricultural heartland.

It's the latest development in California's long-running feud between environmental and agricultural interests and is likely to spark lawsuits.

"The State Water Resources Control Board's decision today is the first shot fired in the next chapter of California's water wars," warned Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced, who represents San Joaquin Valley communities that rely on diversion from the river for water supply.

Board chairwoman Felicia Marcus pitched it as a plan to prevent an ecological crisis. John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, said the plan is critical to restoring California's nearly decimated native salmon population, a boon to fishing families and communities.

The plan applies to the lower San Joaquin River, three of its tributaries and the southern end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The delta is home to many threatened fish species and provides water for vast swaths of farmland and the majority of California's people.

State standards last updated in 1995 allow for up to 80 percent of the water from the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries to be diverted for agricultural and other uses. The new plan would double that, requiring 40 percent of the water to flow unimpaired, with a range of 30 to 50 percent between February and June.

The change is designed to protect salmon by mimicking natural water flows that fish respond to, the board said in its report. Some fishing groups wanted it to go even farther.

The advocacy group Trout Unlimited advocated for a target closer to 60 percent. The plan lacks key details about how water managers will measure outcomes for fish and determine water flows throughout the year, said Chandra Ferrari, a senior policy adviser.

"It's very hard to look at that plan and say, 'Yes, that's going to protect the fish,' because it just doesn't have the detail that's required to get there," she said.

But farm groups argue that lessening water diversion will deliver a major blow to the economy and cost thousands of jobs in the San Joaquin Valley. It not only will decrease water sent to farmers in some years but significantly increase the year-to-year variation, making it difficult for growers and food processors to make long-term plans, said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

"Simply dumping more water down the river with the hope that it will solve the Delta's water issues is an incomplete solution to a complex set of problems," Wade said.

Gray, who represents the San Joaquin Valley, said it will also hurt communities that rely on river diversion for their water supply. Overflow from agricultural irrigation helps supply the ground water that the majority of his constituents rely on for drinking water.

In a blistering statement, he said the "fish first philosophy will decimate or region" and further charged it is not "environmentally friendly to sacrifice the health of one environment for another."

The water board is now taking public comment and will finalize the plan in August.

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