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Varied interests protest California plan that strips water rights, idles farmlands

Daniel Chavez, left, of Planada, Calif. appears with Sacramento Water Rally organizer, Assemblyman Adam Gray,
California Water Board proposal to take as much as 1.7 million acre feet of water from Central Valley communities protested on Capitol steps

About 1,000 farmers, public school educators, farm employees and consumers from Tulare to Red Bluff descended on the State Capitol in Sacramento to protest State Water Resources Control Board (SCWRB) plans to force half the annual flows in several state rivers out to sea in a move purported to help declining fish populations in the Bay Delta region.

The protest on the Capitol steps was spearheaded by California Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, whose district covers Stanislaus and Merced counties and would be heavily impacted by the board’s decision.

That decision was to be made the following day by the SWRCB but was put on hold at the request of the California Natural Resources Agency. Gray said he was unsure why that decision was tabled, but suspects that the political pressure and planned protest the day before the meeting might have had something to do with it.

“The water board needs to scrap the plan it has,” Gray said. “They need to go back to the drawing board and meet with the local communities throughout the Central Valley to come up with a plan that’s sustainable for the future.”

Though the SWRCB is appointed by the Governor, Gray continued by saying that perhaps the Legislature can affect the outcome of this as it has general oversight of the water board, to include approving the agency’s budget.

One irony in the water board’s plan includes the suggestion that affected farmers and communities can simply pump more groundwater to make up for the difference, estimated to be somewhere between 350,000 and 1.7 million acre feet of water annually. The California Farm Water Coalition estimates the financial impact to Valley communities could be over $3 billion annually with 6,500 jobs lost as a result.

Modesto farmer Paul Wenger blasted the water board’s arrogance for suggesting such a move in the wake of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a measure meant to prevent overdraft of groundwater resources in the state.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Wenger said. “They want to send more water to the ocean and tell us to simply pump more water, but we have SGMA telling us we can’t do that.”

Gray said the surface water taken from these communities, with no real substitute to replace it, will “decimate our local communities.”

Northern California rice grower Clark Becker says he and many of his Northstate peers attended the water rally because they know the water board will not stop with its plan on San Joaquin Valley rivers. Many at the water rally also pointed to the Sacramento and Feather rivers and the likelihood the state would take significant flows from those rivers as well to meet predetermined goals.

One of the issues here is the science the State Water Board used to come up with its decisions – science that is widely criticized through $24 million in studies paid for by irrigation districts in Stanislaus and Merced counties.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson, an Oroville-area citrus and olive farmer, said he’s encouraged by the diversity of opposition to the water board’s plan. It’s not just the farmers who are critical of this plan, but cities including San Francisco and East Bay cities, school districts, health care leaders and others who all say the water board’s plan will destroy local communities, harm public health, and idle thousands of acres of farmland in one of the most productive growing regions in the world.

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