Hundreds of people, perhaps a thousand altogether, showed up for a public hearing Tuesday in Modesto, where farmers, workers, residents and elected officials spoke out again to oppose a state plan for increasing flows from reservoirs in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced watersheds.

Some farmers and ranchers call the plan a water grab, but State Water Resources Control Board members say the plan has been mischaracterized. State Water Board staff describe a proposed amendment to update the 2006 Bay-Delta Plan’s San Joaquin River flow and southern Delta salinity water quality objectives and the program of implementation for those objectives.

“The proposed flow objectives would require increased flows from three eastside, salmon-bearing tributaries to the San Joaquin River: the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers,” State Water Resources Control Board staff say.

TUD perspective

Tom Haglund, general manager for Tuolumne Utilities District, said Tuesday he and his staff are carefully watching and evaluating the Bay-Delta Plan and State Water Resources Control Board activities. The current version of the plan is several thousand pages.

“Generally speaking, we are very troubled about the substitute environmental document on the basis of disputed science and its apparent failure to properly or fairly evaluate the plan’s significant impact on municipal, business and agricultural uses of water,” Haglund said Tuesday afternoon.

“We are concerned that the proposed unimpaired flows for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers are likely not adequately supported by the science that the SWRCB has received, therefore impugning the plan’s overall intent and goals,” Haglund said. “Given the disputed scientific basis for the current iteration of the BDP and substitute environmental document, we are concerned that it is premature for any definitive action.”

Haglund said his staff at TUD intend to submit comments to the State Water Board by Jan. 17.

‘Stop this mess’

Ted Heilman, a resident of Denair, between the Tuolumne River and the Merced River, wore a dark “Make America Great Again” ballcap and a plaid shirt as he voiced opposition to the state plan at the hearing in Modesto.

“This plan is full of bad science,” Heilman said. “I can’t believe that between Turlock Irrigation District, Modesto and Fresno we can’t come together on this. Stop this mess. Start over.”

Greg Tucker told the State Water Board he is a full-time farmer and 20 years ago he put in a $50,000 system of micro sprinklers.

“According to TID we’d a had no water the past two years,” Tucker said. “We would not have survived. In the Denair area, a lot my neighbors’ wells have gone dry. If this proposal goes through I would have to sell my farm. My grandma’s picture is still up in the high school.”

Extra time

Some local government representatives and water districts requested additional time to address the State Water Board. The City of Modesto asked for 20 minutes, Stanislaus County, 30 minutes, the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers Groundwater Basin Association, 15 minutes.

Turlock Irrigation District asked for 45 minutes, the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority and City of Turlock asked for 30 minutes to make a joint presentation, Stanislaus County Farm Bureau staff asked for 15 minutes, the Yosemite Farm Credit Association, 15 minutes, Modesto Irrigation District, 45 minutes and Western United Dairymen asked for 30 minutes.

“I want to talk briefly on the economic impacts of this on Stanislaus County,” said Jim DeMartini, District 5 supervisor for Stanislaus County. “It’s a $4 billion economy in agriculture. A 40 percent unimpaired flow from the rivers will devastate our area. We are a land of orchards. We rely on water to keep this economy growing. There is not enough sustainable groundwater to go around. Relying on groundwater to make up surface water loss is not going to do it.”

New Don Pedro Dam and its predecessor on the Tuolumne River are privately owned, built and maintained by Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation District since the 1920s, DeMartini said.

“There is no federal money in the system,” DeMartini said. “The water cannot just be taken away. The theft of our surface water would destroy our economy and throw thousands of people out of work. And this is for about 1,100 salmon.”

State Water Resources Control Board chair Felicia Marcus said the proposed plan is not based on a total of 1,100 fish.

‘This is personal’

Tom Changnon, Stanislaus County’s superintendent of schools, said he is a voice for 106,000 children in his county.

“I’m a farmer. I’m superintendent of schools,” Changnon said. “This is a time of angst and heartache at dinner tables around this county. Because we are farmers. We are employers. With less water I’ve watched my family talk about planting less and having to decide to let people go because they want to keep their boys working. This is personal. We’re talking about employees who have worked for them for decades, like their families.”

Newly elected TUD board member Bob Rucker, is also a staffer for 10th District Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock. Rucker said he intends to go into semi-retirement from his position with Denham in January. On Tuesday, Rucker read a letter to the State Water Board for Denham.

“The congressman is out of state,” Rucker said. “He asked I read you this letter. President Obama has signed the water bill we all worked so hard for. This is a win-win for the environment and the salmon. That brings us to the flows. I stand with my colleagues that your flows need to be adjusted. In your rewrite I suggest you tie these together. Don’t penalize a part of the state that has invested in water infrastructure more than most Californians.”

Katherine Borges, chair of the Salida Municipal Advisory Council, told the State Water Board, “You drove through Salida. If you’ve eaten fruits, vegetables or beef, you’ve eaten food from Stanislaus County. Depleting water supplies will devastate our economy. It’s not about the salmon. The salmon is a straw man. This is a water grab. Please reconsider the compromise you’ve already offered.”

Jack Cox, chair of the Lake Tulloch Alliance, told the board, “You need to cancel this order. End it now. This is a policy that simply doesn’t work.”

A resident of Connor Estates on Lake Tulloch, David Mensch, spoke after Cox.

“I would like to remind the state water board that your highest priority, state policy says the use of water for domestic purposes is the highest use, then irrigation, it doesn’t say anything about fish,” Mensch said. “There’s no sheep in this room. But if you choose to view us as sheep, beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

More impacts

Dairy farmer Duane Marson said he gets his water from Turlock Irrigation District and the current state plan could destroy his livelihood.

“If this proposal goes through it will end our business,” Marson said. “Pumping groundwater will not support our business. Businesses will fail, people will lose their jobs, the elderly on fixed income will not be able to afford their electricity. There are other ways to protect fish without devastating this area.”

Walnut grower Dan Barton said his family has been farming in the Stanislaus County area since 1913. He said he believes a state estimate of how the plan could reduce economic output by $64 million is “laughably low.”

Marcus spoke generally to people attending the hearing when she reminded speakers to please stay focused, because she and other board members were trying hard to listen.

“Impugning intent and tearing it down might feel good,” Marcus said. “But it’s not the most effective way to convey what you are trying to say.”

Modesto Councilman Bill Zoslocki, District 4, said there are 25,000 people employed in Stanislaus County directly in food processing, with corporations including Foster Farms, Gallo Winery, Del Monte, Frito-Lay and Nestlé.

“All of those major users are right here and all of them are very much in need of a reliable water supply,” Zoslocki said. “Modesto has planned extensively to ensure its reliable water supply.”

Modesto Councilman Tony Madrigal, District 2, appeared before the State Water Board with women and children holding “Family of 3” signs. Then he asked all people who could be impacted economically by the state plan for increased flows on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to please stand up.

“These are the faces of the families that this proposal is going to effect,” Madrigal said. “Everybody standing here in this room. These are all the people who will be impacted by this. Farm worker jobs are so important to this valley. These people here, these hands, they feed the world. They are here to fight for our future, fight for our water, fight for our farms. You know our motto, ‘Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health.’ If you take away our water, you take away our wealth, contentment and health. Please find another way.”

Sandra Anaya, a parent and Stanislaus County resident, urged state water board members to consider recreational uses of local rivers before increasing unimpaired flows.

“We have a wonderful experience canoeing the Tuolumne River,” Anaya said. “The downfall is the water flows are currently low and it affects our recreational activities on the river. This impacts our children and families. I would rather see my children grow up with nature than in the streets.”

Hearings have already been held in Sacramento, Stockton, and Merced. There is one more scheduled Jan. 3 in Sacramento.