A state plan to require an average of 40 percent unimpaired flows on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers could have dire socio-economic consequences for the people of Tuolumne County, according to local officials.

The so-called Bay-Delta Plan Update for the Lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta seeks the increased flows to protect native salmon runs that have been driven nearly to the brink of extinction, triggering a water war between the state and agricultural districts in the Central Valley that hold California’s oldest water rights.

Local officials are concerned about the increased flows to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the primary source of drinking water for more than half of the state’s population and irrigation for a third of its farmland, because that would also mean less water in New Melones and Don Pedro reservoirs for recreation and health and safety.

District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, chairman of the county’s Water Policy Committee, said he’s seen surveys that have suggested water recreation drives as much as 80 percent of tourism in the county.

“It will cripple our economy up here if it goes through,” Rodefer said of the plan.

In a recent letter to Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors expressed concern that the state failed to adequately analyze the impacts on upstream communities.

Rodefer said he’s been working on the issue for years, which has included testifying before the State Water Resources Control Board at a public hearing in the past, though the plan has remained largely unchanged.

“To be quite honest, I think they made the decision of what they wanted to do and wrote the plan, and now they’re not listening,” he said.

People opposed to the plan say the state has disregarded scientific research that suggests the unimpaired flows could actually do harm to native fish as opposed to help them and ignored other problems decimating fisheries, such as predation by non-native bass.

Meanwhile, politicians from both sides of the aisle are coming out in opposition to the plan.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, blasted the plan in a strongly worded press release that called it “the first shot fired in the next chapter of California’s water wars” and vowed that “decades worth of lawsuits are about to begin” if the state “continues to violate principles of good faith.”

The issue inspired a visit to the county on Friday by Ryan Zinke, the Trump administration’s secretary for the federal Department of the Interior, who toured Don Pedro and New Melones reservoirs with U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, and U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.

Rodefer said the state won’t listen, so it’s time to seek help from the federal government, which owns and operates New Melones Reservoir under the Bureau of Reclamation.

The House passed a spending bill for the Environmental Protection Agency last week that included amendments made by Denham that he believes would effectively kill the Bay-Delta Plan by prohibiting federal agencies from participating as it relates to New Melones Reservoir.

However, the White House released a statement expressing concerns about the overall bill because it exceeded spending limits set by the administration and contained certain policy provisions that the administration found objectionable.

Many others besides the county also stand opposed to the plan for unimpaired flows, including the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents more than 430 public water agencies in the state.

Tuolumne Utilities District, the largest water purveyor in the county, also submitted comments on the plan last year that were critical of the state’s analysis — or lack thereof — on the proposal’s potential environmental and economic impacts.

Although TUD doesn’t own any significant water rights itself, 97 percent of the supply it serves to more than 40,000 county residents is provided from the South Fork of the Stanislaus River by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. through a long-term agreement with the district.

The district stated that the plan calls for a greater reliance on groundwater, which isn’t necessarily possible because most groundwater in the county is siphoned from fractured rock that are less predictable and reliable than aquifers in the valley.

Barbara Balen, president of the TUD Board of Directors, said she’s also concerned about the environmental consequences of “dewatering the Sierra Nevada,” especially when it comes to fire protection.

“I want every single stock pond and every pot of irrigation or raw water be partially dedicated to fire protection,” she said. “I would hate for the district to be liable if we ran out of water to fight a fire in the WUI (Wildland Urban Interface).”

The impact on New Melones Reservoir could also hurt the district’s chances of getting back-up water if needed from Oakdale Irrigation District or South San Joaquin Irrigation District, who between them own the rights to the first 600,000 acre-feet of water that flows into the reservoir.

A joint press release from OID and SSJID stated the flow requirements in the plan would make the reservoir go dry 12 times every 95 years.

The press release also stated the plan would reduce the amount of water they receive each year for residents and farmers in their respective districts by 20 percent and more than 50 percent in “dry” or “critically dry years,” which would mean they wouldn’t be able to sell or transfer surplus water to other agencies.

At the height of the five-year drought in 2014, the Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California brokered a deal with SSJID that provided up to 2,400 acre-feet of additional water from New Melones Reservoir for TUD at a time when the district believed it was potentially going to run out of its normal supply within months.

The State Water Resources Control Board is accepting written comments on the final draft of the Bay-Delta Plan Update for the Lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta through Friday.

Public meetings are scheduled for Aug. 21 and 22 in Sacramento for the board to consider oral comments and possibly adopt the plan.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.