The state water board’s delay on a final decision to increase water flow releases from dams that impound the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers could mean a change in approach or it could mean nothing, Karl Rodefer, District 5 supervisor and Tuolumne County water policy committee chairman, said Monday.

The State Water Resources Control Board’s announcement last week that it will return to the issue Nov. 7 could mean the appointed board members — Felicia Marcus, the chairwoman; Steven Moore, the vice-chairman; and Dorene D'Adamo, Tam M. Doduc and E. Joaquin Esquivel — want “to let the rah-rah die down,” said Rodefer, who attended a “Stop the Water Grab” rally last week at the State Capitol in Sacramento.

If that is the case, the state water board is likely to go ahead and do what they want to do, as outlined in their final draft of the plan, to require an average of 40 percent unimpaired flows on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers, Rodefer said.

The delay on a decision could also mean the State Water Resources Control Board has listened to opposition and they intend to do more serious study.

“I don’t think that’s the case,” Rodefer said. “But it’s possible.”

New leadership

A third possibility is that the state water board has delayed its decision on the controversial plan is timed to coincide with election of the Golden State’s first new governor since Jerry Brown’s third and fourth terms began in January 2011.

Brown is now termed-out and either Gavin Newsom, D-San Francisco, or John Cox, R-Rancho Santa Fe, will be California’s new governor. Voters decide Nov. 6.

There’s going to be an election and there’s going to be a new governor, Rodefer said. Perhaps the state water board is waiting to see what the new governor’s position on any plan to increase water flows will be.

“I’m pretty where Mr. Cox will come down on this,” Rodefer said. “But I’m not sure where Mr. Newsome stands. He’s from San Francisco and San Francisco Water and Power have been vocal opponents of the plan.”

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which runs Hetch Hetchy Water & Power, are opposed to the state plan in partnership with Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, saying it could leave users vulnerable in times of drought.

In any case, Rodefer said, the state water board’s delay means there is a chance for change in leadership’s thinking on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced river flow release plans.

“I haven’t seen any indication, given the current leadership in Sacramento, that there’s a change of heart on the water board,” Rodefer said. “They’re pretty much decided on what they’re going to do.”

Headwaters

Randy Hanvelt, District 2 supervisor for Tuolumne County, also attended the “Stop the Water Grab” rally last week in Sacramento. He said Monday he believes two things came into play and influenced the State Water Resources Control Board to delay a decision on its water flow plan.

“One is Ryan Zinke, secretary of the interior, has taken them on and he sent them a letter and the board hadn’t expected that,” Hanvelt said. “Secretary Zinke has been out here and he understands the water and the forests. He’s come out pretty strong against this water grab.”

The federal Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, New Melones Dam and New Melones Reservoir, sent an eight-page letter to Marcus on July 27, a week after Zinke visited Don Pedro and New Melones with Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, the Mother Lode congressman, and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.

The Department of Interior letter warned of possible legal action over the proposed plan to divert more water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

The state water board plan appears to “directly interfere with the New Melones Project's ability to store water” and it elevates fish and wildlife purposes at New Melones above irrigation and domestic purposes, contrary to priorities for New Melones established by Congress, Zinke’s staff said in the letter to Marcus.

“Notably, implementation of the 40 percent unimpaired flow standard will reduce storage of water at New Melones by 315,000 acre-feet per year, on average” and “will likely result in diminished power generation and recreational opportunities at New Melones,” Zinke’s staff said.

Hanvelt said the other thing that happened with the state water board is the rally Monday a week ago showed the board that if they continued with their meetings, Tuesday and Wednesday last week, they would have had “a hoard of people come to protest.”

The “Stop the Water Grab” rally was focused on Central Valley waters, Hanvelt said. But people who oppose the state plan also know this is all about headwaters.

All these rivers, the Stanislaus, the Tuolumne and the Merced, start up high in Tuolumne County, Hanvelt said. The fact that the City and County of San Francisco are protesting the state plan shows the issue is not partisan.

“This is non-partisan and these are Californians,” Hanvelt said. “Raising their voices saying ‘this is not right’ and I think that’s more than the state water board can handle.”

County board is opposed

In July, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors sent its own letter to Marcum opposing the state plan, because it could have dire socio-economic consequences for the people of Tuolumne County.

The Bay-Delta Plan Update for the Lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta seeks increased releases from dams that impound the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to protect native salmon runs that have been driven close to the brink of extinction.

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, would mean less water in New Melones and Don Pedro reservoirs for recreation and health and safety.

In a July letter to Marcus, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors expressed concern the state has failed to adequately analyze impacts its plan will have on upstream communities.

People opposed to the plan say the state has ignored scientific research that suggests unimpaired flows could harm native fish instead of help them, and that the state has overlooked other problems decimating fisheries, like predatory non-native bass that hunt native fish.

A week ago Monday, McClintock said at the Sacramento rally, “We live in one of the most water-rich regions of the country, and yet our families are now facing the threat of catastrophic water shortages and year-round water rationing. Not because of any act of God, but because of breathtakingly stupid acts of state government.”

McClintock also signed a letter to Marcus on Aug. 16 with Denham and 13 other California congressional representatives, sent to express their “fervent opposition” to the final draft Bay-Delta Plan Update for the Lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta.

Staff for the State Water Resources Control Board said last week they intended to shelve a decision on their plan until Nov. 7 because the board recognizes “the complexity and sensitivity of its work to update flow requirements for the Lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries — the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.”

Deferring final action on this “complex and critical decision” will provide state water board members with more time to consider information and comments received from more than 150 individuals and groups over two days in August, State Water Resources Control Board staff said.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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