Water war

Local farmers protest proposal aimed at sustaining salmon

Lee Heringer (left) and his father, Les, are Butte County farmers opposed to a new water plan proposed by the state.

Lee Heringer (left) and his father, Les, are Butte County farmers opposed to a new water plan proposed by the state.

Photo by Graham Womack

Butte County farmers showed up in force to a rally at the state Capitol, riled by recently proposed updates to the Bay-Delta Plan aimed largely at buoying the state’s imperiled salmon population.

On July 6, the State Water Resources Control Board announced it was looking to increase water flows for portions of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The board noted on its website that it was “part of a delicate balancing act—addressing an ecological crisis in the watershed and preventing further collapse of Bay-Delta fisheries while acknowledging the other vital water uses for millions of Californians.”

Local farmers, though, fear that 55 percent to 60 percent of water might be diverted under this plan, potentially harming agriculture. So on Monday (Aug. 20), the Butte County Farm Bureau sent two buses carrying approximately 80 people from Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Sutter, Tehama and Yuba counties to a “Stop the Water Grab” rally at the north steps of the Capitol in Sacramento.

“The impacts of the state water board’s Bay-Delta amendment is going to reach far and wide,” Colleen Cecil, executive director for the Butte County Farm Bureau, told the CN&R. “It’ll affect everybody in the state.”

An estimated 1,500 people attended the rally. The event attracted numerous local, state and federal officials, including U.S. Congressmen Doug LaMalfa, Tom McClintock, Jeff Denham and Jim Costa.

“We’re all Californians,” LaMalfa told the CN&R after giving a speech. “We’re all fighting for similar things.”

Les Heringer has managed the M&T Ranch just southwest of Chico since 1986, growing almonds, walnuts and prunes as well as beans and wheat. Heringer and his adult son Lee, who’s worked on the ranch 10 years, each made the trip to the Capitol.

“What brought me out here today is ag is fully engaged on protecting our water,” Les said. “If there’s no water, there’s no farm. We cannot farm without water.”

Lee agreed: “I think it’s important to show Sacramento how important of an issue this is to farmers,” he said. “It’s not just affecting people’s pocketbooks. It’s affecting their livelihoods and all the employees that depend on their income from these ranches to provide for their families.”

David Lundberg, a rice farmer who lives in Chico, said he made the trip to the event because of talk of people losing 50 percent of their water.

“It’s pretty devastating for everybody who has water,” Lundberg said.

The state water board has retreated somewhat since releasing its proposals. While it was scheduled to hold hearings Aug. 21-22 to review the plans, the agenda for these hearings noted that “any final action by the [board] will be continued to a future [board] meeting.”

Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with the Bay Institute in San Francisco, said by phone that updating state and federal water standards could help restore salmon populations in the San Joaquin River’s three lower tributaries. His group’s position is that to do so, 50 percent to 60 percent of water flow must remain in-river from February through June and other standards must be in place the rest of the year to govern temperature. He’d also like to see California become more sustainable in its water usage.

“What the board is proposing is not going to cut it,” said Rosenfield, who didn’t attend the rally but noted that others from his group did.

Following the rally, the board updated a list of frequently asked questions. The list notes that a flow proposal for the lower section of the San Joaquin River “would provide a range of 30 to 50 percent of unimpaired flow from February through June in the Merced, Tuolumne, and Stanislaus rivers.”

The board added, “The starting point is proposed to be 40 percent of unimpaired flow. This is not the same as a 40 percent reduction.”

All of this might not be enough, though, to bring local farmers on board with the plans and avert a legal battle.

“There will be a lawsuit,” Cecil said. “Without a doubt, there will be a lawsuit.”

She added that the California Farm Bureau, the 53-county group that the Butte bureau belongs to, has a team of attorneys. She also anticipates lawsuits against the state from irrigation districts and possibly the federal government, since the plans could impact the New Melones Dam reservoir and its functionality.

It would be only the latest skirmish between President Donald Trump and Gov. Jerry Brown, with the administration falling short in a lawsuit earlier this year against California over its sanctuary state policy.

Trump has weighed in on California water policy before, including on Aug. 6, when he tweeted that “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse” because water to fight the fires was “being diverted into the Pacific Ocean.”

While The New York Times and others quickly refuted Trump’s claim, it has supporters, including LaMalfa—the Congressman said he asked Trump during a campaign stop in Redding in June 2016 why water was being run out to the ocean.

Asked if he’d heard rumblings of a federal lawsuit, LaMalfa said, “It’d be rumbly right now to say that. But yes.”

LaMalfa noted that he’d recently spent time in Shasta County with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke due to the ongoing fire in his district. Zinke, the Congressman said, was aware of the support among three members of the water board for the Bay-Delta updates.

“He as well as those folks on Bureau of Reclamation are really upset that three out of five members of an appointed board could go so far to try to make that kind of decision,” LaMalfa said.