Why San Francisco is joining Valley farmers in a fight over precious California water

Originating in a glacier at the eastern edge of Yosemite, the Tuolumne River runs into a man-made roadblock in the towering granite cliffs of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. A massive concrete dam captures its icy water and ships much of it through pipes and tunnels to the residents of San Francisco.

Farther downstream, the Tuolumne is halted again, this time by a dam in the oak-covered Sierra foothills. From there, a network of canals spreads the Tuolumne’s waters over mile after mile of rich San Joaquin Valley vineyards, orchards and dairy farms.

The meager amount left in the river to flow to the Pacific — some years, as little as 11 percent of what would have been its natural flow — must sustain a population of salmon and steelhead plummeting toward extinction.

In short, the Tuolumne embodies just how much California has overtaxed its rivers.

Little wonder, then, that a plan by California regulators to re-divide the waters of the Tuolumne — and much of the rest of the lower San Joaquin River watershed — has ignited one of the fiercest fights over water California has seen in years.

The State Water Resources Control Board, composed of five people appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, will hold two days of hearings starting Tuesday on a proposal to leave more of the water in the lower San Joaquin River and its three tributaries, the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus. The mandate would mean more water will follow its natural course through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out to the ocean. The state says the increased flows would stave off an “ecological crisis” for fish, but it leaves less water for farmers and nearly 3 million people stretched from the Bay Area to Modesto.

Critics of the plan call it a dangerous “water grab” that could cripple the Valley’s farming economy and leave cities dangerously short of drinking water.

What’s more, they say the plan will force them to pump more groundwater— putting them in direct conflict with a state law intended to cut back pumping to protect California’s depleted aquifers.

Farmers and others paint the end result of those two conflicting regulations in stark terms.

“This valley is going to dry up. It’s that simple,” said Pete Verburg, a 76-year-old dairy farmer who’s been milking cows west of Modesto for 55 years.

‘It’s our water’

Drive down the lonely two-lane farm roads that crisscross the 200,000 acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland irrigated by the Tuolumne and it’s hard to miss the bright blue signs that read “Our Water. Our Future.” They pop up beside orchards and cornfields every couple of miles.

Verburg has one outside his small farmhouse, which sits just a few hundred feet from his cattle-feeding pens.

The canal that pulls water from the Tuolumne to grow silage for his 2,200 cows is about 100 yards from his backdoor.

Sitting inside the home, festooned with knickknacks and wooden shoes, the Dutch-born dairyman pulls no punches when describing who he says would be to blame for the demise of farming as he knows it: “Felicia Marcus and the rest of those crooks” — a reference to the chairwoman of the state water board.

As he spoke, his wife, Jayne, crocheting in a nearby chair, nodded approvingly.

“It’s not their water, it’s our water,” Verburg said.

Verburg said he knows all too well what happens when agriculture meets out-of-touch bureaucrats. His parents had to abandon their dairy operation in Southern California decades ago because of pressures from urbanization, moving to the Modesto area. The water controversy, he said, will yield similar results: “History always repeats itself.”

But those who advocate for providing more water to the fish say it’s long past time to bring some semblance of balance to a river system that has been woefully over-appropriated to supply human needs.

“We’ve simply taken too much water out of the system,” Marcus said. The state’s plan originally surfaced two years ago; the finalized staff proposal came out in July.

In most years, as much as 80 percent of the water in the San Joaquin watershed is captured by a dam or shunted into a canal for use by farms and cities. Biologists say water that’s left in the river channels is too languid and warm to sustain native salmon and steelhead, which require cool, fast-running water. It’s a problem that will only get worse as the climate gets warmer.

The fight over the Tuolumne, and the rest of the San Joaquin watershed, is Act I of a two-part drama. Later this year, the board will release a companion proposal to redirect portions of the Sacramento River watershed’s supply to benefit fish and other environmental purposes. Taken together, the two decisions could mean historic changes in how water is parceled out in a state where there’s almost never enough to go around.

On the San Joaquin, Marcus has held out hope that warring factions could strike a compromise through a series of quiet negotiations being brokered by top state officials. A vote was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but Marcus announced last week that it had been postponed and suggested the additional time could allow the parties to hash out an agreement.

But the threat of litigation, the weapon of choice in California water issues, remains ever present. The California Farm Bureau Federation has said taking water from farmers could violate their legal water rights. The Trump administration has pledged to help farmers and has told Marcus it would sue the state because the re-allocation would interfere with the operations of New Melones reservoir on the Stanislaus River, which is owned and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

New Melones “was put there for a reason, and it was put there because it was the will of Congress and the elected representatives to manage water, to prevent floods, to deliver water to families and farms,” Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said while touring fire-ravaged Redding recently. “And what the water board has put forward really takes away that purpose.”

The state’s proposal would require that the “unimpaired flows” of the lower San Joaquin and its tributaries jump to 40 percent.

In a typical year, that would take about 290,000 acre-feet of water from farms and cities, or 14 percent of what they currently get from the rivers. The effect would become greater in a dry year; farms and cities would lose an estimated 673,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, enough to keep an average household going for a year.

The economic impact of leaving more water in the rivers is a matter of considerable debate. The water board’s staff said agricultural production in the Valley would fall by $69 million a year. The California Farm Water Coalition, a Sacramento advocacy group, pegged the impact at $1.6 billion. Marcus said she believes farmers can adapt to the curtailment in water supplies by adjusting crop patterns or making other changes.

Farmers sneer at that and say their only realistic option is cutting back on production.

The state’s plan “is going to cause a man-made drought every three or four years,” said Gary Darpinian, who grows almonds, walnuts and peaches east of Modesto with Tuolumne River water. “If this goes through, I could see us having to abandon half our orchards.”

‘World-class river’

Patrick Koepele isn’t sure the state’s plan goes far enough to save native fish in the Tuolumne and the other San Joaquin River tributaries. But he said it’s almost certainly better than the conditions that exist now, which have pushed native fish populations to the brink of collapse.

A Michigan native, he became a whitewater rafting guide on the Tuolumne while attending UC Davis and became entranced with the river. Now 47, he lives a few miles north of the river in Sonora and serves as executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust, an environmental organization.

Part of the attraction for Koepele is the Tuolumne is at the epicenter of the clash over how to share the state’s rivers, and always has been. One of the Sierra Club’s earliest crusades was its unsuccessful fight against the damming of the Tuolumne at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite. Congress approved the project in 1913, a year before Sierra Club founder John Muir died.

“It’s really a world-class river in all respects,” Koepele said. “It starts in Yosemite. .... It goes through the most productive agricultural valley in the world, and it ends in this incredible cosmopolitan city, San Francisco. It ties it all together.”

The Tuolumne is one of the most overworked rivers in California. In most years, a mere 21 percent of its water makes its way to the ocean. In dry years, that can dip as low as 11 percent, according to state water board data.

Decades ago, before the dams were built, the Tuolumne teemed with 100,000 salmon swimming upstream, and its wide floodplains provided rich habitat for tule elk, pronghorn antelope and other species. Today, the fish number in the hundreds, and the elk and antelope have long since vanished.

“We’re trying to bring back a river corridor that could sustain some semblance of that,” Koepele said. “Obviously we’re not going to bring it all the way back.”

Opponents of the state’s plan say there’s a better way to revive native fish populations without shirking on water for human needs — namely, through habitat restoration. The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, in concert with the city of San Francisco, are pushing a plan to reshape portions of the river to make them more conducive to salmon spawning and less attractive to their main predators, the non-native bass that thrive in warm, slow-moving water. These habitat improvements could be augmented with periodic, well-timed “pulse flows” that would temporarily increase the volume of water coursing through the rivers.

But Koepele and other critics of the habitat-only approach say it won’t work by itself.

On a recent weekday, he met with two reporters at a spot outside Hughson, east of Modesto, and pointed to a section of the Tuolumne where similar restoration work was performed several years ago. The project created a small riffle where a deep warm pond once formed in a wide spot in the river channel.

Koepele said years later the project failed to do what it was supposed to: flush out the bass or improve salmon runs.

The reason?

“It’s too warm, it’s too slow,” he said. “It’s going to need flow.”

He said he’s particularly disappointed that San Francisco, the bastion of liberalism and the eco-movement, has joined with the farm-irrigation districts in opposing the state’s plan to increase river flows.

“San Francisco really has an opportunity,” he said, “to step up and show a way to lead.”

A city’s water supply

The officials who run San Francisco’s water supply insist the plan they’ve developed with farmers can save the fish and is a more responsible option than the state’s plan.

“Contrary to some people’s opinions, we do care about the environment a lot,” said Steve Ritchie, assistant general manager at the city’s Public Utilities Commission. “We do care about the fish and the rivers.”

San Francisco gets most of its drinking water from Hetch Hetchy 148 miles east, in the northwest corner of Yosemite National Park in a spot far removed from the tourists who flock to Half Dome. One-third the size of Folsom Lake, Hetch Hetchy accounts for 85 percent of the water consumed in San Francisco and some of its suburbs.

Most years, about two-thirds of the water from Hetch Hetchy still goes into the Tuolumne, as city officials are happy to point out. “We have required releases for the fish every day,” Chris Graham, the city’s Hetch Hetchy water and power planning manager, said during a recent tour of the dam.

Critics, though, say those releases don’t do much to help the fish because most of that water is captured downstream and used by the irrigation districts.

The arrangement with Hetch Hetchy has long been a delicate issue for San Francisco. Environmentalists have fought for years to tear the dam out, and the group Restore Hetch Hetchy won an audience recently with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. City officials say replacing Hetch Hetchy would cost billions — and they’re worried San Francisco could face severe shortages if the state’s plan to alter flows on the Tuolumne is approved.

“We think it would get pretty bad,” Ritchie said.

Officials in Modesto and Turlock, which also rely heavily on the Tuolumne, are equally concerned.

“Our main industries are food processors,” said Michael Cook, Turlock’s municipal services director. “Our whole economy relies on agriculture.”

Modesto and Turlock are spending tens of millions of dollars apiece on treatment plants that would pull more water from the river and reduce their dependence on groundwater pumping. Now, however, both cities fear the state’s proposed reallocation would force them to reach deeper into their aquifers.

Tamara Bryant, acting manager of Modesto’s engineering division, said the city fears it might have to reach deep into its aquifer to meet demand. “We have evidence through the drought,” she said. “When surface water was restricted, we saw a direct relationship with having to use more groundwater.”

But because of the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, water users know they can’t simply pump their way out of shortages anymore. The law says groundwater basins must become sustainable by the early 2040s.

That leaves farmers such as Darpinian unsure of what to do.

Darpinian, 60, grows tree crops on 600 acres east of Modesto. He said he resisted large-scale groundwater pumping during the drought, even to the point of sacrificing 20 acres of walnut and peach orchards.

But he spent $250,000 on a new well and figures he’ll have to pump to keep his operation going. The alternative is a major loss of production.

Trees, he said, “don’t respond well to no water.”

Darpinian said he’s worried about what will happen to his workforce of 16 full-time employees if regulators force him and other farmers to leave more water in the river.

“They make a decent wage, they have health insurance,” he said. “It bothers me that I’m going to have to start laying those people off.”

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