A Battle Over the San Joaquin River – The New York Times

The San Francisco Bay estuary is in crisis.

Half a dozen fish species are inching toward extinction, scientists at the Bay Institute say. Higher up the food chain, whales, seals and pelicans are going hungry. At the same time, thousands of fishing jobs have vanished.

Now, after a decade of work, California water officials are finalizing a more than 3,000-page plan to tackle the problem.

But the so-called Bay-Delta plan is shaping up to be among the most contentious battles of California’s long-running water wars.

At the heart of the conflict is control over the San Joaquin River and its three main tributaries. Originating in the Sierra Nevada, the rivers eventually drain into the Bay estuary, feeding its unique ecosystem.

But along the way, they snake through the drought-hit farm communities of the San Joaquin Valley and a gantlet of dams and diversions for crop irrigation.

In dry years, frequently less than 20 percent of the rivers complete the trip toward the Bay estuary, straining fish populations including the storied chinook salmon runs.

The State Water Resources Control Board wants to raise the flow of the San Joaquin and the tributary Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers to 40 percent of their natural flow during the critical spring months.

But that target seems only to have angered both sides in the debate. Environmental groups say it’s too low; farmers and leaders in the valley say it would cripple their economies.

“You are the grim reaper,” Assemblyman Adam Gray, whose district includes Merced, told members of the board at one of a series of public hearings in the San Joaquin Valley this month.

“Water is life in this region, and you appear to have no other purpose than to take that life away.”

No matter the final shape of the plan, state officials acknowledge it will have major consequences for wildlife, businesses and jobs. (The state has estimated a $64 million hit to the farming economy; agricultural leaders say it would be much higher.)

“We’re dealing with this very complex puzzle,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the water resources board. “There’s no sweet spot here.”


Tractors lined a street in Merced after farmers held a rally in protest of the Bay-Delta plan this month.

At the public hearing in Merced this month, a standing-room-only crowd showed up to hear from the board and voice their concerns. Outside, about 30 tractors paraded through the streets in protest with signs that read: “Farmers Fed-Up.”

Louie Bandoni, an almond farmer, was among them. Speaking by phone outside the hearing, he said it felt as if state leaders were trying to put farmers out of business over a few fish.

“In California, we’re being bombarded with regulations,” Mr. Bandoni said.

He cited new minimum wage and overtime rules and caps on methane emissions from livestock.

“And now they’re going after our water,” he said. “We’re just to the point as farmers — we’re just fed up. We don’t know which way to turn.”

The water board plans to make its final decision by summer.


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