Merced County Times Newspaper
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OP-ED: State abandons negotiations, moves ahead to steal your water

 

By JOHN SWEIGARD

In October, the State Water Resources Control Board did what most observers always expected it would eventually do. It walked away from any kind of negotiation with our community and simply committed to taking all the water it wanted from you.

Here’s what every person in eastern Merced County now stands to lose:

  • A robust and historic local water supply.
  • Hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in local economic activity.
  • Your community’s drinking water quality.
  • Environmental benefits in and along local streams.
  • Recreation at Lakes McClure and McSwain, including camping, fishing, boating and more.
  • Water flowing in local streams throughout the year, including Bear Creek. 

At issue is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan and the water responsibly used by our community for more than a century. With overwhelming community support, Merced Irrigation District has fought for years to keep the State Water Board from diverting local Lake McClure’s water away from you and sending it to the Bay Delta, east of San Francisco, where it can be pumped to farms and cities throughout the rest of the state. 

In a letter dated Oct. 20 this year, state environmental officials announced that after more than a decade of various alternative plans and proposed agreements, it was giving up on reaching a settlement agreement and proceeding with its intent to steal your water. 

It must be understood, Lake McClure is not part of the state’s system of reservoirs and aqueducts: it’s yours. Lake McClure was built by – and for – our community with the blood, sweat and treasure of our region’s ancestors more than 100 years ago. It is completely owned and operated by your local Merced Irrigation District.

With a 1-million-acre-foot-capacity, Lake McClure provides water to local agriculture and replenishes local groundwater that our cities use for drinking. It provides significant environmental benefits – and cool recreation on a hot day.

In 2018, against significant protest from our community and our local elected officials, the State Water Board in Sacramento adopted its final version of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The plan purported to improve salmon populations while calling for enormous new flows of water from Lake McClure to the Bay Delta, where that water can be diverted to cities and farms throughout the state.

The state has claimed the increased water flows were needed for the benefit of salmon. However, it has become clear to MID and others this simply isn’t true. MID has offered a combination of increased flows and is actively restoring salmon habitat (damaged by dredge mining, not MID) on the Merced River. The state has simply said it needs more of your water.

 

Our Way Of Life 

Is Worth Protecting 

In every sense, we are “The Other California.” Instead of beaches or tech start-ups, we are home to some of the most productive ag land in the world.

While we benefit from rich ethnic diversity in our community, we also harbor significant economic challenges. Our saving grace is our agriculture economy and its source of water, upon which we have depended for more than 100 years.

Merced County’s per capita income represents $23,000, which is $14,000 less than the statewide per capita income of $37,000. At the same time, 17 percent of Merced County residents live at or below the poverty line, which is about 5 percentage points higher than the statewide 12 percent. 

In terms of our region’s ethnic diversity, roughly 73 percent of residents identify as an ethnicity other than white alone. That’s a full 10 percentage points higher than the statewide 63 percent.

These statistics matter because both the Governor and State Water Board have made clear they intend to protect and promote ethnic diversity in California. Yet their water grab directly harms a region that is both economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse. In other words, our community is comprised of the same vulnerable residents Sacramento leaders claim to want to protect.

 

What Needs Fixing 

Under the Water Plan

Many supporters and advocates of the Bay Delta talk about that region as if it were a vast wetland with abundant biological diversity. No doubt, there was a time when this was true. It’s not now. Most of its habitat has been cut up into farms and cities, islands, and levies. Its development created problems that our community and our water supply should not be asked to fix. 

To anyone who believes the state is conducting a responsible environmental restoration effort, as opposed to a good old fashioned water grab, I would propose these questions:

Will farmers around the Delta be blocked from using the water from our community?

Will the state commit to a promise that our water from the Valley will not be pumped from the Delta and sent to the Bay Area or LA?

Is the state going to stop trucking juvenile salmon safely around non-native Delta bass who eat them for food?

The answers to all of these questions is NO. 

And until the state can say yes, that’s the same response we have to giving up our water. NO. 

Make no mistake, this is your water the state is trying to steal. 

MID just happens to be in the way.

 

John Sweigard is the general manager of the Merced Irrigation District.

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