Busload of Merced County residents fight water plan

March 20, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
The state wants to limit the amount of water three North Valley irrigation districts can take from their tributaries, as a way to help increase the fish population. But that plan is expected to cost the region's economy tens of millions of dollars each year.

Mario Bandoni is a fourth generation farmer whose family grows about 300 acres of almonds in Merced County. He's concerned a plan by the state water resources control board could threaten his livelihood and hurt the area's already struggling economy.

"As everybody knows, agriculture is one of the driving forces in the state, and it's a multi-billion dollar industry, so you're not only you're taking jobs away from the farmers, the farm workers, any industry involved with agriculture," Bandoni said.

Bandoni's father and wife are among the dozens of North Valley residents who traveled to Sacramento for a public hearing on the proposal. The plan would require the Merced, Turlock, and Modesto irrigation districts to leave about a 35 percent unimpaired flow in the rivers they use, to improve the wildlife habitat. That would leave even less water for growers.

John Sweigard with the Merced Irrigation District said, "This year we're in a second critically dry year, and they're already short on water, and if this plan had already been put in place, they'd be dealing with 50% of the water they're getting now, which is already short."

Mid General Manager John Sweigard says the state is not putting enough focus on the other factors that hurt the salmon population, including predator fish and ocean conditions. He argues too much of the burden would fall on the North Valley.

"It's going to have impacts on jobs, generational family farms, small family farms here in Merced," said Sweigard. "It's going to have impacts on clean hydro power generation out of Lake McClure, and we just think it's short sighted."

Opponents of the plan are also concerned it will force growers to pump more from their wells, causing the water table to drop dramatically.

Bandoni said, "We've been around for four generations, now we're trying to protect it for future generations and just for California in general."

The state water board staff says it has reviewed a variety of options, and it feels this plan offers the best balance of water for fish, farmers, and other uses. But several government agencies in this area oppose the proposal.

The board is not expected to make a decision until at least this fall.


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