Riverside Community Work

Written by Edgar Garibay and Lauren Barnum

Modesto’s riverside communities are disproportionately burdened with environmental injustices that diminish quality of life and exacerbate socioeconomic disparities.

Simply stated, where you live determines how long you live. On average, residents in the East Central Modesto (Airport/La Loma neighborhoods) riverside communities can expect to live 5 years less than those who reside in the Southeast side (e.g. Waterford and Hughson). This is due to air quality, access, and infrastructure issues.  In the absence of sidewalks and bike lanes (active transportation) that connect residents to open spaces, schools, or stores, residents opt for sedentary activities that contribute to high rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart risks. Another contributing factor is unhealthy air quality — Stanislaus County has one of the most severe air pollution problems in California and Modesto ranks 7th in the nation for ozone pollution.

To address these environmental injustices, we have been working alongside leaders from the Airport Neighborhood and various community partners through a variety of forums that encourage and support residents as they get involved in public processes to improve their neighborhoods and quality of life.

A major victory came to fruition last year, when the Airport Neighborhood received a nearly $5 million Active Transportation grant from the State that will provide much needed sidewalks and safe bicycle and pedestrian routes in the neighborhood and the river parks. This grant also includes $500,000 for a new river pavilion, learning theater, and trail leading to the Tuolumne River.  

These types of successes in the Airport Neighborhood provide an opportunity to expand our collaborations that will bring much needed investment and positive change for riverside communities. It takes collaboration, trust, and determination to keep fighting for these victories. We could not continue this work without the many partners we work with daily, and are grateful for the foundations, businesses, organizations, and individuals that support this work.

Voluntary Agreements

By Peter Drekmeier

On December 12, 2018, the State Water Board adopted new flow standards for the lower San Joaquin River and its three major tributaries, including the Tuolumne. In the real world of competing interests for water, we were pleased the Board approved the staff recommendation of 30-50% unimpaired flow between February and June, starting at 40%. This culminated many years of hard work.

Also at the December meeting, the Water Board left the door open for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and Department of Water Resources (DWR) to continue exploring voluntary agreements (VAs) between the State, water agencies and a few environmental organizations. If the Water Board determines the VAs could achieve the environmental objectives they are obligated to enforce, they could adopt them in lieu of the unimpaired flow approach.

In March, the state agencies released a framework for the VAs that relied heavily on non-flow measures, such as habitat restoration and predator suppression. In response, TRT joined several other environmental and fishing groups in releasing an analysis of the proposal. Among other things, we found that the VAs:

  • Double-count habitat restoration projects that are already required or planned using existing funds.
  • Fail to provide sufficient flow increases to protect and restore the Bay-Delta estuary.
  • Fail to include restrictions on Delta pumping that are necessary to prevent the Central Valley Project and State Water Project from diverting additional flows from the San Joaquin’s tributaries.
  • Fail to include investments in water supply reliability that would help cities and farms adapt to a future with less water diverted from the Bay-Delta estuary.

To read the NGO analysis, type “Smoke and Mirrors” in the search bar on our website. 

The VA proposal for the Tuolumne relies heavily on the suppression of non-native predators, such as bass. However, in licensing proceedings for Don Pedro and La Grange Dams – which are happening in parallel with the Bay Delta Plan – the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined, “We do not recommend the permanent barrier/counting weir or implementing a predator control and suppression plan because they would not likely be effective and could have adverse effects on federally listed steelhead. Similar predator removal efforts by the California Department of Water Resources did not noticeably reduce salmon mortality, and the permanent barrier/counting weir could act as a migration barrier to salmonids.”

Clearly, a lot more work needs to be done.

From The Desk Of The Executive Director

By Patrick Koepele

As I reflect on the progress TRT has made since its founding in 1981, I see wonderful people dedicated to ensuring that the Tuolumne River remains healthy with abundant fish and wildlife; and a river that is able to provide unique recreational experiences to diverse communities. As a world-class river that transects world-class regions from the sublime wilderness of Yosemite to the most dynamic and productive farmland in the Central Valley, to the world’s tech-hub in the San Francisco Bay Area, this river binds us together despite our differences.

TRT has been working hard to engage communities across this landscape in river stewardship. One such group are residents of riverside communities in Modesto, including the Airport Neighborhood, South Modesto, and West Modesto. These are the people who live closest to the river and, arguably, have most to benefit from its health. Despite their physical proximity to the river, these communities have not been well-represented in discussions about river protection and restoration. We have been working tirelessly for more than 10 years to change that dynamic.

In 2005, TRT commissioned a focus group of residents of these neighborhoods to better understand their views of the Tuolumne River and how they feel connected or disconnected from it. While many participants in the focus groups described the river as a dangerous place, most could envision it becoming a vibrant and important focal point for the community, given enough time and care.

A walkable and bikeable trail system has been constructed from Gateway Park to Carpenter Road. Dennett Dam has been removed. And importantly, residents from these neighborhoods are speaking up in support of the river! They have argued for better parks, improved sidewalks, and bike lanes to connect to the park, and better policies to care for the river through the Bay Delta and dam relicensing proceedings.

We believe that these neighborhoods have a symbiotic relationship with the river: the health of one depends on the health of the other. Thus, we must continue to bridge the connection between residents of riverside neighborhoods and the river and its parks. As the river and its parks improve, residents will have better places to enjoy with their families and friends. As the neighborhoods improve, safety and other concerns will subside. Not to mention youth from these neighborhoods are becoming tomorrow’s river stewards and protectors by engaging in this work through our various programs.

Fast-forward to today and, thanks to TRT supporters like you, we see a river and neighborhoods that are changing. Monthly river cleanups by volunteers and local businesses are encouraging citizen stewardship through the Adopt-Our-River program.

We look forward to strengthening this work – it’s essential for the health of the river and our communities. I hope you’ll join us at a river cleanup, tree planting workday, or for a bike ride along the beautiful Tuolumne River to see how far we’ve come!

Smoke And Mirrors

Voluntary Agreements Purport to Add Water and Habitat, But Might Actually Worsen Conditions for the Bay-Delta Estuary, Rivers, and Native Fish and Wildlife

California’s Bay-Delta estuary is in crisis. Climate change and unsustainable water diversions from the watershed are leading toward the extinction of winter-run Chinook salmon, Delta Smelt, orcas, and other endangered species. This crisis threatens thousands of fishing jobs and decreases water supply reliability. The best available science makes clear that significant increases in water flowing into and through the Delta in most years are necessary to restore our native fish and wildlife. The time to act is now.

Saving the Delta will require a Portfolio Approach that pairs state investments in new water supply projects outside of the Delta to improve water supply reliability, floodplain habitat restoration projects, and significant increases in flow through the estuary and into San Francisco Bay. Many environmental and fishing organizations believe that voluntary agreements (VA’s) can be effective tools to implement new water quality standards and help restore the Bay-Delta. But any durable solution, regulatory or voluntary, must be supported by scientifically credible analysis that it will prevent extinction and achieve the salmon doubling objective required by state and federal law. The VA’s outlined by the Brown Administration in December 2018, and the additional partial project descriptions presented to state regulators on March 1, 2019, purport to be a package of flows, habitat and other measures that will protect the estuary without the need for new regulations.

Unfortunately, these VA’s will not protect and restore the Delta. Our organizations strongly oppose these VA outlines because they:

1. Double-count habitat restoration projects that are already required or planned using existing funds, and that would occur without such an agreement;

2. Fail to provide sufficient flow increases to protect and restore the Bay-Delta estuary, its native fish and wildlife, and the thousands of jobs that depend on it;

3. Fail to include any restrictions on Delta pumping and other operations of the Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project (SWP); such restrictions are necessary to prevent the water projects from diverting any additional flow provided from upstream farms and cities and to prevent the Trump Administration from gutting Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the Bay-Delta;

4. Fail to include carryover storage requirements in upstream reservoirs to ensure water supplies for future droughts and adequate water temperatures for salmon;

5. Fail to use the transparent approach of flow standards based on a percentage of unimpaired flows, and instead uses the failed approach of State Water Board Decision 1641;

6. Fail to ensure that Bay-Delta standards will be enforced and will respond to new scientific information; and

7. Fail to include investments in water supply reliability and economic development projects that will help cities and farms adapt to a future with less water diverted from the Bay-Delta.

Click here to continue reading.

Tuolumne River Dam Licensing

Please Submit Written Comments by April 12
Draft Environmental Impact Statement

About FERC Licensing

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is responsible for licensing dams that generate hydroelectricity. On the Tuolumne River, Don Pedro Dam – owned and operated by the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts (MID/TID) – received its original license in 1966. 50 years later (2016) it was scheduled to be relicensed. The process has taken longer than expected because in 2012 FERC determined that La Grange Dam also required a license. La Grange is a smaller, older dam two miles downstream of Don Pedro. The licensing of La Grange is important because MID/TID had previously argued that studying fish passage (moving salmon and steelhead above Don Pedro Dam to spawn in the upper Tuolumne) should not be required since La Grange Dam is what actually blocks their migration.

Problems with the DEIS

FERC’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the two dams is very disappointing for the following reasons:

  • It does not address problems caused by the construction and operation of the dams. Instead, it focuses on not making conditions worse moving forward vs. improving existing conditions.
  • It does not acknowledge the California Water Resources Control Board’s recent adoption of new flow standards for the Tuolumne and other rivers through the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The Water Board is required to issue a water quality certification in the licensing process, so the DEIS should plan for the new standards.
  • It fails to respond to many issues raised by resource agencies and conservation organizations and does not adequately study alternatives presented by those groups.

Submitting Written Comments

Your written comments will help build a case for requirements that will actually help restore the Tuolumne River. The biggest flaw in the DEIS is that it fails to incorporate adequate instream flows.

Written comments are due by 2 pm on Friday, April 12, 2019. For instructions on how to file comments, please click here.

Getting Started

Begin by introducing yourself. Why is this issue important to you? Perhaps you enjoy boating, fishing, swimming or bird watching in or along the Tuolumne River. Do you have information to share about fish and wildlife, recreation, water quality, personal observations or related issues?

Consider including some of the following talking points.

Talking Points

  • Since New Don Pedro Dam was first licensed in 1966, major federal environmental legislation has been enacted. The new license should require dam operations to conform to modern laws. These laws include a revision to the Federal Power Act that now requires that recreational and aquatic uses get equal treatment with power and water supply. The new license must also meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act.
  • The FERC staff alternative falls short of what science tells us is necessary to protect and restore the Tuolumne. In 2010, the California Water Resources Control Board issued a report titled Development of Flow Criteria for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecosystem that determined that approximately 60% of unimpaired flow between February and June would be fully protective of fish and wildlife in the lower San Joaquin River and its three major tributaries, including the Tuolumne. On December 12, 2018, the State Water Board adopted new instream flow standards of 30-50% of unimpaired flow between February and June, starting at 40%. The Irrigation Districts, San Francisco and FERC propose just over 20%.
  • Low flows in the populated areas along the lower Tuolumne River have a negative impact on recreation. Many residents are low-income and don’t have the luxury of traveling long distances to enjoy rivers. Low flows make the river ugly and unpleasant to be near. Low flows create poor conditions for swimming, fishing, and boating. The growth of invasive water hyacinth during low flows makes these problems worse.
  • Low river flows make it hard for fish to swim upstream and downstream. Low flows concentrate pollution, raise water temperature, decrease dissolved oxygen, and make it hard for salmon coming from the ocean to find the river.
  • Spring flows should be high enough to get water onto floodplains. Small salmon grow faster and more safely in floodplains. Higher flows in the spring also are necessary for juvenile fish to survive their swim to the ocean.
  • Before New Don Pedro Dam was constructed, the Tuolumne hosted well over 100,000 spawning salmon. In recent years, the number has dropped to just a few thousand, or even as low as a few hundred.
  • Current management of the Tuolumne favors non-native species over native fish. Bass evolved in ecosystems featuring slow-moving, warm water, similar to current conditions in the Tuolumne. Salmon and steelhead depend on faster-moving, cold rivers. Until we address the extreme habitat shift humans have created, non-natives will continue to outcompete (and eat) native fish.
  • The commercial salmon fishery in California is on the brink. The salmon population was so low in 2008 and 2009 that the commercial fishing season had to be canceled, resulting in the loss of more than 2,200 jobs and $255 million in annual revenue.
  • The FERC staff alternative embraces non-flow measures like gravel placement similar in scope to measures that failed in the past. The settlement agreement negotiated by the State of California, water agencies and conservation groups in 1995 failed to improve conditions in the Tuolumne. In fact, conditions have gotten worse. What is needed is greater investment in non-flow measures combined with adequate flows.
  • The construction of New Don Pedro Dam and Reservoir left an excellent whitewater boating take-out for the upper Tuolumne River under water. The current take-out at Ward’s Ferry Bridge is crowded and dangerous. The federally-designated “Wild and Scenic” Tuolumne River deserves a safe and efficient take-out.
  • Higher flows and a strong local economy can be successful together. Through better management of snowmelt, water-efficient irrigation practices, and better crop selection, farmers can grow more food with less water. A pilot pressurized irrigation system implemented by the South San Joaquin Water District— just north of the Tuolumne – reduced water demand by 30% while increasing crop yields by 30%.
  • In the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) service area, water use decreased by 30% between 2006 and 2016 as a result of water conservation. New technologies and practices are becoming available every year that can increase water use efficiency and bring new water supplies online.

For more information, email Peter@Tuolumne.org.