Flood plan released, local control critical - Farmland will be turned into nature preserves, says task force member

January 9, 2003

By Don A. Wright

For the Capital Press

Salem, Oregon

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Farmers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River flood plains are getting more time than state planners expected to review a complex flood control plan.

California's Reclamation Board released a draft of the Comp Study on Dec. 10, and gave a Dec. 20 deadline for public comment.

Denis Prosperi, a Madera farmer and member of a task force monitoring proposed regulations, said the technical nature and shear volume of the report made it impossible to review in 10 days. Assembly members Sarah Reyes, Barbara Matthews, Jeff Denham, Dave Cogdell and Steve Samuelian helped get the deadline extended to 90 days.

Developing it took years.

In 1997 California experienced record floods. In response, the Rec Board prepared a Comprehensive Study of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers' flood plain. The Rec Board is the state agency in charge of flood control. Five years and $35 million later, the "Comp Study" has been released.

The study has generated controversy among farmers and other stakeholders along the rivers. Officials from Merced, Madera and Fresno counties, with irrigation district representatives and ag producers, formed the San Joaquin River Task Force (SJRTF) to monitor proposed regulations for the river's use.

Prosperi, a SJRTF member, said hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland from Mt. Shasta to Millerton Lake will be turned into nature preserves if the study is adopted as written.

He summed up many people's concerns to the Reclamation Board at an Aug. 16, 2002, meeting in Sacramento. Referring to Ron Pistoresi, president of the Madera Irrigation District, Prosperi said, "There's a chance my good friend Ron may die in the next 30 years. This worries me so much that I get a gun and shoot him so I don't have to worry about him dying. That's what this comp study does to me. These comp study proposals will so restrict my farming options that I won’t be in business to suffer when the big flood comes."

Three areas of the study present particular problems to stakeholders: the methods used to arrive at its conclusions, the conclusions themselves and the broadening of the Rec Board's authority.

The Comp Study was first proposed as a plan. In 2000, Gov. Gray Davis signed Assembly Bill 1147, which created the California Floodplain Management Task Force. This 60-member group included only three members from the Central Valley representing agricultural interests. The CFMTF was charged with presenting recommendations to the Department of Water Resources, the parent agency of the Rec Board.

Unrepresented stakeholders objected and at their urging the Comp Study has devolved from a plan to a study and finally an interim report. Merced County Supervisor and SJRTF member Jerry O'Banion said his county's main industry, agriculture, could have suffered economically if the Comp Study was passed unchallenged.

"It's just another bureaucratic layer that would have been laid on valley industries without local input," said O'Banion.

POWER ISSUE

The final sticking point has been the governor's task force's recommendation for legislation to give the Rec Board environmental restoration and recreation improvement authority. Prosperi said that would create an inherent conflict of interest.

"The Rec Board's mission is flood control and public safety," he said. "How do you have flood control while simultaneously recommending an area be flooded for environmental restoration?"

COMPROMISE STRUCK

Stakeholders have compromised on the process used to develop the study. Rec Board director Pete Rabbon said the process used for earlier versions of the Comp Study wasn't working. Area stakeholders had complained that the process was hijacked by environmental extremists. Rabbon said a small group of special interests presented documents portrayed as having widespread support. "We found out this wasn't true," he said.

A new paragraph in the revised draft of the Comp Study states that all technical studies and appendices are separate and subject to ongoing review from local stakeholders.

Prosperi and O'Banion agreed this was an important step. "We hope they'll work with us," said Prosperi of the Rec Board. "We're certainly ready to work with them."

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