State’s decision to end water talks a slap in the face to Modesto-area residents


California state bureaucrats who dropped a bomb on our region by quitting water negotiations ought to be ashamed.

A few days ago, two of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s top appointed officials sent notice that they’re done talking about how much water in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers we might be willing to part with. Instead, they plan to just take what they want.

In other contexts, this would be called looting, pillaging, thieving or stealing. Here, it’s government at its worst.

At stake is the economy of Stanislaus and Merced counties, and south San Joaquin County, whose farms all depend on water stored in foothill dams. Modesto also uses treated river flows for a substantial portion of our tap water, enabling the aquifer under our city to remain among the healthiest in California.

Powerful forces in other thirsty parts of the state that aren’t as blessed have coveted our water for many decades. A scheme came together three years ago when the State Water Resources Control Board — despite pleas from hundreds of our people — voted to take a large portion of water from our dams in the name of helping fish.

These dams were built — without state assistance — by our forebears, who had the courage and foresight to capture snowmelt from mountains to our east and hold it until needed for crops later in the year. Pre-1914 water rights have been the strongest guarantee against a water grab by those whose forebears weren’t as smart — until that fateful vote three years ago.

A bit before, then-Gov. Jerry Brown had the wisdom to publicly support a negotiating process that came to be known as voluntary agreements. Our local water agencies voluntarily agreed — based on the best, most recent science — to contribute some of our river water at certain times of the year and in amounts sufficient to help fish migrating to and from the ocean.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom took over, we were encouraged that he, too, seemed to favor the voluntary agreement process. He and his people spoke in platitudes whenever we asked how negotiations were proceeding, and those bargaining from our water agencies became increasingly frustrated as state negotiators moved the goalposts again and again.

As time went by, negotiations seemed less about fish and more about wheeling our water to wealthy, politically connected interests to our south.


As late as July 19, Newsom told McClatchy opinion editors to expect a big announcement on voluntary agreements before the Sept. 14 election that might have cost him his job. He easily survived the recall — not thanks to Stanislaus County, 53% of whose voters favored removing him from office — but no news ever came on water talks.

Until Oct. 20, when a letter blindsiding our water agencies came from Newsom’s secretaries of the California Environmental Protection Agency and California Natural Resources Agency. They served notice that they will walk away from the negotiations, and will direct the state water board to go ahead and implement the infamous water grab approved in December 2018.

It’s insulting, it’s infuriating, and it will end up in court.

One can’t help but wonder whether the state, during these three years of bargaining, ever had in mind anything other than doing exactly what they wanted all along.

It’s unconscionable that state government priding itself on commitment to equity would take the lifeblood from an area consistently plagued by high unemployment and low income and give it to those whose ancestors did not plan as well as ours but who have plenty of money and political clout.

This fight isn’t over. It just moves to the courtroom.