SACRAMENTO — A state proposal to send more water down the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to benefit fish would harm farms and ranches and could lead to lawsuits, farm groups argue.

The State Water Resources Control Board is taking comments through Dec. 16 on a plan to require up to 75 percent of what would be the rivers’ natural flows to reach the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

About 48 percent of the rivers’ outflow is now diverted for agriculture and cities, asserts a scientific report by California’s top water panel.

But the plan could lead to “significant lawsuits” because it would essentially rescind water rights, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual.

“It sets a terrible precedent,” Nelsen said. “It cancels out all pre-1914 water rights by fiat and it establishes new water rights, and I don’t think you can do that ... Once you start taking water rights, then you’ve got a dictatorship.

“I would argue that was never envisioned when that board was set up,” he said.

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement that dedicating more river flows to fish amounts to “a one-two punch” aimed at rural residents and businesses.

He noted the Sacramento River plan, announced Oct. 19, would dedicate more Delta outflow to fish during the winter and spring — when the water could be filling reservoirs for both human and environmental uses later in the year.

By limiting water that could be stored in reservoirs, the plan would reduce surface-water supplies for much of California, Wenger said.

“The state board’s river flow plans threaten to sentence rural California to perpetual drought, in the name of fishery flows that may very well prove ineffective,” he said.

Water board officials argue that greater quantities of Delta outflow are needed in the winter and spring to support species and habitat, noting that the number of juvenile salmon migrating out of the Delta in spring increases with increased flow.

Over the coming months, board members will study the potential impacts from letting as little as 35 percent to as much as 75 percent of the rivers’ unimpeded flows go to the Pacific Ocean.

The board is also considering setting limits on reverse flows in the Old and Middle rivers at the southern end of the Delta, which are caused by the state and federal project pumps and trap fish, officials contend. The plan also includes salinity objectives in the southern Delta.

But Wenger countered that previous decisions to flush more water through the Delta have not resulted in greater fish populations.

“If more water equaled more fish, we should be seeing results, but we’re not,” he said. “We will continue to insist that water supplies dedicated to fish be subject to the same metrics and efficiency standards as those that farmers and homeowners must meet.”

Scientists have spent years studying how to improve water quality in the Delta, which provides irrigation water for nearly 4 million acres of farmland to the south and water for millions of urban residents. The Delta has a host of environmental problems, including saltwater intrusion.

Protections for fish have already led to drastic reductions in pumping south of the Delta. Growers without senior water rights received no federal water in 2014 and 2015 because of the drought, and farms on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley received only 5 percent of their requested allocations this year.

The water board will hold a public workshop on the proposal on Dec. 7, and there will be several additional opportunities to comment as the proposal moves forward. For information on the plan and how to comment, visit www.waterboards.ca.gov.

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