San Joaquin River settlement causes new water worries


Issue Date: September 27, 2006
Christine Souza

Legislators in the nation's capital are considering approval of a historic settlement to restore water flows for Chinook salmon in the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam near Fresno. On Sept. 21, negotiators reached a tentative agreement to assign the salmon as a "non-essential experimental population," which would reduce the environmental regulations for irrigators who accidentally kill the fish.

"Congressional approval of this agreement will mark a significant step toward ensuring the terms work for recovery of species while minimizing absurd consequences, particularly for third parties," said Brenda Washington Davis, California Farm Bureau Natural Resources and Environmental Division managing counsel.

The settlement, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, ends the longtime dispute over the operation of Friant Dam and resolves long-standing legal claims brought by a coalition of conservation and fishing groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Settlement negotiations were convened a year ago by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and House Water and Power Subcommittee Chairman George Radanovich, R-Mariposa.

The goal of the settlement is to provide for improvements and sufficient water flow to sustain a salmon fishery upstream from the confluence of the Merced River tributary, while providing water supply certainty to Friant water users. The NRCD, Friant Water Users Authority and the U.S. departments of Interior and Commerce announced the agreement on Sept. 13.

"The loss of an agricultural water supply is always concerning. However, this settlement appears to be the best possible scenario, given the alternative, which no doubt would have been a tough legal judgment, quite possibly resulting in more onerous impacts to San Joaquin Valley agriculture," said Ryan Jacobsen, Fresno County Farm Bureau executive director. "It is hoped the water management components of the settlement will offset some of the loss of water to river restoration."

To sustain naturally reproducing Chinook salmon and other fish populations in the 153-mile stretch of the river between Friant Dam and the Merced River, the settlement calls for continuous river flows. Accomplishing this goal will require funding and constructing extensive channel and structural improvements in many areas of the river, including some that have been without flows—except for occasional flood releases—for decades.

The settlement's restoration flows will reduce the amount of water available for diversion at Friant Dam by farmers on 1 million acres of the most productive farmland in the country, as well as by many towns and cities along the southern San Joaquin Valley's East Side. Friant officials estimate Friant Division long-term water contractors could expect to see an average reduction of about 170,000 acre-feet each year, or 15 percent of the 1.15 million acre-feet of average deliveries. As part of the settlement, tools will be developed to reduce or avoid water supply impacts by utilizing surplus water primarily used now to enhance groundwater programs. In addition, programs are being developed to return water to Friant water users through recapture, re-circulation, transfers and exchanges.

"The water would not be completely lost. Once we release it down the river, we can maybe install additional pumping capacity in the aqueduct and in dry years when we need to recapture the water it can be re-used again," said Tulare County Farm Bureau President Keith Watkins. "Can we pick up 60 percent to 70 percent of it in the Delta in years when there is extra capacity in the aqueduct? I just don't know."

Challenges to the settlement, Watkins said, could be in the area of environmental regulations.

"It is a great plan to try to restore that river, but there is not much to start with," Watkins said. "Ideally you go in with a bulldozer, clean it all out and make a channel that will hold water, but there are environmentalists who will say, ‏You can't move that tree. You have to leave that habitat.' The process of restoring the river is just going to be very challenging given the environmental regulations."

Watkins further explained that over the years, the San Joaquin River has developed unique habitat for a variety of species. He claims it is going to be difficult to restore fish habitat while maintaining the pre-existing habitat for other river species.

Historically, Central California's San Joaquin River supported large salmon populations, including the southernmost Chinook salmon. Since Friant Dam became fully operational in the 1940s, approximately 60 miles of the river have been dried up in most years, eliminating salmon above the river's confluence with the Merced River.

"There are pros and cons to the settlement," Watkins said. "One pro is it gives us some reliability. We now know what the water amounts are that have to go down the river and we can plan to make do with what we will have left. That provides security for people borrowing money and banks can feel secure there is going to be a water supply in the future. That knowledge is going to be a value to all of the growers."

Another important consideration is that of third-party water users such as the Westlands Water District, among others who, although they were not directly involved in the settlement negotiations, could be impacted by river restoration efforts and restrictions related to water diversions.

"We are concerned about Endangered Species Act implications that might occur if the salmon run is not deemed as experimental. If they re-introduce the species as ‏experimental,' it doesn't trigger all of those laws that hinder how we use the water," said Sarah Woolf, spokeswoman for Westlands Water District. "It is really just the unknown of what the ESA could inflict."

Interim flows are expected to begin in fall 2009, with full restoration to begin no later than January 2014. The estimated costs range from $250 million to $800 million, depending on the type and amount of physical improvements needed in the river channel. Funding sources are expected to come from a combination of federal appropriations, state bond initiatives and current Friant surcharge funds paid by Friant water contractors through the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

To implement the settlement, the secretaries of the Interior and Commerce must seek Congressional approval of legislation. The legislation must be approved by Dec. 31.

Watkins said he wants to remain optimistic about the settlement and what it might mean for the area's farmers.

"I want to see it work and work for everybody. We just have to be involved throughout the process. Water districts, Farm Bureau, everyone is going to have to continue to be involved and stay on top of it to make sure that our interests are looked after," Watkins said. "If an issue comes up that we just can't live with, we are going to have to get our legislators involved and see if we can tweak things."

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.