In dry season, San Joaquin River restoration a sore point among farmers

The Fresno BeeFebruary 20, 2012 

This is the year east Valley farmers have dreaded. It's one of the driest seasons in the past 100 years, and they must share precious water with the federal government to restore the San Joaquin River.

It's a tender subject among the 15,000 farmers who irrigate with the San Joaquin. For 18 years, they fought a losing legal battle against restoring the dried river and finally agreed to cooperate in 2006.

Every year of the legal fight and every year since the agreement, they have worried about this kind of dry year during the restoration. The snowpack is a third of what it should be, and their livelihood is at stake.

"Yes, it will be hard this summer," said Cathie Walker, who farms 600 acres of citrus in Tulare County with her brother, Kevin Riddle. "These trees can't go without water."

Neither can the river restoration project, which is scheduled to reintroduce salmon into the river in late December. The restoration began in fall 2009 with experimental flows of water released from Friant Dam. By 2010, the dried portions of the river had been refilled.

Restoration water releases probably will be reduced this year because of the dry winter, says the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, but they won't be eliminated.

Farmers are preparing by re-drilling old wells, arranging to buy water from neighbors and hoping to tap underground water banks. Water districts have saved as much water as they can in reservoirs.

Now everyone waits for storms in the next six weeks, hoping for nature to help them live with the agreement they made in 2006.

But farm officials still argue details of the deal with environmentalists. A clash surfaced earlier this month on a blog by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which represented environmentalists in the long-running lawsuit over the river.

Scientist Monty Schmitt of NRDC said that the restoration program has actually helped farmers by boosting their water supplies by 100,000 acre-feet since it began in 2009. That much water is equal to about a fifth of the storage at Millerton Lake.

Schmitt's calculations include more than 300,000 acre-feet of water made available last year because of a wet winter. Farm representatives challenged the idea, saying the extra water would have been available with or without the restoration program.

Farmers have actually lost more than 270,000 acre-feet of water to the restoration since 2009, according to the Friant Water Authority, which delivers water to farmers. There are no farm water gains coming from the restoration, says Dan Vink, general manager of the Lower Tule-Pixley Irrigation Districts in Tulare County.

"The river restoration program is not some magic bean that creates something out of nothing," he wrote as a comment on the blog.

Emotions run deep on both sides of the issue.

For six decades, the river's water has irrigated 1 million acres across the east Valley, which blossomed into a multibillion-dollar economy from Merced County to Kern County. Rural towns, such as Reedley, Dinuba and Lindsay, found a more stable economic footing.

But in the process 60 miles of the state's second-longest river dried up and salmon runs died. The shriveled channel on the Valley's west side incenses river advocates, fishing enthusiasts and conservationists who talked for decades about reviving the San Joaquin. They filed suit in late 1988.

Faced with losing the lawsuit, farmers agreed to the restoration, rather than risking a federal judge's decision on how the water should be divided between the river and agriculture.

The agreement calls for about 200,000 acre-feet of water releases per year, or about 15% to 20% of the farm water supply. One acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons.

In drier years, the releases are reduced. It's too early to predict how much water will be required for river restoration this year, say federal officials. It could be as low as 70,000 acre-feet or as high as 200,000, depending on how much snow falls in the next several weeks.

The project recaptures some water downstream at the Mendota Pool and returns it to east-side farmers through exchanges with other water districts. The amount of the return water will range from 20,000 to 80,000 acre-feet, federal officials said.

Officials have not announced how they'll start bringing back salmon in late December. Projects to help fish get around dams and through the river channel have not yet been built, prompting speculation that the reintroduction may be delayed. But water releases will continue.

Family farmers Walker and Riddle in Tulare County have re-drilled a well, hoping to pump up water that will get them through the summer. They grow navel and Valencia oranges, as well as mandarins and minneola tangelos. They are nervous as the warm season approaches.

"We're watching the weather very closely every day," Walker said. "And we're big believers in prayer."

The reporter can be reached at mgrossi@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6316.

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