Valley water users irked by feds' use of Millerton Lake for west-side farms

The Fresno BeeMay 15, 2014 

Farmers, water district officials and city leaders expressed frustration Thursday over the decision by federal managers to tap water from Friant Dam to meet a long-standing obligation with west-side landowners.

Mario Santoyo, who represents the Latino Water Coalition, said the federal Bureau of Reclamation acted prematurely by using water from Millerton Lake. He said water from other sources, including reservoirs at Shasta and San Luis, should have been used instead of Friant Dam.

Santoyo was joined at a morning news conference at Fresno City Hall by Mayor Ashley Swearengin and other political leaders and farmers.

Like Santoyo, Swearengin said she was disappointed in the bureau's decision, and noted that the city has agreed to move 710 acre-feet of its San Joaquin River water to the Orange Cove Irrigation District to help keep crops alive and people on the job.

Swearengin added that she was interested in working with federal water managers to find a solution to the water shortages affecting the Valley.

"We want a face to face meeting in the central San Joaquin Valley with high ranking bureau officials, the city and key stakeholders," she said. "We want transparency and a rational and reasonable conversation about solving this problem."

The state's ongoing drought triggered the Bureau of Reclamation to announce Tuesday that for the first time ever it would use water from Millerton Lake to supply west-side landowners -- including farmers -- that are served by the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority. The authority provides water to 240,000 acres of farmland east of Interstate 5 and west of the San Joaquin River, from Patterson to Mendota.

In the late 1930s, the federal Central Valley Project contractors agreed to exchange their senior water rights from the San Joaquin and Kings rivers for water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

But the agreement also says that if the federal government can't fulfill its contract for water from the delta, the contract will be supplemented with San Joaquin River water, bureau officials said.

The bureau said Tuesday that there isn't enough water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta alone to meet its obligations to the exchange contractors.

On Thursday, water flows from Friant Dam were increased to begin meeting the obligation for providing part of the 529,000 acre-feet of water for the exchange contractors.

Also on Thursday, the Fresno City Council approved transferring 710 acre-feet of its San Joaquin River water to the Orange Cove Irrigation District, which serves about 28,000 acres in Fresno and Tulare counties. The Orange Cove district may get no water this year from the Friant-Kern canal, a part of the Central Valley Project.

"This is a humanitarian effort," Council Member Lee Brand said.

The Bureau of Reclamation's decision has angered water users in the central San Joaquin Valley who have received no surface water because of the drought and environmental obligations. Thousands of acres have been fallowed.

But at least one farmer who stands to benefit from the announcement said he did not feel good about it.

"This is not the option that we wanted," said Cannon Michael, president of Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos. "This is a terrible position to be in."

Staff writer George Hostetter contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, brodriguez@fresnobee.com or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.

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