East Valley farmers sue to stop Millerton Lake water release

The Fresno BeeMay 21, 2014 

East San Joaquin Valley farmers, facing a zero water allocation this summer, are asking a judge to stop unprecedented water releases that started last week at Millerton Lake.

The Friant Water Authority, representing 15,000 east-side growers, says federal leaders are not following a long-established water-rights pecking order in releasing Millerton water, which would help save thousands of acres of east-side orchards.

The water is instead headed to a group of west Valley farmers who hold rights dating back to the 1800s.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday says a Northern California water supply is available to help the west-side growers, but it is going to junior water-rights holders -- wildlife refuges and the State Water Project.

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

The Northern California water should be sent to the west Valley farmers instead of the Millerton water, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. No court date has been set, but it is expected to be soon. Federal leaders declined to comment on the lawsuit, which is filed in U.S. District Court in Fresno.

Under contracts signed decades ago, the Bureau of Reclamation is required to release Millerton water when Northern California water is not available for the west Valley landowners. Up to 200,000 acre-feet of Millerton water could be released by late August.

But the east-sider's lawsuit says Northern California river water now being sent to the state project and refuges should be going to the west-side growers who are part of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority, encompassing 240,000 acres.

"About 178,000 acre-feet of water from San Luis Reservoir is being sent to refuges," said Friant lawyer Jennifer Buckman. "It's important to observe the senior status of the exchange contractors."

If the Millerton water went to the east Valley, it would ease losses feared to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars this year.

Audubon California officials disagreed with Friant, saying the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992 grants refuges a minimum amount of water. They called Friant's lawsuit a wrong-headed approach to solving the drought crisis this year.

"Given that the refuges only get a tiny percentage of the total water supplied from the Central Valley Project, the Friant Authority action would see the refuges destroyed for -- at best -- minimal and temporary relief," said Michael Lynes, director of public policy for Audubon California.

State Water Contractors, a nonprofit association representing customers of the State Water Project, was not prepared to immediately comment.

West-side grower Cannon Michael, who has senior water rights because his land is in the exchange contractors area, said the lawsuit is a consequence of drought by environmental regulation and questionable water project operations.

"There are serious larger picture issues that need to be dealt with," he said. "And it is unfortunate that we have to spend time and resources fighting."

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

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