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San Joaquin Valley agencies sue feds for $350 million over no water deliveries

Dwarfed by the thunderous roar of releases of Millerton Lake water – from a pair of huge Friant Dam valves – totaling 1,000 cubic feet per second, Michael Wolfe, left, Friant Dam supervisor of hydrologic technicians, and Darrin Williams, Friant Dam maintenence supervisor, observe the historic release, Tuesday afternoon.
Dwarfed by the thunderous roar of releases of Millerton Lake water – from a pair of huge Friant Dam valves – totaling 1,000 cubic feet per second, Michael Wolfe, left, Friant Dam supervisor of hydrologic technicians, and Darrin Williams, Friant Dam maintenence supervisor, observe the historic release, Tuesday afternoon. jwalker@fresnobee.com

Seventeen water districts in the San Joaquin Valley and the city of Fresno have filed a blockbuster claim for $350 million against the federal government for not delivering water to Friant Division contractors in the drought year of 2014.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C.

“The claim seeks to recover the fair-market value of Friant Division water not delivered to the contractors even though there were sufficient supplies in Millerton Lake that year,” said attorney Craig Parton, a lawyer in Santa Barbara who specializes in water-rights law and is representing the contractors.

Although the following year was also a zero-allocation year for the contractors as determined by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the lawsuit focuses on 2014. Farmers lost crops due to lack of water and had to remove orchards, deplete groundwater supplies and take emergency measures, the lawsuit states.

Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Janet Sierzputowski in Sacramento said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

In both 2014 and 2015, the bureau honored claims for water from the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority, which invoked senior rights in the drought.

One aim of the lawsuit appears to be to get the Bureau of Reclamation to promise to deliver water to contractors and to give up on the dreaded zero allocation.

“We view this litigation as part of a process to ensure that in future years the federal government appropriately meets its legal and contractual obligation to all of its contractors – within the Friant Division and others alike,” Parton said in a statement.

Water contractors have held negotiations with the Bureau of Reclamation to no avail, prompting the lawsuit, Parton said.

The government has 60 days to respond, he said.

Besides Fresno, the water and irrigation districts listed on the lawsuit are Arvin-Edison, Chowchilla, Delano-Earlimart, Exeter, Ivanhoe, Lindmore, Lindsay-Strathmore, Lower Tule River, Orange Cove, Porterville, Saucelito, Shafter-Wasco, Stone Corral, Tea Pot Dome, Terra Bella, Tulare and the Southern San Joaquin Municipal Utility District.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

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