Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

In 1980s, San Joaquin River fight hadn’t yet turned to fish

A few days before Christmas 1988, more than a dozen environmental and fishing groups sued federal leaders over the San Joaquin River, Friant Dam and the renewal of 40-year water contracts, mostly for farmers.

Nearly 25 years later, stories  say the lawsuit was all about the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation violating California law when it dried up the river and ended two salmon runs.

That is true, and it’s appropriate to mention now as the river restoration hits obstacles, not the least of which is funding problems, downstream cropland damage and construction delays.

But in the late 1980s, the drama was not about restoring salmon runs. It was about contract renewals and environmental impact studies.

At the time federal leaders argued a legal position dating back decades. They said they didn’t need to study the environmental impacts to renew 40-year water contracts. Federal leaders tried to push the renewals forward, despite the lawsuit.

The legal and political battle over the issue continued for years.

Finally in October 1993, a U.S. District Court in Sacramento rejected the idea of simply dismissing the lawsuit and opened the door to considering the state law protecting fisheries downstream of dams. I wrote that story 20 years ago.

One other piece of San Joaquin River-Friant Dam trivia: Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown — Jerry’s father — in 1959 killed an environmental lawsuit over the damming of the river and salmon. The lawsuit was set to be filed by Brown’s own state Department of Fish and Game.

In 1989, the elder Brown said he was determined to have his administration, not the courts, decide the issue. That story was written by former Fresno Bee reporter Lloyd G. Carter, who was working for United Press International at the time.

San Joaquin River water releases will increase

This week, San Joaquin River water started pouring out of Friant Dam a little faster than it has been. It’s part of the experimental flows in the river restoration project.

For those who don’t follow the river closely, I’ll explain a little. Water releases from Friant have been going on for decades to supply land owners immediately downstream of the dam. It’s usually just a trickle.

This week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is ramping up to 1,050 cubic feet per second — about 2,000 acre-feet of water per day. Later this week, the release will be dropped to 700 cfs through Nov. 6. Then it will dip to 350 until the end of February.

The restoration project, which began four years ago, is supposed to reconnect the dried parts of the river with the Pacific Ocean. One goals in the project is to bring back runs of salmon that died off decades ago.

The releases over the next several days mimic nature by attracting migrating chinook salmon to move upstream for spawning, a bureau spokeswoman said. Biologists and other wildlife officials are studying the river’s reaction to the reintroduction of fish and flows.

Biologists have tagged and planted salmon in the river to follow their progress.

A big concern is seepage downstream beyond the Mendota Pool on the Valley’s west side. The flows have gotten into farm fields and caused damage, growers say.

Federal officials have installed underground water monitoring systems to detect when groundwater is rising in reaction to the extra flows.

Also local land owners have been alerted to call or email federal officials if they see seepage. Bureau leaders say they are prepared to reduce the flow if problems appear.

Heat drama unfolding as big story in California

California heat and drought are becoming the story of summer 2013 as reservoirs drop and wildfires burn.

Fresno is nearing two consecutive weeks of 100-plus temperatures. The record is 21 consecutive days, set in 2005. Bakersfield has a similar streak, along with a 110-degree day on July 2.

Wildfires have blackened nearly three times more acreage than last year. The foothills in Fresno County around Shaver Lake are considered in extreme fire danger in the foothills this year.

Probably the most unique story so far:  a giant sequoia that caught fire in June 2012 and continued right through the winter. It’s amazing because Sierra winters can be brutally cold and wet at 7,000 feet where this tree lives.

The San Joaquin Valley’s notorious dirty air has been worse on other years, but it has exceeded the federal ozone standard 10 of the last 11 days.

Yosemite Falls, which usually begins dwindling in early July, is almost dry.  If you look around other Sierra web cams, you’ll see a very dry watershed.

But, here’s the kicker for the San Joaquin Valley, take a look at two key reservoirs: Pine Flat and San Luis.

Pine Flat Reservoir in Fresno County is down to 30% of capacity. San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County is at 20%. With most of July and all of August still ahead, farmers and small towns may get the worst of this summer.

Bay Delta Conservation Plan more than tunnels, state leader says

I listened to the state’s top water leader talk for an hour Thursday about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Then I tried to check some of his data online.

The download of so many documents crashed my computer. Let’s just go straight to the talk at The Fresno Bee editorial board meeting, which did not break any news.

Mark Cowin, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, said the controversial plan is more than tunnels and arguments. Nonetheless, he had to spend time explaining the two huge water tunnels being proposed at the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The tunnel idea is to move Sacramento River water south in tunnels so the water doesn’t pass through the delta. The idea is the epic issue for California natural resources these days, easily on a par with the Peripheral Canal fight I covered 30 years ago.

Some Northern Californians have told me it’s simply a water grab for Central Valley farmers and Southern California. The delta’s ecosystem and Northern California will suffer, they say.

Some farmers and Southern Californians argue it would give the state a more certain water supply. Plus, the delta would get the chance to heal, they say.

Cowin said he supports the $25 billion tunnels, but the plan is equally about restoring the faltering delta.

He and Karla Nemeth, outreach and communications manager, said saving the delta’s dying fish species and declining habitat is a linchpin of the plan. They mentioned such projects as rebuilding flood plains and fattening up migrating salmon.

We asked tunnel questions, such as: How much difference would the tunnels have made for west Valley farmers who lost water this year in environmental cutbacks for the threatened delta smelt?

Cowin and Nemeth said the tunnels probably would have resulted in about 700,000 acre-feet of additional water.

The draft of this plan should be available in the next few months, they said. I’m not sure that will give you enough time to read the 27,000 pages of documents related to it.

Local farmers unhappy about Chevron’s 16th Senate contributions

Some in the Valley’s agriculture community are unhappy that Chevron Corp. has made a second sizable campaign contribution to an independent group that supported Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez over Republican Andy Vidak last month in the 16th District state Senate special election.

Chowchilla-area farmer Kole Upton is so unhappy about the contributions that he and others are discussing ways to boycott Chevron. One way is to get their local fuel suppliers to stop buying from Chevron.

Kole Upton

“There’s definitely a backlash,” Upton said. “They want a fight, I guess they’re going to have one.”

On April 16, Chevron contributed $100,000 to Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, which was the largest of many donations to the independent organization. The organization then spent $230,000 in support of Perez ahead of the May 23 special election, according to campaign finance reports.

None of the five candidates won an outright majority in the primary election, so the top two finishers — Vidak and Perez — will now face off in a July 23 runoff.

On June 3, Chevron gave another $150,000 to Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy. Many in the local agriculture industry think that money will help Perez in the coming July 23 runoff election.

That’s not the case, Chevron says.

In an email, spokesman Morgan Crinklaw said the company “regularly supports candidates, organizations or ballot measures committed to economic development, free enterprise and good government.”

But Crinklaw said both contributions to Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy that benefitted Perez were for use in the May primary election.

“We have made no donations for the July runoff election nor do we intend to do so,” Crinklaw said.

Valley farmers and ranchers are still unhappy.

They say Perez is not agriculture friendly, while Vidak is not only ag friendly, he’s also a farmer. They also point out that Perez supports the state’s proposed high-speed rail project, which is widely disliked among many in the local agriculture community.

Some tie the two donations back to Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio, who resigned from the Senate seat in February to work for Chevron. Rubio once employed Perez. Rubio declined comment.

John Harris

Some, however, question whether a boycott will even faze the energy giant.

“What any of us in this district buys from them or doesn’t buy from them won’t really make that much difference to them,” said west-side rancher John Harris, who is CEO and chairman of Harris Farms.

Instead, Harris said the best strategy would be to “find someone we can talk to at Chevron to express our genuine concerns for a company like this getting engaged in a local race with a contribution that distorted the outcome.”

Vidak fell a few hundred votes of an outright win in last month’s primary. All he needed was 50%-plus-one to avoid a runoff. He got 49.8%.

Upton, however, thinks diplomacy won’t work.

“We have no clout, none whatsoever,” he said. “You ask to talk to the corporation and they blow you off. You’re insignificant. Maybe we are, but we don’t have to do business with (Chevron).”

Snow surveys in Kings River area confirm small snowpack

The Kings River Water Association on Thursday said the snowpack is half or less than what it would normally be in higher elevations above Pine Flat Reservoir.

Two lower elevation courses had little or no snow, the association reported. Association leaders say this could turn out to be one of the driest years on record at the Kings River.

Kings River Watermaster Steve Haugen said the result was not a surprise. There has been little storm activity since December. Now farmers involved with the 1 million-acre association face a second dry year in a row.

“Our member units and their water users are going to have below-average water supplies again this year,” he said.

More groundwater pumping is expected this summer, Haugen said.

If the dry spell continues, the river runoff is expected to be as low as 32% of average, or about 400,000 acre-feet of water.

Federal water cutback called ‘crippling blow’

The federal government reduced irrigation water projections for west San Joaquin Valley farmers last week — only the third time I remember it ever happening.

The 5% cutback — from a 25% water allocation to 20% — has been called a crippling blow to agriculture

The cutback has resulted from a below-average winter, the second in a row. Plus, the state and federal water projects were forced to curb water pumping at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect dwindling delta smelt.

Some 800,000 acre-feet of water were lost in the process.

You can imagine the strong feelings when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation dropped its forecast last week.

“The water supply reductions facing farmers will devastate the local communities,” said Thomas Birmingham, general manager of 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, the largest customer on the Central Valley Project.

After I passed along his sentiment on Twitter, a water analyst, known as @flowinguphill, tweeted: “Westlands no longer mentions Mendota — the center of the 110,000 plus acres of retired land in the district.”

The implication is that communities are harmed by farming on some marginal land that must eventually be taken out of service because of salt contamination. There is a long-running argument about the wisdom of farming the west side.

Setting aside the back-and-forth, it is likely to be a very tough summer for agriculture, rural communities and the Valley as a whole. A water crisis here usually results in thousands of acres being idled, people losing jobs, the economy suffering.

The Sierra snowpack, a frozen reservoir providing more than 60% of the state’s water, is at 55% of average. You can understand the caution from the federal government.

But the large Northern California reservoirs are still slightly above average.  It galls farmers to see the 5% cutback when those reservoirs appear full enough to tap for shortfalls in the Central Valley.

Farmers I know on the west side have been looking to buy from other water suppliers and get their groundwater wells ready for a summer of pumping.

On the Valley’s east side, the Friant section of the Central Valley Project has not yet been cut back from its 65% of the highest-priority water from Millerton Lake. But that could change, too.

Media outnumbered salmon in this restoration tale

It was compelling to see adult salmon being put into the San Joaquin River on Wednesday to spawn near Fresno for the first time in six decades.

But I hardly noticed one detail until someone mentioned it: The media outnumbered the fish — probably three to one. I saw at the Associated Press, at least one television crew from San Francisco, local television stations and a host of other  photographers. I actually saw only three fish.

Was this event overplayed by environmentalists, river advocates and the media? I think not, but you can understand why some people might have seen it that way.

First the background. The river went dry around 1950 after Friant Dam was built to help the suffering east San Joaquin Valley farmers. It succeeded in saving farmers, but salmon runs died, nature suffered and the river shriveled.

After a long-running lawsuit was settled in 2006, federal and state wildlife agencies began one of the most unusual river and salmon restoration projects in the country. Nobody has brought back salmon to a 350-mile river that had been dry for 60 miles in the middle.

Since 2009, the restoration has been in an experimental phase. Scientists need to learn how the river and fish will react to a renewed flow of water. This event on Wednesday was publicity for one of those experiments.

The state wildlife crew trapped five fish in western Merced County, north of Los Banos, and hauled them all the way to Fresno at Camp Pashayan. One died along the way. Only two of the fish were placed in the river in front of the cameras.

The remaining fish were hauled farther upstream to be released.

So was that the beginning of salmon spawning near Fresno for the first time in more than a half century? Hardly. The state had been trapping and hauling adult salmon since mid-October. This was not a first.

It was, no doubt, an orchestrated media event. And the out-of-town media incorrectly shaded this story like these few fish signaled the start of the full restoration. This was an experiment, not the full restoration.

But it was a nice snapshot in a long-running story about an unusual event in California. This is the farthest south that salmon spawn in North America — an interesting note that I did not see in any stories about this, including my own.

Watching, waiting, hoping for pregnant storms

It’s nearly Thanksgiving. The weather has been delightful. And the California water world is watching, waiting and hoping for pregnant storms from the Pacific.

Rain and snow are expected this weekend, so farmers and water managers may breathe a little easier for the holiday.

They know it’s early in the season. But their anxiety level will climb in the next six weeks if they don’t see stormy weather.

Here’s what’s rolling through their minds:

— The snowpack is puny, even this early in the season.

— The snow and rain season last year was far below average in many places, especially in the southern Sierra. They don’t want to see back-to-back dry years.

— Reservoirs, which were at or above average earlier this year, are still looking pretty good, but they’re starting to slip.

— El Nino — warm water in the Pacific that sometimes is a sign of wet  times ahead in California — has fizzled. So the odds of  a wet season have become a coin flip again.

Long-time water experts say they’re not really sweating it yet. Water engineer Lance Johnson of Shaver Lake has spent decades watching the weather, working on east- and west-Valley farm water supply and analyzing trends.

His comment: “Precipitation in the San Joaquin River watershed is currently just 34% of normal and just barely greater than 1977, the direst year on record. But it is too early in the water year to get overly concerned as a few good storms can turn that around.”