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.

Delta smelt will be in Fresno court this week

A three-inch minnow again will be briefly in a spotlight this week in Fresno. A U.S. District judge is considering a three-year delay on rewriting the plan to protect the threatened delta smelt.

Here in federal court, the fish has been at the center of a years-long legal argument pitting the protection plan against water pumping for cities and farms.

Federal authorities are seeking the delay so they can focus on a broader effort that will protect the place where the smelt live.

I’ve been following the smelt issue since 1991 when federal wildlife authorities proposed it as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. I’ll give you a short explanation of why you should care about the smelt case.

The fish lives only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Northern California. The delta is where water pumping supplies millions of Californians with drinking water and 3 million acres of farmland with irrigation water.

When the smelt strays near the big pumps, it’s time to shut down pumping, which slows down the effort to fill San Luis Reservoir. The reservoir holds irrigation water for west San Joaquin Valley farming.

The pumps were shut down for a few weeks in December to protect the smelt. Farm water leaders here fear it will result in reduced irrigation deliveries this summer. That’s why you should care.

It’s just one corner of a story that has traveled through courts, fiery debates, scientific studies and grand political ideas to solve this clash. The process continues, and it’s a subject for another day.

The bigger point remains over the decades. California’s big rivers and fresh water are in the north. People are in the south. And a huge swath of lucrative farming is right in the middle.

It’s a statewide issue, and it affects the Valley’s biggest industry.

 

Owens Valley dust lawsuit lands in Fresno

Los Angeles is suing the air district in the Owens Valley, asking a federal court to say enough is enough. LA has spent $1.2 billion on settling the dust at the dried Owens Lake, the lawsuit says, and it’s time to back off.

This is part of the infamous LA water grab a century ago when the big city drained the Owens Valley and turned the lake into a dust bowl. LA has been paying for years to control billowing dust storms in the lake bed.

The suit was filed this month at the U.S. District Court in Fresno. Given the turmoil over Owens Valley in the past, it is very interesting reading. You can read it here: owenslake.

The lawsuit, which names the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, makes it sound like this has been a contentious affair for the last few years. Now it’s downright nasty.

LA says the district is keeping a $2 million pot of the city’s money — basically an unlawful extra fund that came from overpayments. The district also tried to fund a legal war chest by assessing $500,000 in supplemental fees to LA, the lawsuit alleges.