Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

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.

Fresno’s parks ranked last again, readers reacted

Fresno’s park system finished last in the country among big cities — same as last year. I wrote the story and got several responses, some bashing Fresno.

Here’s an example: “Where do you want me to start and end?  Fresno has a lot of ground to catch up in many aspects!  We seem to be at least fifty years behind progressive cities with state of the art infrastructure!!!” –Tizona

And this one: “Developers own this town, and it doesn’t matter if Fresno is the armpit of California as long as there is cheap land available for more tacky suburbs. God, this place is backwards!” — dmikebe

But one caller wanted to point out a positive point that was not in the story. She said I didn’t mention Kearney Park, which means the city has three major regional parks, not two, as I reported.

I think she makes a good point. Many folks around here consider Kearney part of Fresno. I’ve enjoyed many events there.

But Kearney is a county park, which is why the analysis by the Trust for Public Land did not include it.

The analysis focused on such factors as percentage of acreage devoted to parks in the city. So Kearney really couldn’t be counted. Millerton Lake’s recreational area couldn’t be counted, either.

One other thing. I wrote several weeks ago about Tree Fresno’s campaign to lift Fresno into the top 10 in that ranking over the next decade.  Lee Ayres, executive director, emailed to confirm that commitment.

“We launched this effort on Arbor Day, 2013,” he said. “By Arbor Day 2014, we will have a plan.”

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.

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.”