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.

Federal agency studies enlarging San Luis Reservoir

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is preparing a report on raising San Luis Dam to enlarge San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County.

The 2 million acre-foot reservoir is already the key west Valley holding place for irrigation water for a broad swath of farming, including 600,000-acre Westlands Water District.

Bureau Commissioner Michael Connor on Saturday mentioned his agency is working on a draft appraisal, which roughly describes the benefits, costs and feasibility of raising the dam. Connor was a panel member at the Delta Water Summit.

He did not say why the appraisal is being done now or release other details, such as how much larger the reservoir would become. His statement about the possible enlargement of San Luis was a surprise to many water agency officials and observers.

The appraisal report should be ready in October. If it appears feasible, the bureau would complete a final feasibility study within a few years.

San Luis is one of the largest off-stream reservoirs in the country, but it is only holding 16% of its capacity right now. Drought and environmental water pumping restrictions in Northern California have left it near historic lows.

Extra water for Westlands actually more than twice cost reported

Westlands Water District farmers will buy some precious river water from Oakdale Irrigation District in Stanislaus County at $128 per acre-foot, a recent news story reported.

But that’s not what Westlands farmers will pay, says a local water engineer. That’s how much Oakdale Irrigation will get.

The bill for Westlands farmers will be more like $350 to $375 per acre-foot. There are a number of additional costs to get the water to Westlands through the vast canal system in California.

But that’s a cost of doing business this dry year. Farmers are in the grip of a second consecutive dry year and suffering water cutbacks for threatened fish species . Westlands will get only 20% of its contractual allotment from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

What would farmers pay for the contractual water? It’s $48.50 per acre-foot. But with additional delivery costs and fees, farmers pay closer to $129.

Clearly, they are forced to pay much bigger prices in a year like this.

In the Oakdale Irrigation District deal, Westlands will buy 40,000 acre-feet of Stanislaus River water if it’s available. At $350 per acre-foot, farmers would spend $14 million.

That won’t come close to covering the shortfall in Westlands, where the contractual allotment is more than 1.1 million acre-feet annually.

For those who were curious, one acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough for an average Valley family for 12 to 18 months.