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.

Fight for west-side water on display this week

West San Joaquin Valley water battles are leaping onto the big screen and into the sports world this week — both under the heading of “The fight for water.”

On Thursday, Olympic boxer Jose Ramirez, who is from the west-side community of Avenal, will talk about his first professional fight in the Valley, on Nov. 9 at West Hills College in Lemoore.

He is expected to say he wants it to make a statement about the hardship of west-side farm water shortages, calling it “The fight for water.” His news conference is scheduled at noon Thursday in the Sierra Athletic Club.

On Saturday, an award-winning documentary, “The fight for water: a farm worker struggle,” will screen at 6 p.m. at the Tower Theatre in Fresno.

The film, produced by Juan Carlos Oseguera, features a 2009 water march by growers and farm workers.  The Latino Water Coalition is a central player in the march.

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.

Sinking farmland is not a new subject here

Responding to my Sunday story, a few readers contacted me to say sinking farmland isn’t new.
You’re right. I didn’t have a chance to write much history.

My story Sunday was about the sinking land around the San Joaquin River and how it would affect the replacement of Sack Dam. It’s contributing to delays in the restoration of the river.

But I’ve been writing occasionally about land subsidence on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side for the last 20 years, and I find it fascinating.

Here’s the first sentence of a story I wrote on Earth Day 2007:

“The land dipped 30 feet between 1925 and 1977 near Mendota — and it’s still going down in what the U.S. Geological Survey calls the largest human alteration of the Earth’s surface. Ever.”

Layers of soil beneath the land surface deflate as groundwater pumping continues. It’s responsible for millions of dollars in damage to irrigation canals. And it could threaten such landmarks as the California Aqueduct and Interstate 5.

You might have seen the famous photograph of a utility pole near Mendota. The 1977 photo features USGS scientist Joseph Poland, who discovered the sinking ground.

High above Poland’s head there are two small signs with the years 1955 and 1925, marking the level of the ground in those years. As you can see, it’s dramatic.

West-side school district goes solar, gets music program back

The Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District has made a daring leap to solar power at three of its five school sites — a $5 million venture aimed at getting off the grid, saving money and helping the environment.

But there’s one more benefit: It made enough money available to bring back a music program that had died three years ago with the crashing economy. The district hired a music teacher and re-started its program this fall.

“Every student needs something to connect with in school,” said superintendent Russell Freitas. “This is a great opportunity to get students the chance to connect with music.”

This is quite a story about solar power being used in an impoverished, rural school district on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side. If it works, this might be the start of something big in the Valley.

How did Firebaugh-Las Deltas, a 2,300-student district, swing a deal like this?

The district got help from a consulting firm to figure out if its payments on the loan would be less than the cost of its utility bills.

The numbers reportedly show a $9 million savings over the next 25 years, said Freitas, who worked with SolarCity, a national company with a Fresno office. The system will be paid off in 15 years, he said.

During the first five years, the savings will be about $900,000, said Freitas.

The system has been installed at Firebaugh High School, Firebaugh Middle School and Hazel Bailey Elementary School. The schools are still connected to the electricity grid as backup, Freitas said.