Irrigators Sue to Block Water For Salmon, Wildlife Refuges

Tule elk spar at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, which a Fresno water agency wants not to get any water this year. | Photo: Howard Ignatiius/Flickr/Creative Commons License

An agency that represents 22 irrigation districts and other water providers in the San Joaquin Valley is asking a judge to block the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from releasing water to benefit other water users, including Central Valley wildlife refuges. The Friant Water Authority (FWA) filed suit in U.S. District Court in Fresno on Monday to seek an immediate halt to USBR's release of water from Friant Dam and Millerton Lake to a fellow water agency, the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors, and to nearby National Wildlife Refuges, claiming that the releases are a violation of state and federal water laws.

Friant Dam was built on the San Joaquin River in the 1930s and '40s as part of the publicly funded Central Valley Project to provide irrigation water to Central Valley agriculture. USBR began delivering some of that San Joaquin River water to the Exchange Contractors on May 15 to make up for water being reserved to keep Sacramento River chinook salmon.

But FWA is saying the USBR's actions are illegal, and that the water vital to the salmon should be delivered to the Exchange Contractors instead so that farmers in FWA's service area can keep their orange trees alive.

Like the FWA, the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors is a consortium of several water agencies. While FWA serves agencies in the Fresno area, the Exchange Contractors provide water to farms and communities between Crow's Landing and Mendota.

The Exchange Contractors usually get their water from Shasta Lake and the San Luis Reservoir, but the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration's fisheries wing (NOAA Fisheries) said in a recent Biological Opinion that Shasta Lake water needed to be used to keep Sacramento River salmon runs alive.

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FWA claims that by the local water rights standard of "first in time, first in right," its farmers are entitled to water from Friant Dam before any "junior users" should be able to draw water from the dam.

Among those "junior users," according to FWA: the wildlife that rely on National Wildlife Refuges south of the Delta, which would receive 178,000 acre-feet under USBR's emergency allocation between now and October. The San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors would be getting 529,000 acre-feet in that same period.

Though the FWA casts the Exchange Contractors as a "junior user" of San Joaquin River water, that suggestion doesn't seem to be sitting well with the Exchange Contractors. FWA's rights to the water essentially date back to 1941, when the first water deliveries from Millerton Lake flowed into the Friant-Kern Canal. Meanwhile, in a post on the Exchange Contractors' website, the agency claims rights to the San Joaquin's water dating back to the 19th Century, via the old Miller and Lux ranching empire, from whom the Exchange Contractors inherited their overall water rights. When Friant Dam was in the planning stages, it was clear that diverting water from the San Joaquin to east side farms meant less water for Miller and Lux. USBR crafted an agreement that said Miller and Lux would get water from Shasta Lake via the Delta to replace the water it had been using from the San Joaquin.

According to the Exchange Contractors, that agreement included a safety clause that said if those deliveries were ever interrupted -- as they have been to preserve late-season instream flows for chinook -- that Miller and Lux and its heirs would be able to replace that water with the San Joaquin River water they'd agreed to trade away.

So FWA's claim of senior rights may take some time to untangle in court.

As for the wildlife, FWA insists that NOAA Fisheries' BiOp -- which it calls "stubborn" and "inapplicable" -- should be disregarded, The agency wants USBR to give the 200,000 acre-feet NOAA Fisheries wants held in Shasta Lake for salmon to go to the Exchange Contractors instead, which would then in FWA's view free up more San Joaquin water for its customers. As a result of the drought, USBR is allocation no water to FWA from the Friant Dam or anywhere else on the Central Valley Project this year.

FWA also dismisses the south-of-Delta wildlife refuges' ecological value, sniffing that they "primarily benefit migratory waterfowl like ducks."

In a press release discussion of FWA's resorting to groundwater pumping and other means of getting alternative water, the agency's General Manage Ronald Jacobsma says the amount of water FWA needs to barely scrape by is, in an unlikely coincidence, the precise amount NOAA Fisheries is reserving for the salmon behind Shasta Dam.

"While helping some," said Jacobsma, "those programs fall far short of the critical
water needs we have targeted as being 200,000 acre-feet. That is the amount upon which Friant barely got by in 1977. This year is wetter but the regulatory environment has left Friant with no project water at all. It's incomprehensible."

Also potentially hard to comprehend: FWA's claim that the wildlife in Central Valley wildlife refuges has a "junior" claim to water in a landscape it's inhabited since long before anyone ever thought of building a dam across the San Joaquin River. That's an issue that hasn't been lost on environmentalists reacting to the lawsuit.

"Failure to provide water to the Central Valley wildlife refuges would be a violation of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and would devastate habitat that millions of migratory birds rely upon for survival," said Audubon California's Michael Lynes in a press statement. "Given that the refuges only get a tiny percentage of the total water supplied from the Central Valley Project, the Friant Authority action would see the refuges destroyed for -- at best -- minimal and temporary relief."

The suit will be heard by Hon. Lawrence J. O'Neill os the U.S. District Court in Fresno.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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