Friday's ruling finding that Friant Dam operations violate Section 5937 of the state Fish and Game Code, which requires water to be released from a dam for fish, has clouded the eastern San Joaquin Valley's future with disappointment and uncertainty according to a press release from the Friant Water Users Authority on Aug. 27.

Although U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton did not indicate how much water might eventually be ordered to be released to the river from Friant Dam, the potential spells possible economic and social catastrophe for counties, communities and residents in parts of five counties. In a related matter before the State Water Resources Control Board, one of the plaintiffs has requested 500,000 acre-feet or 30 percent of the river's runoff, be released.

"We don't know how much water might be involved," said Kole M. Upton, Friant Water Users Authority Chairman. "We've only been told current operations result in a violation. But a significant loss of water we have historically used will likely cause downsizing of existing communities and farms in the Friant service area." Estimates are that for every two or three acre-feet of water taken for environmental purposes, up to one acre of land may eventually have to be taken out of production.

Karlton's ruling sets the stage for a "remedy phase." How that might unfold is not known. "We don't know who will have jurisdiction - the judge, the State Water Resources Control Board or the state courts," Upton said. It is also possible that the plaintiffs, the Natural Resources Defense Council, other environmental groups, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen, might seek an injunction to order water releases.

Any such water releases down the San Joaquin River for environmental purposes would of necessity come from the existing supply of water in Millerton Lake that is used to irrigate nearly one million of some of the world's most productive e and fertile farmland in parts of Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties. That water is delivered through the Madera and Friant-Kern canals and supports gross agricultural production in excess of $4 billion a year.

Ronald D. Jacobsma, FWUA Consulting General Manager, said Friant's attorneys feel that, "The evidence submitted by the defendants was largely ignored." It is undisputed that about 100,000 acre-feet of water is released to the San Joaquin River every year and this water maintains a variety of fish species in good condition below the dam. It is also undisputed that portions of the river were dry at times due to previously-developed diversion facilities.

He said Friant's legal team believes Karlton misread Section 5937, which pertains to maintenance of water flows downstream from a dam, as a legislative reservation of water that Friant believes conflicts with key provisions in another landmark case known as Cal Trout.

"We are extremely disappointed and frustrated," Jacobsma said. "We are reviewing the ruling in order to ascertain our legal options. Our understanding is that the court's ruling is limited to liability."

He said that Friant does not believe that the court applied the correct standard to the case in that, "From our perspective there were disputed facts in the case, making a ruling on summary judgement inappropriate."

NRDC said the other plaintiffs have sought to compel the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to release water down the San Joaquin River to restores an anadromous fishery, generally Chinook salmon.

during an Aug. 10 hearing in Sacramento, Karlton did not indicate how he might rule on the flow issues, but Karlton and an NRDC attorney made numerous references to a possible "remedy phase." Many of Karlton's statements and comments during the hearing seemed clearly to be sympathetic to NRDC positions.

The case, now known as NRDC vs. Rodgers, was initiated by the NRDC coalition when the original 40-year Friant water service contracts were staring to expire and become due for renegotiation in 1988. In 1997-98, various case elements were decided first by Judge Karlton and then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Those included invalidation, on technical grounds of 14 long-term Friant-CVP renewal contracts that by then had been enacted. After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, certain issues relating to the San Joaquin River flows below Friant Dam and related state laws were sent back to Judge Karlton. a settlement effort then led to four years of talks and river enhancement studies involving the FWUA and NRDC, as well as other federal and state agencies. But in April 2003, NRDC announced unilaterally the settlement process had failed and reactivated its case.

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