Less canal water bodes ill for Lindsay

By C.J. Barbre

Four different water districts contacted Lindsay Mayor Ed Murray about participating in a rally of mayors on the steps of Fresno City Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 15.

The purpose was to protest a recent court ruling to increase water flow in the San Joaquin River for the restoration of salmon. Protesters see the glass as half empty, fearing a loss of farm-related jobs, or even having enough water for residents.

On Aug. 27, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation illegally dried up California's second longest river, the San Joaquin. The ruling means that the bureau will have to release water from Friant Dam near Fresno for the first time in 55 years. The battle began in 1988 when National Resource Defense Council led a coalition of 13 conservation and fishing groups in suing the bureau over its operation of the federally-owned dam and the renewal of water supply contracts for the Friant Water Users Authority, which represents irrigation districts on the east side of the Valley. The suit charged the bureau with violating Section 5937 of the California Fish and Game Code, which requires that "the owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water to pass over, around or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam."

Murray said at the beginning of the rally, speakers were all saying how glad they were to be there. "I said I don't like being here, fighting over water." He shared about how the city had a mock funeral after the freeze of 1990-1991 that put 67 percent of workers on unemployment while the crime rate quadrupled. "We wanted to bury some of our past ills. If this goes through, the funeral may become a reality," he told reporters and fellow protesters.

In a later phone interview Murray said that of the city's 10,000 residents, about 3,900 are in the job market and 75 percent of those are employed directly through agriculture. He said the remaining 25 percent realize a lot of their income in relation to ag.

Murray said the city uses approximately 3,500 acre-feet of water per year, 70 percent of which comes from the Friant-Kern Canal. "We do have wells that we could use. Unfortunately they're not very good wells. Some have salt problems, some nitrate problems. We're not blessed with good water."

The conservation and fishing plaintiffs say it can be done without harming Valley farmers. "With improved water management, we can restore the river while protecting our agricultural economy," NRDC senior attorney Michael Wall was quoted as saying in an NRDC report. At the rally he said it wasn't a "fish versus people issue."

Farm officials have speculated that any significant loss of water could take a deep cut in the $4.5 billion east side economy.

"I think the problem is that nobody knows what the judge's ruling is going to be," Murray said. "He hasn't set the amount of water that needs to be released. He's saying that the bureau needs to replace the water, but hasn't said how much." Murray said some options include increasing the storage capacity by raising the level of the dam, or by creating more storage areas such as one suggested for Temperance Flat.

Wall said the judge's decision would bring a dead river back to life. "It's a tremendous victory for all Californians who deserve a healthy, living river." But it may still be a long time coming. An appeal of the ruling is expected from Friant Water Users Authority, which will be representing water agencies and farmers from Bakersfiled to Chowchilla.

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