'People can't live where there is no water'

By Reggie Ellis

As a member of the Friant Water Users Authority - that distributes water via the Friant-Kern Canal to eastern San Joaquin Valley farms, cities and businesses - the Lindsay-Strathmore Irrigation District may be one of the most affected by a federal judge's recent ruling.

Water flows through the canal like an artery delivering the lifeblood of the Valley. Standing on the foothills on a clear day, green rectangles of farmland straddle the waterway as far as the eye can see. However, Manager Scott Edwards said if the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) gets their way, 500,000 acre feet a year, a third of what Lindsay-Strathmore has delivered in its history and a third of what is delivered through the canal each year, would be diverted annually, regardless if it's a wet or dry year.

"Production of acreage would fall so far that you would see a reduction in acreage and people would be losing too much money," Edwards said. "Eventually, people would have to move if they wanted to continue farming."

The district's boundaries stretch from the eastern edge of Lindsay down to the southwestern edge of Strathmore. Since the canal began delivering water in 1952, Edwards said it has delivered 1.5 million acre feet of water that would have been pumped out of the already shallow groundwater for irrigation.

"Families moved here, product yields per acre went up and an economy was formed, which is what [the government] wanted to do," Edwards said.

Lindsay-Strathmore ID provides irrigation water to more than 12,700 acres of farmland, 92 percent of which is permanent plantings. Up against the foothills where there is little to no aquifer, Edwards said canal water is the only source for many farmers and communities in the Lindsay-Strathmore area.

"Most don't even operate their own wells," Edwards said. "They would have to dig too deep."

Since the canal began delivering water, the Lindsay-Strathmore Irrigation District has seen groundwater levels rise an average of one to two feet per year. If everyone began tapping into that source the area would soon be overdrafted. Pumping groundwater is also expensive the deeper you go the higher the costs. Lindsay already uses canal water for 70 percent of its municipal water. All of the municipal water for Strathmore and Toneyville is received from the canal. Pumping deeper would not only affect the cost of farming but also costs for the City of Lindsay. Eventually, those costs would have to be passed on to residents and tax payers through higher utility costs.

Edwards said much of the river is dry and was dry prior to the construction of Friant Dam in 1942. The Sack Dam and Mendota Dam on the west side still have water rights that do not fall under the jurisdiction of Judge Lawrence Karlton's decision, which states that the Bureau of Reclamation was in violation of the Fish and Game Code. NRDC's lawsuit was built on the fact that Friant Dam does not provide enough water releases into the San Joaquin River to sustain a spawning ground for migratory Chinook salmon, which must be able to reach the ocean. However, the ruling would only affect the Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the dam, and not any other entity along the river or canal.

"Put aside for a minute that it is a bad idea," Edwards said. "There is no plan for that water once it is released. It will be free-for-all."

People down the river still have rights to the water flowing throughout. Landowners who have not seen water in years would be allowed to divert San Joaquin River water further downstream. In other words, even if Karlton's ruling is upheld, there is no guarantee that the river would ever make it to the Delta.

According to Edwards, the only guarantee is that the water would not be used as efficiently and beneficially as it is now.

"This decision affects everyone," Edwards said. "Without water there may be no Lindsay-Strathmore district or even Lindsay. People can't live where there is no water."

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