'People are more important than fish'

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 Exeter 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 Dale Sally said if the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) gets their way, 1.5 million acre feet a year, 100 percent of what Exeter I.D. 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, to restore a salmon run from Friant Dam to the Sacramento Delta.

"The river flows are all dependent on Mother Nature," Sally said. "It is not going to be the same supply every year. We can't predict what it will be 2030 and make plans for that. We don't even know what will happen next week."

Sally 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 and that it may be in violation of the Endangered Species Act. 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, 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 Sally, the only guarantee is that the water would not be used as efficiently and beneficially as it is now.

"This decision would probably put us out of business," Sally said. "Then what do you do with 152 miles of canal. The Valley is already overdrafted by 1 million acre feet per year," Sally said. "There is going to be millions of extra people in the Valley over the next several decades, what will the demand be then?"

Exeter ID provides irrigation water to 2,609 acres of farmland, 97 percent of which is permanent plantings. Up against the foothills where there is little to no aquifer, Sally said canal water is the only source for many farmers and communities in the more than 15,000 acres supplied with water in the Exeter ID.

"We aren't talking huge agri-business operations," he said. "This is mostly about 400 small to mid-sized farmers that could lose their business."

Sally said irrigation systems are increasingly complex and efficient compared to just five years ago. Every last drop of water is used in the system by either farmers irrigating their crops or cities and businesses, all of which create and sustain jobs in an area with double digit unemployment.

"More water is lost pumping groundwater than in irrigating crops," he said. "We are so far from flood irrigation."

When the Central Valley Improvement Act was first introduced in 1996, there were proposals to reallocate up to 800,000 acre feet back into the river. In response the University of California Cooperative Extension and the Northwest Economic Associates (NEA) conducted two studies which analyzed the impact of reallocating 500,000 acre feet. Both studies agreed that reallocations would have significant regional impacts with the loss of 19,000 jobs representing $733 million in lost personal income - even more devastating than the 1990 freeze.

The California Farm Water Coalition says that every $1 billion in agricultural exports creates 27,000 jobs. It is estimated the Central Valley, most affected by the decision, exports about $3.5 billion of California's $7 billion ag exports, or 54,000 jobs.

The impacts reach much farther than the farming community. Sally said city residents should be concerned about their water rates. If farmers do not receive water from the canal they will be forced to pump it out of the ground.

If everyone began tapping into that source the area would soon be severely overdrafted. Pumping groundwater is also expensive - the deeper you go the higher the costs. Eventually, those costs would have to be passed on to residents and tax payers through higher utility costs.

"We probably would have to pass that on to the customers," said Public Works Director Felix Ortiz. "I'm not saying it will happen. But if groundwater levels were to drop it could."

Exeter's four wells are currently at the depths ranging from 290 to 430 feet. It the groundwater level were to drop the city would have to either drill deeper or drill wells in new locations. Ortiz said both would be expensive.

Property values may also be affected. Depleted groundwater creates the potential for sink holes, or tracks of land with no water to support the weight. Huge voids are created in the underground and entire houses can sink. This is a problem in Florida where homes may be cheaper but insurance is through the roof.

"Now you are talking about an expense to the city and the county in this area to fill in those sink holes," Sally said.

FWA recharges unused surface back into the ground each year. Just by delivering surface water, the canal's presence has allowed the aquifer to increase. Since the dam was built in 1951, the depth to groundwater in Exeter has fallen from 108 feet to just over 53 feet, a 100 percent increase with a steady average of 1 foot increases each year.

"There whole problem is that they don't like dams," Sally said. "But you can't take out the canal and store the same amount of water without building more dams. If dams are the problem then who do you solve it without a canal."

Congress recently approved funding for a feasibility study of building a dam at Temperance Flat. The additional storage would help the Valley meet its future growth and water needs. However, Sally said environmentalists are already talking about preventing any new dam construction in California and the Western United States. And it was Congress that originally built dams in the Central Valley with the intention of creating an ag economy here.

"You can't overrule 65 years of history in one decision," Sally said. "There has to be some sort of compromise."

Dams are also California's main source of generating electricity. Without hydroelectricity it would be much more costly to generate power in an already unstable grid.

"Your electricity bill will go up. That is if there is any electricity available," Sally said.

Sally said that the irrigation districts and environmentalists are so far apart on their views it may be impossible for them to compromise on a middle ground.

"They have this fantasy utopia in mind where there are no dams or canals and we are looking at the reality of life in the Valley," he said. "Those two views are never going to be remotely close to one another. People have to be more important than fish."

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