Fighting for a place at the water table

By C.J. Barbre

Fresno Mayor Alan Autry opened and closed the All Valley Legislators Water Forum at the Fresno Convention Center on Thursday, Dec. 9.

Autry, who often comes across as scrappy and hard to please in TV sound bites, was the guy you wanted coaching the team fighting for its very existence in the latest round of water wars.

"The midnight hour is upon us. Somehow we gotta come out of this room on the same team. It's not a political issue. Does anyone think we're going to get the water we need without a fight?!" He said it's a tale of three states, Northern, Southern and Central California. And the structure is embedded with the politics of exclusion. "That body in Sacramento does not believe it can afford a prosperous San Joaquin Valley in terms of water."

The Water Forum was organized because three months ago U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton issued a decision that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is violating state law in how it operates Friant Dam and is liable for maintaining the historic salmon fishery downstream in the San Joaquin River.

On the dais were Valley legislators, elected officials of both parties from members of Congress to State Assemblymen. The program was set up so that four panels would address the legislators and explain what it would mean to whomever they represented if Karlton decided to order the San Joaquin River water to flow at its pre Friant Dam levels.

Congressman George Radanovich (R-CA-19) said if the Central Valley is not unified on issues it has no chance against Southern California or the Bay Area. "I believe in a win-win situation, but we're going up against a court that prefers a win-lose situation. We have the remarkable ability to come up with some great stuff like the Madera Water Bank. The kinds of things to focus on are preserving water rights and supply."

Congressman Devin Nunes (R-CA-21) said that the situation was essentially a judge trying to legislate from the bench. "A lot of us believe that the river should be rewetted. The Natural Resources Defense Council turned it down because they want the Friant Dam torn down. Not one drop of water can we afford to lose. If we build Temperance Flat we will have lots of water. If we tear down that dam it will create a lot of problems."

Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) said it boiled down to a simple equation, "Water equity plus common sense equals jobs." He said the economy in the Valley is established and can't be turned back 40 years.

Assemblyman Bill Maze (R-Visalia) didn't mince words. "We will see a new water alliance that will not take no for an answer. We have a radical judge who is out of line in his authority. This type of loose cannon has to be muzzled. It will take additional storage in this part of California."

Assemblymember Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto) said it's everyone's problem, not just ag. "When we realize how much precipitation this state is blessed with and how little is stored, it really is down to a matter of survival - a threat to infrastructure in place for more than 60 years. We have to have common sense adjustments, a better management of resources. Instead of fighting over limited supplies we should be looking at finding new supplies."

Newly minted Assemblyman Juan Arambula (D-Fresno), just three days on the job, said "This is about equity, fairness and jobs." Obviously the judge hasn't seen it that way.

Panel 1 - The River Issue

Next Ron Jacobsma and Greg Wilkinson of Friant Water Users Authority gave a blitzkrieg, or MTV-style as they described it, PowerPoint presentation on the history of the San Joaquin River, the Friant Water Users Authority and their clients and the stages of legislation historically regarding water or the lack thereof in the San Joaquin River. The bottom line was that in recent years FWUA and NRDC have worked to develop a program of habitat restoration and fishery enhancement for the river from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River.

But the process broke down leading to the federal court ruling that assigns liability to the U.S.Bureau of Reclamation, finding that the Bureau has violated Section 5937 of the State Fish and Game Code. FWUA disagrees. They note that the Central Valley Project's Friant Division with the blessing of President Franklin Roosevelt, undertook the building of Friant Dam and Shasta Dam in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The Madera Canal was completed soon after World War II and the Friant-Kern Canal was completed by 1955. Full-scale deliveries of San Joaquin River water to the East Side were accomplished by the mid 1950s.

In June 1959 following a year-long hearing, the State Water Rights Board adopted Water Rights Decision 935 and issued appropriative water rights permits for operation of the Friant Division, finding that the fall salmon run had been substantially eliminated by other diversion structures prior to the construction of Friant Dam and that it would not be in the public interest to require Reclamation to bypass water down the channel of the San Joaquin River for the re-establishment and maintenance of a salmon fishery. A protest by the CDFG, based on Section 5937 of the State Fish and Game Code regarding maintenance of a live stream below the dam was dismissed.

But in August of this year, Judge Karlton ruled that for the last 60 years they have not been in compliance with reclamation.

"It's fish first, then people getting what's left over," Wilkinson said was the judge's decision. "D935 says nothing of the sort." Wilkinson said the judge added a footnote that "People have made the desert bloom."

Then in October the judge said if he finds a violation of the Endangered Species Act, he may issue an injunction ordering immediate release of that water. Wilkinson said the judge ruled that the livelihood of folks who depend on water from Friant may not be considered.

The next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 26.

Panel 2 - Agency Officials

Bill Luce with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said they "want to develop implementable river strategies."

William Loudermilk with the California Department of Fish and Game said, "Our agency believes it's too soon to predict how the case will be decided." He said a number of good river specific studies have been done. "We feel organized restoration based on sound science backed by stake-holder participation is crucial."

Paula Landis with the California Department of Water Resources said her agency is a major water supplier in California, second only to the California Aqueduct, but doesn't have any facilities on the San Joaquin. She said she appreciated the river's contribution to the economy of the Valley. "We want to produce scientifically sound reports to guide a decision," she said, but it would not be a decision document, rather a restoration strategy.

Panel 3 - Business and Labor

Manuel Cunha representing the Nisei Farmers League said, "This is the first time in California history that we've had this kind of cooperation between legislators." He said there are 3 million people in the Central Valley which affects the state and federal economy. He said five out of 10 jobs are in ag, compared to two out of 10 statewide.

Randy Ghan with the Central Labor Council said he represented 55 labor organizations with a total of 75,000 people. "Reliable, available, affordable water is needed."

Juan Garza, a superintendent of a school district (not listed on the agenda), said every time something happens with water, funds for schools are diverted to other areas. For instance, they lose their anti-drug, anti-gang and anti-teen pregnancy programs.

Steve Newvine, CEO of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, said it is a quality of life issue. "This dialogue with our elected officials in a frank face-to-face is unique, special." He said the business community is solidly behind them.

Craig Knudson with the Tulare County Farm Bureau said it is not just an ag issue. "It's not farmers saying the sky is falling. It's about a sense of community and lifestyle. It affects truckers, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. We need to gain support of urban legislators." Knudson noted that 40 percent of cargo shipped out of Oakland is ag and 50 percent shipped out of Los Angeles ports is ag.

Panel 4 - Local Officials

Phil Larson with the Fresno County Board of Supervisors said they think it is just a Fresno County issue, but it is a state issue. "Senator Bradley made a statement that farmers made funny numbers. I happen to be one of those numbers and it's not funny whether Strathmore, Lindsay or Orange Cove have water. He said on the East Side the average farm is 100 acres or less - permanent crops - it will all disappear. "We provide 90,000 jobs in the Bay Area and 160,000 jobs south of Tehachapi. We've recently said when you come with a building permit show us the water - where it will come from." He said five homes on five acres use twice the amount of water that ag does on the same five acres.

Lindsay Mayor Ed Murray reeled off statics about the city's water use. He said last year Lindsay used 2,387 acre-feet of water from the Friant-Kern Canal or two-thirds of its water. He said the city only has two usable wells, that 4,000 people are employed in the city and 2,000 of those jobs are ag related. Lindsay spent $5 million on a water treatment plant and filled a 4 million gallon water tank. The city installed new pipes to conserve water. Lindsay sunk six test wells recently but none were viable because of contaminants or they failed to pump 1,000 gallons a minute, the minimum required for an operational well. The city is getting eight new subdivisions in the next year and a half. "We were facing bankruptcy 12 years ago. We don't want to face that again," he said.

Jerry Duncan with the Fresno City Council said it was a very real possibility that Fresno could lose 40 percent of its water. He said they have maximized their ability to draw ground water. "If we lose this water we would have to ban all outdoor watering. We couldn't afford to fill swimming pools. City parks would be gone. The cost of water would become astronomical. It would stress the budgets of the well-to-do and would devastate the less well off. The business exodus would be historical. We would lose thousands of jobs. Real estate values would collapse. Probably the only business surviving would be U-Haul." Duncan said the Temperance Flat Dam has to be built, that it is a national, state and local issue.

Brian Thoburn with the Tulare County Board of Supervisors said Tulare County with eight cities and 380,000 people does $3 billion in ag and hundreds of millions of dollars in other business. "We need common sense regarding restoration of fish in the San Joaquin. Too many of our cities and the county are dependent on this water supply. The Valley Water Alliance needs to work together to educate and communicate."

The legislators asked for resolutions from the cities in support of the Temperance Flat Dam. And the cities said it would be helpful to get letters of request from both sides of the political aisle.

Congressman-elect Jim Costa suggested that the California Water Institute at Fresno State be the facilitator to bring the parties together for a needs assessment. He said a water plan for the next 10-20 years needs to be developed.

Mayor Autry concluded, "This is the economic issue of our lifetime." He said this was the first time they've had representatives grilling state officials. "If you love this Valley, it's about your kids and grandkids."

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