'Economic, Environmental Benefits of New Water Storage'

By C.J. Barbre

In dry years Californians hope water conservation measures won't be overly burdensome.

In wet years like this one, we marvel at how beautiful the state is when the deserts bloom and snowcap stays on the Sierras all the way into summer. And somewhere along the way, we wonder if it could be possible to save every spare drop of this water for the dry years.

"New storage would improve system flexibility for managing water supply and demand, reducing conflict between competing users," it stated in a briefing paper for an oversight hearing on "The Economic and Environmental Benefits of New Water Storage in the San Joaquin Valley" by the Congressional Subcommittee on Water and Power held at Cal State Fresno's Satellite Student Union on Saturday, June 11.

Prior to the hearing, at 8:30 a.m. in front of the Student Union, representatives of the Valley Water Alliance held a rally. Victor Lopez, mayor of Orange Cove, explained that the Valley Water Alliance is a coalition of labor, business and community leaders and farmers "here to fight the good fight. Like Lindsay, we are building a new library, new school and new subdivisions. We have the largest skate park in Central California. When we run out of water you can kiss it all goodbye. There will no longer be an Orange Cove. We're here for the welfare of the Central Valley. People forget where in the hell food comes from. It comes from Fresno County, number 1 in ag in the world!"

A half dozen other people spoke along similar lines and someone passed out nicely printed signs for people to hold up for the TV crews, stating, "Our Water, Our Future."

The Sun-Gazette has been tracking the story under the heading "Ripple Effect" since the Valley Water Alliance was formed in response to U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton's ruling last August that the San Joaquin River salmon runs have been destroyed by the diversion of water. What will be done about it is to be decided at trial beginning Feb. 14, 2006.

One lone protester, Vincent Lavery, carrying a "Restore the River" sign and an American flag, marched quietly back and forth in front of the approximately 50 people gathered at the rally. He wasn't concerned about the farm economy. "It's not a matter of stopping the economy if the river flows," he said. "There's a balance with tourism and fishing." The opposition claims that absentee farmers are selling water to Los Angeles, along with Westlands and Friant.

The rally was soon over and people headed inside without their signs, which security officers said were not allowed. On the stage, the congressional subcommittee, made up of Rep. George Radanovich (R Mariposa) who served as chairman, Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced), Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) and Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk), sat at one table.

Opposite them was a table for the eight witnesses who would be testifying, including Lloyd Carter, director of Revive the San Joaquin; Carmen Garza representing farmworkers from Sunview Vineyards in Delano; Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, Lindsay Mayor Ed Murray; Marvin Myers representing Myers Farm Family Trust in Firebaugh; General Manager of Kings River Conservation District David Orth; Denis Prosperi, a farmer from Madera; and Chairman of Friant Water Users Authority Kole Upton.

"In the Friant service area, our water supply has been under legal attack for 17 years by some environmental and commercial fishing groups demanding that a self-sustaining salmon fishery be re-established after having been dead for 60 years," said the Friant Water Users Chairman in his prepared statement.

The sparks would fly between Friant's Upton and Carter, a Clovis resident who not only represented "Revive the San Joaquin," but was a former UPI and Fresno Bee reporter who said he had been covering California water issues since 1969. Carter also taught water law at San Joaquin College of Law and is president of the California Save Our Streams Council.

"We are not radical extremist San Francisco elitist environmentalists, to use the labels of some Friant interests. We believe compromise is possible and that much of the water war rhetoric is counterproductive. We don't stereotype farmers any more than we stereotype environmentalists. We disapprove of much of the name-calling and sloganeering which is going on."

Carter said in an average water year about 75% of the San Joaquin River goes to Kern and Tulare counties which are out of the watershed, while Fresno County interests, including farming, get only about 8% of the river and Madera County gets the remainder. The North Valley riparian counties get zero.

On behalf of Friant Water Users, Upton said that NRDC's (Natural Resource Defense Council) 17-year lawsuit threatens to destroy them.

In 2001 the total value from Friant service area crop production was $2.4 billion. Fruits represented two-thirds of that total, tree nuts 10% and vegetables 8%. Of the fruits, grapes accounted for half the value and citrus for more than 37%. The total output value of crop production, including impacts to industries that supply agriculture and other related economic activity, neared $5 billion in a six-county region. About two-thirds of the agricultural production would not exist without Friant Dam according to the subcommittee briefing paper. Friant also provides water for alfalfa, silage corn, cattle and cotton.

"I recommend Temperance Flat Dam be fast-tracked. CalFed - in my perspective - never have so many people spent so much money to do so little." Upton said Temperance Flat could provide up to 2 million acre-feet. However, a preliminary report by CalFed indicated the Temperance Flat site could store between 250,000 and 700,000 acre feet. An acre-foot-of-water is the amount of water needed to cover one acre to a depth of one foot or 326,000 gallons which is said to be the amount used by two suburban families in a year.

"The purpose of this hearing is to discuss water needs of the Central Valley," Radanovich responded. "NRDC was invited and did not choose to testify. Nobody knows what this court will do. The decision is not until next year. What kind of water are we talking about?"

"I do not speak for NRDC or the other 14 complainants," Carter said. "I don't want to get into the NRDC lawsuit. That's a snake pit if I ever saw one. Even though NRDC has won some preliminary skirmishes, they don't necessarily get everything they want. I think the judge is going to be reasonable." Contrary to Friant, who claims rewetting the river could cost them "a significant portion" their water, Carter said Fish & Game studies conducted in the 1950s indicated restoring a salmon run would take about 180,000 acre feet a year of water in pulsed flows, or only about 12-15% of the river's annual average flow. He said there was no way it would go above 20%. Friant delivers 1.5 million acre-feet of water a year.

"A key question for Congress is, if you fund a new dam will you be subsidizing future farming or future water marketing?" Carter said. He claimed that Radanovich was well aware that there was fierce infighting within Friant over whether some growers on the southern end of the canal are going to get rich re-selling river water to developers.

"In addition, as we are painfully aware, CalFed has spent $3 billion in the last decade trying to solve California's water supply and water quality problems, particularly in the Delta. More alarming are recent news reports that zooplankton and open-water fish species in the Delta are collapsing, a development CalFed missed," Carter said, adding that not only had they not found any long-term solutions, but the head of CalFed last week called for an audit to determine where the $3 billion went.

Carter said underground was the cheapest and safest way to store water - in water banks.

Marvin Myers of the Myers Farm Water Banking project explained how beginning in 2002, they have managed to bank 11,000 acre-feet of water from the Mendota Pool and infiltrated to the shallow aquifer for storage in an area where groundwater levels had been depressed due to heavy pumping during drought periods. The almond grower said the Bureau of Reclamation enabled his project to become reality. "It is absolutely insane to repeat continued studies and not make changes in storage," Myers said. "The next multi-year drought will be too late."

David Orth with the Kings River Conservation District bemoaned the fact that the Kings River was losing flood flows. He said the main storage for Fresno, Kings and Tulare County was Pine Flat Dam. "We began creating groundwater recharging storage in the 1930s. It now involves 37 agencies and more than 5,000 acres of ponds and basins. The agencies within our region recognize 10 cities in three counties, but groundwater storage has limits," he said.

Congresswoman Napolitano said she was on the committee to learn what's good for ALL Californians. "Don't forget that Southern California needs water too." She said slogans such as "not one more drop for Southern California" don't help. She asked Ed Murray why Lindsay had such a problem with wells. Lindsay gets most of its water from the Friant-Kern Canal.

"We have a contact with the Bureau of Reclamation to help supply our water needs. The contract is for 2,500 acre-feet of water per year. Last year the city's total usage was 2,737 acre feet. We have two active wells and one standby. Our main well is three miles outside the city. In the past few years, we have drilled six test wells." Murray said the wells either did not pump enough water or had too high levels of pesticides, nitrates and other contaminants. Also the area, at the base of the foothills, is very rocky which probably didn't bode well for underground storage.

Denis Prosperi, owner of Prosperi Farms said ag in the Central Valley has always stepped up to the plate in difficult times. "Sixty years ago when we were running out of water we got to conjunctive uses. Then we went to computerized systems and conservation went up." He said in the last two weeks the Kings River ran 16,000 acre-feet a day, "more water than the city of Fresno would have used in a whole year." He said more water storage was the solution. "To do nothing like we did for the last 20 years is a decision."

"If you guys don't come together we're all going to be in a pickle," Napolitano said. "The issue is reliable, potable, deliverable water. We want to be sure you have water for farms, but we're facing population growth." She said they need to be thinking beyond 25 years, and how to get wells back into production.

"The California Constitution and Water Code says the river belongs to the public. Nobody here disputes the Wall Street Journal article back in '96 or '97 that told of farmers trying to sell water to Southern California. Some folks in the farming community can buy water for $27 an acre foot and can turnaround and sell it for $500 an acre foot," Carter said. He said metropolitan water would love to get high quality water from the Valley. "Friant needs to decide on internal disputes as to whose pockets it will line," he asserted.

Napolitano said the price was now at $600 an acre foot.

Representative Cardoza said flatly, "My constituents want to see Temperance Flat Dam built," although he agreed that Myers' water bank operation "is a fabulous setup."

Myers said he has since been approached by numbers of people including the federal government to bank water for them. "We're able to function in any kind of water year because of the bank," he said.

"All of you need some kind of certainty," Cardoza agreed.

Upton said Friant water cannot go out of the Friant area, adding that "Metropolitan says it's not interested in quantity, but wants quality."

Carter warned that Temperance Flat was no panacea. "During the last drought that began in the late 1980s and lasted into the early 1990s, most of California's 1,400 dams sat empty." It was also projected to take 10-20 years to build such a dam, during which the state's population is expected to grow from 34 million people to 50 million with the greatest growth in the Central Valley. The cost is estimated at $700 million to $1 billion to build the dam.

Radanovich said the American public wants cheap food and the best way to do that is with a good water supply. "We have to agree that San Joaquin Valley agriculture has been inexpensive and a reliable water supply is essential. I thank the panel. You have moved the process forward."

Start typing and press Enter to search