River plan may reduce county water by 15%

About 15% of water normally set aside for Tulare County farmers and communities will now be used to attempt one of the largest river restoration project in the nation's history.

A June 30 deal between farmers on the Valley's east side and a coalition of environmental groups will provide water and funding to restore dried up portions of the San Joaquin River so that it will support a salmon run. The two biggest pieces of the deal will take about 230,000 acre feet of water per year from Friant Dam that is normally used to supply about 15,000 small farms with irrigation water and several small communities, such as Strathmore, with all of its residential water. The decision will also cost water users a surcharge fee to fund the project, which is estimated to cost between $250 million and $800 million.

The historic settlement, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, ends an 18-year legal dispute between Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Friant Water Users Authority (FWUA) and U.S. Departments of the Interior and Commerce over the operation of Friant Dam.

The deal resolves longstanding legal claims brought by a coalition of conservation and fishing groups led by NRDC and provides for substantial river channel improvements and sufficient water flow to sustain a salmon fishery upstream from the confluence of the Merced River tributary while providing water supply certainty to Friant Division water contractors. Lindsay based FWUA delivers surface water from the dam to small farms and cities along the 153-mile Friant-Kern Canal.

&#8220This is the beginning of a historic restoration that will reintroduce salmon to the San Joaquin River as well as address water supply issues and provide certainty for thousands of Central Valley farmers and residents,” said Ronald D. Jacobsma, Consulting General Manager of the FWUA.

Historically, Central California's San Joaquin River supported large salmon populations, including the southernmost Chinook salmon population in North America. Since Friant Dam became fully operational in the late 1940s, approximately 60 miles of the river above the Merced River have been dried up in most years, eliminating salmon.

The settling parties will work together on a series of projects to improve the river channel in order to restore and maintain healthy salmon populations. Flow restoration is to be coordinated with these channel improvements, with spring and fall run Chinook salmon populations reintroduced in approximately six years.

&#8220Today, environmental and fishing groups are joining with Friant farmers and federal agencies to bring a beleaguered river back to life,” said Hal Candee, senior attorney for NRDC. &#8220Restoring flows and salmon to the San Joaquin River will provide broad benefits to the environment and to millions of Californians.

&#8220We expect history will record this as one of the greatest environmental comeback stories ever.”

At the same time, the Settlement limits water supply impacts to Friant Division long-term water contractors by providing for new water management measures that are to be undertaken by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior Department agency that administers the Central Valley Project.

The agreement provides that long-term Friant Division water service contracts be amended to conform the contracts to the terms of the settlement. It also includes draft federal legislation authorizing the Departments of the Interior and Commerce to implement the settlement. NRDC and FWUA will ask Congress to consider and act upon the draft legislation in the days ahead.

&#8220This monumental agreement provides certainty to San Joaquin Valley farmers who rely on Central Valley Project water deliveries for their crops while returning flows and salmon runs back to the San Joaquin River,” said Mark Limbaugh, assistant secretary for water and science, Department of the Interior.

The settlement negotiations were convened a year ago by U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and House Water and Power Subcommittee Chairman George Radanovich, who urged the parties to put aside their differences and develop a framework to restore the river in a manner that would provide water supply certainty to the Friant farmers who depend on San Joaquin River water.

Feinstein stated: &#8220I am hopeful that today's settlement will help ensure that the San Joaquin will once again become a living river and the hard-working men and women in the Friant service area who grow much of our nation's fruits and vegetables will continue to have a stable water supply.

&#8220Water is one of the most precious of California's resources and the only way we can continue to prosper as a State is to work for solutions that improve our water supply, restore our environment and our water quality, and protect us from floods.”

Radanovich said, &#8220Today is a momentous step given the contentious 18-year history of the lawsuit. I commend the parties for all of their hard work and for the commitment of Senator Feinstein to help drive this process.

&#8220I look forward to conducting an oversight hearing with my colleagues in the House on the settlement and draft legislation. The hearing will give Members, the parties to the settlement and third-parties an opportunity to provide input as we lay the foundation for movement of a bill.”

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