The Friant Decision and the Future of the San Joaquin River
The San Joaquin River provides the water that enables farms up and down the San Joaquin Valley’s eastern side to produce a substantial agricultural bounty. For more than 50 years, the majority of the river has been halted at Friant Dam and diverted north and south for use by farms and homes throughout parts of five counties, in the process making that part of the valley the most productive agricultural region in the world.
The Friant Division of the Central Valley Project achieved the ends of its planners, who in the depths of the Great Depression built an irrigation system that transformed the dry landscape into an Eden for farming while preventing overburdened wells from being tapped out. The harvests would eventually bloom into billions of dollars and provide the economic bedrock for communities from Chowchilla to Bakersfield.
But the decision to dam the river and divert its flows came at a price. A salmon fishery that once supported some of the largest runs on the West Coast was utterly decimated by a river that went completely dry in crucial stretches. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) knew that diverting most of the river would be detrimental to the salmon population, but the depleted groundwater conditions coupled with a critical drought made the case that water was needed more to produce food than to sustain fish.
Since 1945, Friant provided the needed water to farmers. But in 1988, when initial long-term contracts between Reclamation and Friant water users came up for renewal, environmentalists and fishery groups challenged the basis of Friant’s operation with the hope of restoring the river and reviving the moribund salmon run.
Since then, a bitter conflict has raged, pitting the lead plaintiff, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), against Reclamation and the Friant Water Users Authority (FWUA), a coalition of 22 water districts that contract for Friant project water. Legal doctrines that have been the foundation of the dam’s releases have been wrangled over and argued, and an attempt to forge compromise ran aground over the debate regarding just how much water is needed to achieve a mutually satisfying result. Ultimately, it was left to a federal judge to decide the million-dollar question: Is Reclamation, in its operation of the dam, required to comply with a state law that requires enough water be released to sustain downstream fish populations?
The answer, given in late August, was yes. U.S. District Court Senior Judge Lawrence Karlton, appointed by President Jimmy Carter 25 years ago, wrote “there can be no dispute” that substantial reaches of the river are completely dry and that the historic salmon runs “have been destroyed” by the diversion of water. That said, Karlton left open the matter of the proper course of action, something that is sure to be a lengthy, extensive and expensive proposition as stakeholders attempt to re-shape a river that has been considerably altered for half a century.
“It was a pretty significant milestone,” said Michael Wall, senior attorney with NRDC. “It’s the first time the court found liability for one of the principal claims we brought.”
Karlton’s ruling was a blow to the FWUA, which says there was never any doubt about the intended use of the diverted river and that the finding of the federal government’s liability amounts to changing the rules well into the game. Farmers fear that as much as one acre of land would have to be taken out of production for every 2 to 3 acre-feet of water sent down the river (an acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons). FWUA is appealing the ruling.
“We have real concerns,” said Gregory Wilkinson, lead counsel for FWUA. “We question whether the judge has the jurisdiction to interfere with the government’s day-to-day operation of one of its most important water supply projects, particularly since the government already sought, obtained and has complied with water rights permits issued to it by the state.”
Environmentalists see a different picture, arguing that the conditions of the river deserve a remedy, as required by law, and that restoration can be completed without adversely impacting the agricultural industry. Meanwhile, advocates for commercial fishermen say the return of a salmon run to the San Joaquin River will help bolster the fish populations upon which they rely.
“We have now started down the road to restore one of the West Coast’s premier salmon runs, and, along with it, fishing jobs in California’s coastal communities,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, also a plaintiff in the suit.
Beyond the question of how much water is needed and at what cost to the Friant users are the complexities of restoring habitat for Chinook salmon, which require cold water temperatures and sufficient gravel beds to spawn. Researchers have invested considerable time and resources in examining myriad factors associated with the river – its past conditions, degree of alteration and possible management options – with the aim of presenting a blueprint for success. One such effort is a report being prepared by FWUA in collaboration with Reclamation and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) that seems to indicate restoring the San Joaquin River will be anything but a simple process.
“The San Joaquin River downstream of Friant Dam, much altered over the past 150 years, is not a natural system and hence should not be assumed to respond naturally to simple manipulation of factors such as flow,” states the draft report San Joaquin River Fisheries Scientific Investigations and Recommendations.
DFG Regional Manager Bill Loudermilk expanded that, “releasing significant flows to the river below Friant Dam is a prerequisite to river functions and salmon restoration, along with remediation of many other habitat limitations.”
State and federal resource agencies have pledged to help steer the process with the aim of determining what constitutes restoration and at what cost.
“We will take the lead role in coordinating what can be done and how much water is needed,” said Paula Landis, chief of the Department of Water Resources’ San Joaquin District. Landis, who has worked on San Joaquin River issues since 1987, said there is increasing interest in water quality, transfers, exchanges, banking, conjunctive use and floodplain management.
“The San Joaquin never had the attention focused on it like the Sacramento [River], and I think that is changing,” Landis said. “All of these things are pointing to the need for a comprehensive, cohesive look at the system as a whole, which has never been done before.”
The FWUA/Reclamation/DFG draft finds, among other things, that the existing tools used to measure possible improvement in fish populations need “significant improvement” before any kind of action plan is authorized. Otherwise, it says the potential exists for misallocation of resources and possible unintended consequences to other species in the aquatic ecosystem.
Tina Swanson, a fisheries scientist with the Bay Institute, questioned the scientific credibility of information noted in the draft summary, which she said appears bent toward the conclusion that salmon cannot be restored because it would take too much water. Karlton “soundly rejected” the claim that it is merely enough for releases to be made that sustain the existing warm water fishery below the dam, she said.
In addition to benefits provided to fish by increased river flows, there is the question of how more water could aid downstream areas plagued by water quality problems. Delta water agencies constantly grapple with high salinity levels that could be diluted with additional fresh water. At the Stockton Deep Water Shipping Channel, low levels of dissolved oxygen create water conditions that regulators are trying to improve. What role increased San Joaquin River flows might play in that equation remains to be seen, given that some flows could be lost to diversion or lost to percolation between Friant and the channel.
“It’s still very much up in the air,” said G. Fred Lee, a scientific consultant who authored a June 2004 report, Overview of Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta Water Quality Issues. “There’s no question that someday there will be an upper part of the San Joaquin River that is wet again, but what it will do [for Delta water quality] is still wide open.”
Finally, there is the matter of what the decision may mean as precedent for Reclamation’s other water projects in the West. Hatch and Parent, a Santa Barbara-based law firm specializing in water law, announced after the ruling that it will lead an effort to prepare “friends of the court” briefs in the anticipated appeal of Karlton’s ruling, to achieve a “more balanced” interpretation of the law.
“All of the communities that rely on stored water have an interest in the outcome of this litigation,” said Rob Saperstein, an attorney at Hatch and Parent.
Part of the solution to the dilemma may come by releasing more water down the river to Mendota Pool, which is presently tapped by users who exchanged their river rights for water carried from the CVP. In turn, the water sent from Reclamation’s Tracy pumping facility would continue south through the California Aqueduct where it would be moved to east-side growers through the Cross Valley Canal. John Cain, a restoration ecologist with the Natural Heritage Institute, said the concept of recirculating the river “is definitely part of the remedy,” that was demonstrated in a 1999 pilot project.
The magnitude of what transpires in the wake of the ruling holds the potential of wreaking far-reaching implications throughout the state, given the reliance on imported water to sustain agriculture and subdivisions. Will less water be available? Will other projects be similarly affected? Are river restoration and water diversions mutually compatible? For the immediate future, these and other questions will be asked and discussed as interests from all sides consider the plight of salmon, the needs of farmers and where a workable middle ground exists.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the November/December 2004 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.
A series of events recently put me back in the job of assisting a new producer with a major public television special on water issues in California. This fall, our documentary crew hit the road to collect interviews using the new wide angle video now being used by your local PBS stations. I was forced to get out of the office and travel all over California for a couple of weeks, which reminded me again that this is a diverse and beautifully unique state. We taped a great deal of material about conflict in California water, but we also saw many scenes of progress. About 12 years ago, the Foundation worked with PBS on our first overview of California’s water issues, culminating in To Quench a Thirst. This time, we saw technological improvements in desalination, which could lead to increased use. We saw increased conjunctive use of groundwater and surface water and more water recycling projects. We witnessed more citizen responsibility about nonpoint source water pollution and saw increased agricultural water efficiency.
Working on this new documentary reminded me of that time a dozen years ago when the state was enduring its greatest drought in the 20th century and the water stakeholders were literally at each others throats. Pumps in the Delta were often shut down due to endangered fish listings, and no group – environmental, urban or agricultural – was getting what it needed. Through heated meetings of the stakeholders and intervention by the administrations of Republican Governor Pete Wilson and Democratic President Bill Clinton, an Accord was reached in which each group compromised. This Accord led to the formation of CALFED – the joint state and federal 30-year plan to solve the Delta problem.
The new documentary will cover the events since that time. This last decade has seen a period of environmental restoration, and now there will be plans for study of some new water storage. So while the interviews are not as heated as 12 years ago, there are certainly still big fights in California water. Two of the places I visited with our camera crew, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, are very much in the news over how water within these reservoirs should be used. Both of those thorny issues are covered by our writer, Gary Pitzer, in this issue of Western Water magazine.
Before this new documentary comes out on PBS, we are releasing another major documentary, Two Sides of a River, a program on the New River, a small river on the California border that some call the most polluted in North America. It’s a fascinating story of a river in the California’s Imperial Valley and Mexico’s neighboring Mexicali Valley. In recent times, the New River has gained notoriety for its pollution and emerged as an important test of international cooperation and commitment to clean up the river. Reporters Joe Oliver, former CNN reporter, and Marty Gonzales, former local network anchor, narrate the program. Look for it soon on your local public television stations.
In the News
Hetch Hetchy Restoration Proposal Sparks Debate
Studies released by the University of California, Davis, and Environmental Defense are renewing focus on the possible restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley, often called a twin of the adjacent Yosemite Valley. Hetch Hetchy was flooded 81 years ago to provide drinking water to the city of San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area, but environmentalists believe the reservoir can be drained without disrupting water supply or hydroelectric power generation.
“The results of our water modeling show that other reservoirs are sufficient to meet full delivery objectives in four out of five years,” said Spreck Rosekrans, senior analyst with Environmental Defense, adding that a variety of additional water sources can be used as a buffer in dry years.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), which oversees Hetch Hetchy, expressed a cautionary approach toward proceeding with such an ambitious proposal.
“We’re very interested in the results and we’re very sympathetic to the Environmental Defense study’s goals,” said Susan Leal, SFPUC general manager. “But the politics of water in California have too often been a zero-sum game. Any serious proposal to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir must go far beyond theory and technical assumptions to address comprehensively the financial, legal and political realities of water and power issues in our state.”
Resources Agency Secretary Mike Chrisman announced Nov. 8 that the Departments of Parks and Recreation and Water Resources would begin to look at the issue, including the estimated parkland value of a restored valley and the water supply impact on the Bay Area.
Talk of restoring Hetch Hetchy surfaced in early September, when researchers at UC Davis, using a computer model, discovered that by using existing storage capacity in downstream reservoirs, including New Don Pedro, Hetch Hetchy could be drained without loss of water to San Francisco and other communities. Former Interior Secretary Donald Hodel in 1988 discussed the idea of restoring Hetch Hetchy as a national park. The effort did not come to fruition but scientists agreed that restoring the valley would not be physically impossible.
Following the UC Davis findings, Environmental Defense released Paradise Regained: Solutions for Restoring Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. The report coincided with $3.6 billion retrofit and expansion of San Francisco’s Tuolumne River water delivery system launched by the SFPUC in 2002. Hetch Hetchy is less than one-quarter of the SFPUC’s total system storage, Rosekrans said. Additional supplies could be obtained by increasing local storage, purchases from agricultural districts and groundwater banking, the report says.
Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business group, blasted the idea of removing the reservoir, calling it “one small step in [a] quiet plodding effort” by environmentalists and southern California water interests to strip the Bay Area of its water supply.
Two Assembly Democrats, Joe Canciamilla of Pittsburg and Lois Wolk of Davis, urged the Schwarzenegger Administration and fellow legislators to use Environmental Defense’s data to further analyze possible restoration. “This study should serve as the beginning of a fresh new dialogue on the possibilities of restoring this national treasure.”