U.S. Water News Online
FRESNO, Calif.-- For the first time in five years, San
Joaquin River water is gushing out of Friant Dam's four big turbines,
sending a rushing, chilly flow down the riverbed, and letting
irrigation districts around the Central Valley recharge water banks
depleted by a long dry spell.
The river's generous flow is allowing agencies like the Lower Tule
River Irrigation District, which sends San Joaquin River water to
200,000 acres of farmland in Tulare County, to meet their farmers'
irrigation needs, and still allow most of the water they're getting
to sink into the ground, where it can be stored and used in dry
"We've been praying for a wet year like this," said Dan Vink, the
district's general manager. "Trying to manage all this water is
definitely a good problem to have."
South of Bakersfield, the Arvin Edison Water Storage District is
pouring San Joaquin River water into 150 little lakes spread out over
1,500 acres to bring underground water levels back up.
"We'll probably put half the water that comes into the district
this year right back into the ground, to make up for water we've had
to draw," said Steve Collup, the district's engineer manager.
"Another three or four dry years, we'd be in serious trouble."
The fresh flowing water is also letting farm representatives and
environmentalists involved in a court battle over the best use for
the river's water to study its flow, and understand what it would
take to bring back the San Joaquin River's long-dead salmon runs.
A wet year like this one makes it clear that, with enough
underground storage facilities, irrigation districts could put away
enough San Joaquin River water to tide them over in dry spells, and
still leave enough water in the riverbed to bring the fish back to
California's second-longest river, said Jared Huffman, senior
attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the
environmental group leading the suit.
More water going down an improved riverbed wouldn't just be good
for the fish, Huffman said. Reinforced riverside banks would help
manage flood threats during really wet years, and increased flows
would deliver cleaner water into the San Joaquin-Sacramento Bay
Delta, benefiting farmers in the region, which use the water for
irrigation, and millions of Californians as far down as Los Angeles
who rely on the delta for drinking water.
The 17-year court battle over the San Joaquin will come to a head
when the trial starts in February, pitting a coalition of
environmental organizations led by the NRDC against the federal
Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Friant Dam, and other
agricultural water agencies.
The case is being watched closely by farmers and environmental
advocates, but its resolution could impact water consumers around the
Since the San Joaquin was held back by Friant more than half a
century ago, it has been in parts little more than a sandy,
weed-choked trough -- a home for tumbleweed and lizards, not fish.
But this winter's powerful storms left an unusually deep snow bank
high up on the Sierra Nevada's craggy peaks. As temperatures warm up,
the melting snow is pouring down the mountains.
Together with the water dropped by late spring storms, the flow is
pushing through Friant Dam at about 16,000 acre feet per day -- a
level last reached in 1998. That water is allowed to flow down the
old river bed, a sight that attracts families looking for a weekend
spot to cool down as temperatures reach the mid-90s.
But the majority of the river's flow is still channeled down the
Friant Kern canal, which sends river water to farmers on the east
side of the Central Valley. The diversion has been feeding
agriculture in the fertile region since 1949, and today sustains many
family farms and small rural communities. It also spelled the end of
the salmon runs that used to course through the San Francisco Bay,
into the San Joaquin River delta, and up the Sierra Nevada to spawn.
For years, a coalition of environmental organizations led by NRDC
has been charging the Bureau of Reclamation with breaking state law
by not allowing enough water down the river to maintain the historic
Federal officials and farm interests are fighting the contention,
and it's proposed remedy -- allowing more water to flow into the
riverbed -- because they believe taking water away from farmers could
endanger the local economy.
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