We have always been baffled that the San Joaquin River was allowed to disappear from its source after the Friant Dam was built. The dam and its irrigation commitments left 60 miles of the San Joaquin River as just sand. After 18 years of litigation, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation agreed to release water from the Friant Dam for fisheries purposes.
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That agreement was reached in 2006. By next year irrigators will lose 12-20 percent of their water allotments. Because this change was phased in over the last seven years, farmers have had enough advanced warning to make adjustments in their crops and irrigation practices.
The increased flows and channel restoration work have allowed conservationists to release salmon into the upper San Joaquin River and observe some spawning taking place for the first time since 1944 when the river valves were closed and Friant Dam began filling the 520,500-acre-foot Miller Lake. It was dedicated in 1949 by Gov. Earl Warren.
In 2009 the first water was released from Friant Dam at the rate of 185 cubic feet per second. By next year the flows will be increased to 417 cfs, equal to 302,000 acre-feet. That is where it should stop.
Now, additional requirements proposed by the State Water Resources Control Board may be going too far. The state water board is proposing to curtail irrigation uses of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to add to the San Joaquin flows. The proposals would cut water deliveries to the Modesto, Turlock and Merced irrigation districts by 15-25 percent. The California Fam Bureau estimates this would reduce water deliveries to 1 million acres of irrigated farmland.
Irrigation is what makes California farms productive in such a wide array of agricultural products. The staff report to the water board estimates the proposal would result in 10,000 acres of prime farmland being converted to uses other than farming. The staff also estimates a $50 million reduction of crop values and 300 lost farms jobs.
The Farm Bureau’s managing counsel notes that it is “a marvelously productive agricultural landscape that has been watered for generations by very senior water rights on these rivers, and the certain negative environmental impacts to groundwater.”
Water for fisheries is being released from the Friant Dam. Fisheries flows are already in place on Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. They are flowing just fine. Don’t mess with something that isn’t messed up.