A coalition of organizations, many of whom are usually in opposition of each other, met Tuesday at the Lost Lake Regional Park near Friant to voice their opposition to a decision made by the Madera County Board of Supervisors.
The board tentatively approved the River Ranch Estates development located in the Rio Mesa area of Madera County. The development would cover 793 acres and have approximately 1646 dwelling units and would support more than 5,000 people.
The coalition is concerned the project will threaten the San Joaquin River, Madera County farmers, and is a significant threat to the region’s water supply, air and water quality, fish, wildlife and the quality of life in the Central Valley. They are also concerned over the precedence set by the actions of the board.
The Sierra Club and the Madera County Farm Bureau, organizations who are usually locked in battle, have joined together along with the Madera Irrigation District, the Fresno Audobon Society and others to ask the Madera County Board of Supervisors to reconsider its decision.
One issue of concern for the coalition is how the developer proposes to meet the water needs for the development. San Joaquin River water is proposed to be delivered to the project by utilizing the landowner’s “Holding Contracts.”
Prior to Friant Dam’s construction, landowners along the river held riparian water rights and drew water directly from the river. When the dam was constructed, the river channel changed denying some landowners access to the river. To mitigate their loss, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation offered the landowners “Holding Contracts” ensuring them an adequate water supply for their irrigation and domestic needs.
According to Steve Ottemoeller of the Madera Irrigation District, allowing the developer of River Ranch Estates to use Holding Contracts to demonstrate an adequate supply of water sets a precedence that could prove damaging to all water users and have a detrimental impact on the future of the San Joaquin river.
“The Bureau has over 200 Holding Contracts,” said Ottemoeller. “Approximately 125 of those contracts have been signed. This covers about 30,000 acres. If precedence is set other developers could use Holding Contracts for more development and cause an impact that would endanger the river.” At present, Holding Contracts do not limit the amount of water used.
“The project proponent indicated that he believes they have plenty of water,” said Ottemoeller, “The Bureau of Reclamation does not agree.”
Ottemoeller believes that the use of Holding Contracts to satisfy the requirement of senate bill SB 610, requiring a developer to provide an adequate water supply, is “easily subject to challenge.”
Dave Koehler, of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, stated that their board voted unanimously to support the opposition.
“The board is violating their own policies,” said Koehler. “They have not allowed proper public access or enough setback for wildlife.”
Without proper setback, the annual migration of deer in the area could be affected, he explained.
Kevin Enns-Rempel, president of the Fresno Audobon Society, voiced concern over the loss of “a special place” for the people of the Central Valley.
“This project allows development too close to the river corridor,” said Enns-Rempel. The Audobon Society feels this will enhance erosion and affect the habitat for wildlife, including Bald Eagles who forage along the river.
Richard Sloan, of the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the 2,000 members of the Sierra Club in the San Joaquin Valley are strongly opposed to the plan. Sloan said Sierra Club feels the board of supervisors “has not adequately addressed the issue of infrastructure.”
County Supervisor Ronn Dominici, District 3 said, “There are a lot of other steps they (the developers) have to go through. Staff is looking into it and will come back with their findings on air, water, roads and anything affecting the area. Everything is pending until staff comes back with their findings next Tuesday. I have spoken with both sides of the issue and we will keep an open mind.”