For almost two-decades a lawsuit has been fought over where water from Millerton Lake should go.
The Natural Resources Defense Council sued the US Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Friant Dam and the Friant Water Users Authority and represents water users, to restore salmon on the San Joaquin River.
When water leaves Friant Dam, there are three directions it can go: to the south down the Friant/Kern Canal, to the north by way of the Madera Canal or west down the natural river channel.
Most people see San Joaquin River water running down the natural channel between bluffs when driving on State Routes 99 and 41. Farther west, at Gravely Ford, the land flattens out and the river's course swings north near Firebaugh in the lowest point or trough of the valley. In the broad and flat portion of the valley floor, the river channel shifted and during dry years, even before Friant Dam, there often wasn't enough water to reach the confluence of the Merced River.
By 1916, groundwater was being pumped for farming so fast the natural aquifer couldn't keep pace. At this time in the Sierra, power plants and the reservoirs to serve them were already harnessing the natural rhythm of the San Joaquin River.
A study conducted in 1928 reported the salmon migration on the San Joaquin above the Merced River confluence had dwindled to almost nothing. During the depression and on through World War II, the federal government developed the Central Valley Project, which included Friant Dam and the canals leading from it. By 1948 the Friant Project was operational.
The Friant system serves more than 15,000 farms and one million acres of the most productive farmland on earth. However the price paid resulted in approximately 63 miles of the river running dry, and that effectively halted any further salmon migrations on the upper San Joaquin River. In 1959 the State Water Rights Board issued Decision 935 allowing a portion of the river to run dry and investment in the Friant service area took off. In 1988, when Friant contracts were up for renewal, the NRDC first filed its lawsuit claiming the new contracts violated environmental laws.
A settlement was finally agreed upon September 2006. Friant and the NRDC came to the settlement in order to avoid Judge Lawrence Karlton from imposing harsher measures. It wasn't an ideal settlement from the farmer's perspective but it appeared to be the lesser of two evils.
"The judge would have used a meat cleaver when a scalpel was needed," said Kole Upton, Friant chairman and Madera County farmer.
The settlement has two parts: restoration and water management.
The restoration goal is to provide continuous flows to the delta and restore a naturally reproducing chinook salmon population below Friant Dam. Also, permanent flows must be established by 2013.
The water management portion is to minimize the impact on San Joaquin River water users. The cost to achieve this is estimated to be between $800 million and $1 billion. A $7 an acre foot surcharge may be added to Friant's bill to help offset this cost. This should raise more than $8 million per year. In addition the capital pay back of Friant users will be applied to the settlement program for nine years.
Farmers affected include many in Madera County because Madera Irrigation District and Chowchilla Water District are Friant member units and have contracts for federal water from Millerton Lake. Friant users will lose an average 20 percent of their water supplies under the settlement. That is almost 250,000 acre feet or half of Millerton Lake or about the amount the MID water bank will hold at capacity.
To help prevent a 20-percent loss of farm, production measures are being taken to ease the burden on water users. A recirculation plan is being looked at where water will flow down the restored San Joaquin River channel to the Delta and sent back south through the Delta Mendota Canal or California Aqueduct for reuse.
There will also be special discounts for Friant users during wet years. Water is like anything else; when it's scarce it is expensive and when it's plentiful its price goes down. There is a proposal on the table for Friant users to get water at $10 an acre foot during very wet years when there is a massive surplus.
Federal legislation is necessary for the settlement to come to fruition. Senator Diane Feinstein and Congressman George Radanovich have teamed up to produce the needed legislation that will authorize federal participation in the settlement. The Friant system is part of the Central Valley Project and the CVP must be modified to alter the way the Friant system is operated. The bill will also allocate $250 million to restoration.
With Madera's economic base solidly agricultural, a loss of water could mean hard hitting losses to local businesses and residents. A proposed new dam upstream of Friant in the Temperance Flat area could provide three times the storage capacity of Millerton Lake and not only restore salmon flows but provide the needed water for Madera and other Friant contract areas. But in a best case scenario that will be decades away.
More immediate local measures are being taken. MID is on track with its Madera Ranch Water Bank project. During wet years when more water runs off in the spring time than can be stored at Millerton or Hensley Lakes, MID will be able to store part of the flows underground at its water bank.
"As ag water purveyors, we're keenly interested in the water management portion of the Friant/NRDC settlement," said MID's general manager Alan Turner. "Water management must be incorporated in any legislative or funding measures in order to restore supplies to pre-settlement levels."
Turner said part of the Madera Ranch water can and will be used for environmental purposes. "But that is after our growers are served."