May 15 2014
How serious is this drought? It depends on who you ask, but actions speak
louder than words. On May 15, 2014, for the first time in the history of the
Central Valley Project, releases from Friant Dam have been ordered by the
Bureau of Reclamation (BLM) to make up for the loss of water from the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
What dam? “Never heard of it,” most Californians would say. “Millerton Lake?
The BLM’s “dirty little secret” is an agreement made seventy five years ago,
in 1939. Will you find anything in the broadcast or print media about this,
except in trade journals or small town newspapers? No. Some background is
Fifteen miles north of Fresno, 4900 acre Millerton Lake was formed in 1942
by Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River. Before dam construction started in
1939, silver salmon made their annual run up the river to the tributaries of
the river. After the dam was constructed, sixty miles of the river went dry,
destroying the river habitat, until the Bureau was forced by litigation in
2006 to allow a modicum of flow downstream. Friant Dam was built to provide
irrigation water for the four irrigation districts in the Central Valley,
called Exchange Contractors.
In the late 1930s, the Exchange Contractors agreed to “exchange” water
received under their long-held senior water rights from the San Joaquin and
Kings River for water delivered from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta
through the Delta-Mendota Canal by Reclamation. The exchange contract
generally provides that whenever Reclamation is unable to satisfy the
contractual entitlement from the DMC that Reclamation would provide water to
the Exchange Contractors from Friant Dam.
The San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority serves about
240,000 acres of farmland located east of Interstate-5 and west of the San
Joaquin River, reaching from Patterson to Mendota. The Exchange Contractors
are comprised of the Central California Irrigation District, the San Luis
Canal Company, the Firebaugh Canal Water District and the Columbia Canal
There is no doubt the Friant Dam has been a benefit to agri-business in
California. The question is: How much sense does it make to grow crops in a
desert where the annual rainfall is six inches or less. It is true that
Southern California urban areas do not depend on Friant Dam for their water.
What are the priorities here?
This blog is much too short for a complete analysis, but one fact is really
astounding. While the four water districts drawing water from Friant Dam pay
sixty dollars an acre-foot, Southern California residential water users pay
1,330% more..eight hundred dollars an acre-foot. Is there something wrong
with this picture?
It is apparent taxpayers are subsidizing California’s corporate agribusiness
community. How serious does the drought have to get before providing
life-giving water to people takes priority over growing pistachios exported to
The U.S. Drought Monitor, a multi-agency federal hydrology report, shows
that conditions in the San Joaquin Valley have intensified from “severe”
drought in May 2013 to “exceptional” drought in May 2014. “Exceptional” is
the worst of the five stages of the U.S. Drought Monitor Classification.
Other locations in the United States that are classified “exceptional” are
in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Nevada.
In this first-ever event, the BLM is releasing water to those who grow
almonds and other profitable crops. Currently Middleton Lake, with a
capacity of 520,500 acre-feet is down to 279,605, or at 53%. How much water
is 279,605 acre-feet? A good comparison is how much water San Diego County
currently flows into the County to meet its needs..slightly more than twice,
or 542,428 acre-feet annually. In other words, Middleton Lake holds enough
water to supply San Diego County for six months.
So while San Diegans are being asked to turn off the water when they brush
their teeth, take shorter showers, and not wash their cars in the street,
the BLM is releasing millions of gallons of water so four irrigation
districts can continue to get super-cheap water allowing the Exchange
Contractors to make profits on the back of taxpayers and urban water users.
To quote Michael Turko on KUSI-TV, “It Ain’t Right!”