Growers and the San Joaquin River restoration

In 2006, an 18-year legal battle in California’s dry but fertile San Joaquin Valley came to an end.

When the Friant Dam, the largest dam on the San Joaquin River, was built in 1942, its main purpose was to supply water to sections of the east side of the valley, primarily for irrigation but also for some municipal uses and for flood control, says Randy McFarland, Friant Water Authority public information consultant. It was understood and accepted that two significant river reaches would be dewatered except during flood releases from the dam and that the thriving sports fishery, especially salmon, in the river would come to an end.

The San Joaquin River, about 10 miles northwest of Kerman, Calif., with interim restoration flows.

In 1988, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and a coalition of conservation and fishing groups brought a lawsuit against the federal government, challenging the right of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) to operate Friant Dam without providing water for fish in the river. The Friant Water Authority and other water districts in the valley intervened as nonfederal defendants.

“We spent millions of dollars before we came to an agreement,” says Harvey Bailey, Friant Water Authority chairman, who grows oranges, lemons and olives with his brother Lee on 2,000 acres in Orange Cove, along the Sierra Nevada foothills. “We lost in the courts and felt that we would probably continue to lose, so we felt at the time it was the best thing to do.”

The settlement has two goals: First, to restore the San Joaquin River and the salmon fishery; and second, to avoid or reduce the water supply impacts on farmers.

Under the settlement, the USBR began interim releases from the Friant Dam in 2009. At the end of 2012, it is scheduled to begin introducing salmon back into the river. Full restoration flows are scheduled to start by 2014 and will continue each year until at least 2026.

“Hydrographs dictate how much water the river gets and when it gets it,” says Ronald D. Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority. “It will vary from zero in a critically dry year to over 500,000 acre-feet in a wet year.”

Cost estimates of the restoration are around $800 million. Although farmers aren’t required to pay more for water than they had been paying before the settlement, their cost is in the amount of irrigation water they stand to lose.

“Farmers are projected to lose around 200,000 acre-feet of water on an average annual basis,” Jacobsma says. “They’re developing programs to offset these water losses, but it has certainly cut into their bottom line.”

The 365-mile San Joaquin River begins high in the Sierra Nevada and ends in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It flows down the mountains until it reaches the foothills and Millerton Lake, behind Friant Dam. From the dam, it extends southwesterly and then swings northwesterly up the flat San Joaquin Valley. Along the way to the Delta region it is joined by numerous tributaries that also begin in the Sierra Nevada. It is one of the most heavily dammed and diverted of California’s rivers.

The San Joaquin Valley contains several million acres of the world’s most productive farmland. Farmers grow more than 400 crops, including tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, grapes, tree fruit, nuts, citrus, grain and feed crops, as well as cotton. They also raise beef and dairy cattle.

Until the early 1900s, farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin River had no access to surface water for irrigation because the surrounding land was significantly higher than the river, says McFarland.

“This problem was not overcome until the development of Friant Dam and its canals. Where water could be delivered from Sierra rivers by canal, farming flourished. In other areas, limited farm development or none at all took place.”

The same view of the San Joaquin River without restoration flows.

By the 1920s, advancements in pumping made it possible for farmers to pump groundwater from the vast aquifer below. As technology improved, they dug deeper wells and installed electric pumps. By the early 1930s, aquifer levels had fallen dramatically in many areas, and large acreages of previously irrigated farmland were left fallow.

In the late 1930s, hydroelectric power development began in the valley. The state’s Central Valley Project (CVP) resulted in dams, aqueducts and canals in the San Joaquin. These structures started to cut off the salmon population from its spawning grounds upriver.

Friant Water Authority

The Friant Water Authority is a public agency that operates and maintains the Friant- Kern Canal for the USBR. It represents the interests of 20 of the 30 Friant contractors. The Friant Division delivers irrigation water to more than 1 million acres of farmland in the valley, including irrigation and water districts, cities, and 15,000 farmers, who produce approximately $4.5 billion in crop production values annually.

The Friant Division relies upon conjunctive use, a system in which surface water and groundwater are utilized and managed together. In wet years, surface water recharges the aquifer. In dry years, the groundwater supplements limited available surface water.

The USBR built Friant Dam in 1942 in the foothills northeast of Fresno. With a reservoir capacity of 520,500 acre-feet, it is the largest dam on the San Joaquin, although the reservoir, Millerton Lake, is small for the watershed and runoff it controls, McFarland says. Water is diverted from the reservoir into the Friant-Kern and Madera canals.

This pole marks the location of maximum land subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley-more than 28 feet near Mendota.

In 1970, a study showed that half the valley, especially on the west side, had subsided at least 1 foot as increasing amounts of water were drawn from the aquifer. The greatest drop was more than 28 feet near Mendota.

The Friant Dam is also used for flood control. Storms and snowmelt in wet years often caused flooding in the river and its tributaries, causing significant damage. Floods caused by winter rains generated massive amounts of runoff in a short time, he says. Floods from snowmelt lasted longer and generated the most runoff.

In the 1950s, the state built a massive flood control system of dams, diversion channels and levees on the San Joaquin and its tributaries. Although the project didn’t include additional dams on the San Joaquin River, it did include many miles of large bypass channels and diversion structures capable of moving large flows of water more quickly and safely than was possible in the San Joaquin River channel, McFarland says.

The salmon were the victims of this one-two punch: the building of the dams, and the drying up of portions of the river.

What effect will the settlement have on farmers? The releases of water into the river will cause a 15 to 20 percent reduction in the amount of irrigation water provided by the Friant Division, Jacobsma says.

As part of the settlement, districts are now able to pay a discounted rate, approximately $10 per acre-foot, for surplus water in years with above-average supplies to recharge the aquifer and help replace water lost to restoration flows. In dry years, they’ll have to use more groundwater at a cost of $200 to $400 per acre-foot.

“As of now, it hasn’t really affected us because we’ve had good water years,” Bailey says. “But it depends on what kind of water year it is.” This year has been especially dry so far, and farmers are expecting to get much less water than they need for their crops. “And there’s going to be water still going down the river for restoration,” he adds.

Ronald Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority.

McFarland says that the released water is causing another problem for farmers.Because of the higher water levels in the river, water is seeping through the levees, which were largely built of sandy soil, and causing flooding in many farmers’ fields.

Although environmental organizations claim that farming is inefficient and farmers could conserve 10 to 15 percent of their water supplies, a report from the Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT) at California State University, Fresno released in November 2011 shows that it isn’t possible, Jacobsma says.

The report, funded by the USBR and the California Farm Water Coalition, found that between 1994 and 2008 the use of drip irrigation on California’s 8 million irrigated acres increased by 150 percent. It also shows that additional efforts to conserve water would amount to only 1.3 percent in water savings, not nearly enough to make a difference.

“We can find room for conservation, but growers have just about employed all the water savings they can,” he says. “In the Friant service area over the last 20 years there’s been a lot of conversion to high-efficiency irrigation systems, especially micro sprinklers and drip, when it makes sense.” They save growers money and help crops be more productive, so there’s a dual incentive to use them.

Growers on the west side of the valley are using drip tape in furrows. It’s very expensive, Jacobsma says, but water’s very expensive and they don’t want to waste a drop.

The Friant Division is undertaking programs to replenish groundwater the best it can in wet years to help lessen the impact of the restoration flows. In 2006, the first year of the settlement, it didn’t recapture any water. Since then it has managed to recapture between 30,000 and 60,000 acre-feet per year.

Some Friant districts have developed recharge basins near river channels, Jacobsma says. There, water typically percolates very well. Funding from the USBR will provide half the cost of building additional recharge basins. Certain districts are also banking water in neighboring groundwater banks, although it adds to the cost of water.

In conjunction with their irrigation district, some growers are using surface supplies and over-irrigating in wet years if their crops can handle it. This practice aligns with the CIT report as well as the 1982 report by Robert Hagan and David Davenport, both of which found that irrigation water that isn’t used in evapotranspiration percolates into the ground and increases groundwater, Jacobsma says.

Groundwater is lacking for some districts in the valley. For example, the Orange Cove Irrigation District is very short of underground storage because bedrock lies just 60 feet down, Bailey says. Some Orange Cove growers have been banking water with other districts, a program that began in 2011.

“We’re still scrambling,” he says.

As is common within the Friant Division, Orange Cove and other districts have arranged water exchanges and transfers to make the best regional and local uses of supplies.

That has been a benefit of the restoration, Bailey adds. “It has made the districts on the Friant more cooperative with each other in regard to water trades and banking. There’s still a difference of opinion in different districts because there are different situations, but I think cooperation has improved.”

The settlement includes a number of federally funded infrastructure projects to improve surface water supplies. The repair of the Madera Canal, which carries irrigation water north from Millerton Lake, will increase its capacity during large rain events. A channel to bypass both the Mendota Dam and the Mendota Pool will restore water to the river, return water used for restoration to Friant users and facilitate salmon migration. The improvement of some sections of the Friant-Kern Canal, where land subsidence has occurred, will restore its conveyance capacity. Additional projects are still being developed.

Meanwhile, some growers are letting certain crops go fallow to free water up for other crops. Some are transferring water they don’t need to a neighbor.

Others are switching to crops that need less irrigation, but it isn’t that easy, Jacobsma says. They have to consider their climate, soils and water availability, as well as their own expertise and equipment.

“You can’t just take an orange tree out and replace it with something else. If you have a combine, you can’t trade it in for a tree shaker the next year. You have to have feed for the animals, and the cost of hay – a high water consuming crop – is at an all-time high.”

Then there are market prices to try to predict. Water-thirsty cotton was a major crop in the valley for decades. Just two years ago, hardly anyone grew it. After a couple of wet winters, cotton prices doubled and it came back in.

“We’re trying to hold on to what we have,” Jacobsma says. “There always seems to be alternative demands. If things get really tight, people will keep finding and buying water to keep their long-term planning in effect, if at all possible.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.

CIT ReportAgricultural Water Use in California:A 2011 Update: