[env-trinity] An Uncertain Future for San Joaquin River
jallen at trinitycounty.org
Mon Sep 19 10:22:41 PDT 2005
An Uncertain Future for San Joaquin River
New Brisbane News
Staff and agencies
18 September, 2005
By JULIANA BARBASSA, Sat Sep 17, 4:34 PM ET
ANSEL ADAMS WILDERNESS, Calif. - It begins as fresh snowmelt, streaming
from Mount Ritter's gray granite faces into Thousand Island Lake, a
bouldered mirror. The clear blue water spills out through a narrow
canyon, and the San Joaquin River is born.
"Certainly this Joaquin Canyon is the most remarkable in many ways of
all I have entered," Muir wrote in 1873.
Its waters, trapped behind dams, disappear into California's intricate
plumbing system, channels that most maps don't show. Diverted river
water nurtures a rich agriculture economy and California's unstoppable
growth, but it's also at the center of a long-running environmental
battle. Should the flow be released down the old river bed to bring back
the salmon Muir described? How to balance commerce, growth and nature?
The United States was still pushing westward when Muir arrived. As it
edged aside those who had lived here before, towns sprang up along the
railroads, and the first plows cut through California's vast Central
Agriculture began driving the state's economy, and California was
booming. But by the early 20th century, farmers were pumping their wells
dry. Between drought and the Great Depression, farmers were being forced
off their land just as Dust Bowl migrants were flowing into California.
By 1935, Congress approved emergency funds for the Central Valley
Project, with the massive Friant Dam at its concrete heart and open
channels radiating north and south. Friant's construction in 1944 put an
end to the farmers' concerns, reviving the economy. Towns blossomed
along the canals. More than a million acres of farmland came to life,
producing more than 200 crops, from fruits and vegetables to cotton.
But the 314-foot concrete wall changed the river as well. Most years,
less than 5 percent of the historic flow goes down the old riverbed -
just enough to remind locals of what they lost.
His father, Everett, and other downstream farmers watched the San
Joaquin's water drop out of reach of their pumps, which were left
perched high on the riverbanks like giant mechanical mosquitoes. They
went door to door to raise money for a lawyer, and 16 years later, their
case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court U.S. Supreme Court. Everett
Rank borrowed money to go to Washington, but the case was turned down on
a technicality. He was devastated; he suffered a heart attack on his way
home and died.
The San Joaquin now surrenders to parched gravel just 37 miles below the
dam. Where spawning Chinook salmon once ran thick, lizards and
tumbleweed inhabit a riverbed that often goes years without water.
In October 2004, a federal judge in Sacramento agreed. Angrily
protesting, farmers, mayors and businesspeople pointed out that their
towns, jobs and crops have relied on San Joaquin River water for
decades, and that some of the state's fastest growing cities are in the
"The conclusion that the Bureau has violated its duty hardly begins to
address the problem of remedies," Judge Lawrence K. Karlton
How to balance competing needs for such an essential public resource in
the decades ahead? How to decide the volume of water going downriver? A
February trial will take up such questions - with consequences far
beyond the region.
California grows 80 percent of America's eating oranges. Much of that
fruit - about 15 million 75-pound boxes - passes through nine plants in
the town of Orange Cove, where lush groves cover the surrounding hills
as far as the eye can see.
Growers like Bailey, who farms with his brother Lee Bailey, know well
there's little natural water here. His fruit trees - like Orange Cove's
9,255 residents - are sustained by water diverted from the San Joaquin.
"Without it, we'd just dry up, the farms, the town, everything," Harvey
He remembers how it was in the 1940s, when so many wells were sunk the
shallow aquifer was going dry. Some towns responded with lawsuits.
Saboteurs blew up pipelines. It was a grim time.
Thanks to the Friant Dam, the river water now sustains more than 1,500
square miles of productive farmland on the east side of the Central
Valley. Besides citrus, many of the grapes, almonds and other crops that
feed the country - about $2 billion worth a year - are grown in an area
that gets only 10 inches of rain a year.
Victor Lopez, a former farm worker and Orange Cove's mayor for 30 years,
helped bring the packing plants to town, creating many reliable, though
low-paying jobs. Now he's trying to diversify: He went to China to pitch
Mexican food made in Orange Cove, and he's talking to Koreans about
establishing a computer-parts assembly plant.
Still, he said, standing in the town's brand new rural development and
job training center: "All investment, all our growth, depends on water -
not just ag. Any business that's thinking about coming here, that's the
first thing they want to know: Do you have water? It's our livelihood,
In its brief run downstream of the dam, herons, egrets and grebes seek
out the river, and Fresno residents come to cool down in the high heat
But even this shallow stream has new demands on it: A developer plans to
replace orchards on the riverbank with a new housing complex, the first
180 homes of a 1,646-home subdivision that is expected to grow into the
new city of Rio Mesa, population 100,000.
Water for the new homes would come from the San Joaquin, courtesy of
decades-old contracts given by the Bureau of Reclamation to farmers.
Opponents say the contracts were never intended for lawns and car
washes. But attorney Tim Jones, representing River Ranch Estates, says
it's a case of some water users - environmentalists and farmers -
wanting to limit access to another user, his client.
Such battles seem inevitable in the years ahead - demographers predict
the Central Valley's 5.5 million population will more than double to 12
million or more by 2040, as California's population grows from 36.5
million to a 51.5 million.
"The San Joaquin is a hard working river, but it can't continue to take
the abuse," said Bill Jennings, who ran a tobacco and fishing-gear store
until a large fish kill inspired him to launch DeltaKeeper, an
environmental advocacy group.
In his small motorboat, pipe protruding from his snowy beard, Jennings
looks more pirate than protector of the marshy delta where the San
Joaquin river ends in a maze of channels, turbines and levees.
He navigates along former wetlands lined with broken concrete and wire
mesh, past pipes that pour Stockton's wastewater and urban runoff into
the river. Piles of powdery sulfur used as fertilizer blow from the
banks, coating the surface in a bright yellow film.
For the rest of its course, the river serves as a drain, taking leftover
irrigation water from farm fields, mixing fertilizers, pesticides and
other chemicals with runoff from city streets and golf courses and what
little water still flows beyond the dams on the San Joaquin's
tributaries. Then it empties into the delta, where water is pumped south
again in an endless loop.
"A watery landfill," Jennings called it.
The Metropolitan Water District, serving 17 million Southern
Californians, is already the largest customer for delta water and has
coveted purer San Joaquin River water, especially since California's
share of the Colorado River was cut by 15 percent two years ago.
For several years now, there have been discussions about a swap that
would give Los Angeles upriver San Joaquin water, which now irrigates
crops. Farmers on the east side of the valley, in exchange, would be
allowed to use the MWD's storage facilities, providing better access to
water in dry years. To make economic sense, the swap would have to
involve at least 100,000 acre feet of the river's flow - enough to serve
200,000 Los Angeles homes per year with pure mountain water.
A deal is still in its beginning stages, but could benefit both sides,
said Ron Jacobsma of the Friant Water Users Authority, the agency that
manages the Friant-Kern canal.
But even supporters say they're cautious. Sending farm water to the big
city smacks of the backroom dealmaking that diverted the Owens River to
Los Angeles, as portrayed in the movie "Chinatown."
"We have to make sure that over time, it's not foolish," said Jacobsma.
Though the deal's far from done, a hand-drawn sign posted on a ranch by
the river is already asking the inevitable question: "San Joaquin River
Water - Whose is it? The VALLEY's? Or LOS ANGELES'?"
DeltaKeeper and other environmental groups would add a third stakeholder
- native plants and animals such as the Chinook salmon.
The competing claims will be central when trial on how much water should
be released begins in U.S. District Court in Sacramento in February.
Meanwhile, Central Valley farmers, businesses and small towns hold
urgent meetings, imagining a decision that could threaten their futures.
And Jennings imagines what the river and the delta could be if flushed
clean by snowmelt every year, as it was back when John Muir walked the
San Joaquin's banks.
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