Down the spine of California's Sierra Nevada mountains south of Yosemite, huge granite peaks stand shoulder to shoulder more than 13,000 feet high, with no passage through them. Only hikers can cross the rugged range for more than 200 miles.
|Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lakes mark the headwaters of the San Joaquin|
River in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Photo by Alex Breitler
These tall mountains – the Southern Sierras – extending from the San Joaquin River watershed east of Fresno to the southern edge of Sequoia National Forest, epitomize California's erratic water supply. In wet years, so much water pours down the mountains that its volume would scare the daylights out of any creature without wings. In drought years, meager streams cannot fill the reservoirs.
A Year Like No Other
“This year, no one has water” said Mario Santoyo, assistant general manager of Friant Water Authority near Fresno, a unit of the Federal Central Valley Project that provides irrigation for 15,000 farmers in eastern San Joaquin Valley. “The public has no idea how bad this is going to be....there will be nothing,” said Santoyo glumly. Friant Dam distributes water to more than a million acres of fertile fields that lie mostly east of highway 99, from Madera to Kern County. The area produces more crops per volume than any other in the nation.
Behind the dam, Millerton reservoir was dangerously low as of Feb. 7, and Friant's managers were scouring the state to find more water. We were on a boat on Millerton, touring the site of a proposed new dam, Temperance Flat, that could rise at the back end of the lake, more than doubling storage in the reservoir. (Because of its position in low hills, Friant Dam cannot be raised).
A Dam You Love or Hate
|The proposed dam at Temperance Flat (red) would hold 1.2 million acre|
feet of water, extending another 16 miles up the river behind the current
Friant dam (in gray and pictured at top) Credit: Patricia McBroom
Friant farmers are particularly vulnerable this year, which helps explain why President Obama is coming to Fresno on Friday, along with Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who introduced drought-fighting legislation in Congress this week. The Senate bill counters a bill passed in the House by Republicans last week that would roll back the historic San Joaquin River restoration project, among other ill-considered features.
A bit of background is needed to understand the stakes involved here and in the state at large. Nowhere do the competing forces of agriculture and ecology seem more tightly balanced than on the San Joaquin River at Friant.
Bright Dream; Original Sin
Seventy years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built this dam as the centerpiece of a hydraulic revolution in the San Joaquin Valley. By capturing the unpredictable waters of the San Joaquin watershed, Friant dam and its associated canals gave rise to an agricultural cornucopia, the pride of California and a major source of the nation's produce. Unfortunately, it also brought about one of the most painful chapters in California's water history, a history already full of painful chapters. The story is told in a moving account, The San Joaquin: A River Betrayed, by former McClatchy reporter Gene Rose.
|The Federal Central Valley Project in Fresno created two separate rivers.|
Today, the historic San Joaquin River disappears about 40 miles down from the dam, leaving a 60 mile stretch of nothing but dry sand. What ends up in the Delta, although called the “San Joaquin River”, is recreated every year out of mostly agricultural runoff that rotates repeatedly through the state water system. Its water comes with a bad mix of pesticides and tons of salt, including dangerous levels of selenium. Because it salts up the land, the recreated San Joaquin River threatens the survival of the agricultural marvel Friant Dam helped to inspire.
An Historic Win for the Ecology
|A stretch of the once magnificent San Joaquin River, has|
been dry for 70 years. With restoration releases, it shows
a meager stream of new water. Bureau of Reclamation
Ronald Stork, policy director at Friends of the River, which helped win the restoration case in 2007 calls Temperance Flat a “dead beat dam.” He said there isn't enough yield from a new dam, over what is already taken, to justify its cost of about $3 billion. And, he added, that extra water will hardly make a dent in what farmers are currently pumping, leading to depletion of the aquifer, so its value in recharging ground water is limited.
The Case for Farmers
Santoyo strongly counters such arguments. Flipping charts to show that flooding dramatically increased in the second half of the 20th century, Santoyo illustrated how much water is lost to agriculture. In 16 out of 35 years, from 1978 to 2013, Friant released water it could not store because Millerton is too small. In each of eight of those 16 years, more than 1 million acre feet were released – enough to irrigate Friant lands for about a year. Most of the flood releases went downstream into the old San Joaquin riverbed and eventually reached the Delta. But sometimes the water went everywhere.
|Friant's Mario Santoyo: "I couldn't|
move the water."
Reclamation officials urgently called Santoyo: 'Can you move the water!?' they asked. “I couldn't,” he said. “There was no way I could move that much water through our canals.” The water simply flowed over the dam and down into the valley. “We needed a (bigger) reservoir to hold it back,” said Santoyo.
A Challenged Dam in an Era of Climate Change
Environmentalists argue that a flood like the one in '97 does not occur often, and that's true. But climate change science predicts increased flooding from rain in the Southern Sierras. And Friant is not built to handle incredibly fast, big floods that happen over a few days, as they do in a “pineapple express” or “atmospheric river,” as these warm rains are called.
|Chart shows higher peak flows in the San Joaquin during 20th century,|
from 1905 to 2005. Photo from the Friant Water Authority
Who Gets the High Water?
But if Friant clients use most of the San Joaquin River water now, why put themselves into big debt building another dam? At most, Temperance Flat would increase their yield by 150,000 to 250,000 acre feet per year – not overly impressive. (Formal predictions on actual yield have yet to be released in feasibility studies.) One answer is that farmers are eager to store flood waters for use during dry periods and Temperance Flat would give them that flexibility.
But the flood waters are exactly what environmentalists want to use in restoring the San Joaquin River downstream.
“We want to get back to a healthy river,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California. She said the river needs more flow than the amounts contributed by the restoration agreement with Friant. “If you want groundwater recharge along the river, if you want a balanced ecosystem, then you have to let the river flow. Temperance Flat will not help that; it will harm it.”
Will the Salmon Run?
Water policy officials like Randy Fiorini, chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, have reached the opposite conclusion. Charged with the responsibility of striking a balance between water deliveries to humans and protection of the ecosystem, Fiorini said he thinks the reservoir at Friant Dam is too small.
“I've always been one to believe that if the upper San Joaquin is to be successfully restored, the Fresno reservoir needs another million acre feet of storage.” Only then, he said, can the state meet its co-equal goals on the east side: to provide both irrigation water in dry years and in-stream flows for fish.
Santoyo hopes other Californians will agree with that point of view and support a state bond in 2014 that he expects will allocate money for studies at Temperance Flat. Aside from a drought, the one thing that scares Friant people most is being hauled back into court, losing more water because the salmon don't run. And they won't run if the water isn't cold enough. Millerton is a small, often warm lake, said Santoyo.
“We just don't have the volume of cold water we need to restore the salmon. It's a high priority for us. We have to succeed in bringing back the salmon.”