But dozens of developers are now seeking to turn the river from an engine of agriculture to an engine of suburbia. Some of them are pistachio and grape growers who want to convert their irrigation water to urban use. Believing the reclamation bureau will interpret water contracts their way, farmers-cum-developers have lined up behind Ewell with proposals to build thousands of houses along both sides of the river in Fresno and Madera counties.
Critics point out that much of the process, right down to meetings between developers, lawyers and reclamation bureaucrats, is taking place behind closed doors -- a new century's "Chinatown."
"There is a huge fight going on, sub rosa, over whether the river's flow will continue to irrigate farmland or be sold to development interests," said Lloyd Carter, a professor of water law at San Joaquin College of the Law and a longtime critic of the reclamation bureau.
"For years, the bureau rolled over for 'Big Ag' by never enforcing acreage limits on its water deliveries. Now they seem all too willing to roll over and become agents for the schemes of big developers," he said.
Driving along a country road in 1979, Ewell was struck by the idea of building a community amid the blue oaks and golden pastures beside Millerton Lake. Early on, he understood that the biggest hurdle was water. The rocky landscape, which made for a beautiful setting, also kept the Sierra snowmelt from easily replenishing the aquifer. With groundwater scarce, Ewell joined forces with Fresno County officials to hunt down enough farm water to make the project go.
They headed to Kern County and signed a deal to help pay for the construction of a canal in the massive Central Valley Project. For its role, Fresno County got 3,200 acre-feet of federal water. Ewell, who had chipped in $250,000, was given half the allotment.
But because his 1,500 acre-feet of water wasn't a sure thing -- the bureau could reduce deliveries in dry years -- Ewell needed a backup. He then made a separate deal with a Tulare County water agency to purchase 800 acre-feet of its federal draw.
Now all he needed was a way to pump and convey that water from Millerton Lake.
Ewell said he spent $2.5 million erecting a large steel structure with electrical pumps that he sunk by crane into the lake bottom. Then he hooked up a single main line to a $3-million water treatment plant. A portion of the water would go to his Brighton Crest country club development; the rest would remain in the lake for his new town.
"This isn't one of the those developments where they approve the houses and assume the water will come," Ewell said. "All along the way, the county made me show them the water before approving the plans for a single house."
But almost all of that water, at least as a legal matter, has turned out to be an illusion.
Ewell said the first hint of trouble came in July 1995, years after the reclamation bureau had assured him that everything was fine. The bureau's chief of contracts, Jon Anderson, wrote to Ewell that a new reading of the map had revealed a wrinkle. Two areas of the new town were outside the permitted place of use.
"You are advised not to use [federal] water acquired under the subcontract with County of Fresno on the property," Anderson wrote.
Ewell kept on watering his golf course even though two holes were outside the permitted zone. The county, which was sent a copy of the bureau's letter, didn't step in either, allowing the new town to move smoothly through the planning process. This contrasted sharply with the county's treatment of Shaver Lake, an older mountain community also deemed outside the permitted place of use.
In the case of Shaver, the county decided not to allow its supply of federal water to serve the area. Supervisors have held firm in that decision, even as Shaver residents have complained in recent months about water shortfalls.
"We think Millerton New Town is different," Desatoff said. "Why should we ding Ben Ewell for something the Bureau of Reclamation was unclear on?"
But bureau managers are quite clear now. Millerton New Town -- its pumps, its pipeline, its treatment plant, its graded home sites -- sits outside the line for municipal water deliveries. This is also the case with two other smaller developments nearby, they say. The line can be moved only after petitioning the state Water Resources Control Board and undergoing a lengthy review process.
"We're going to petition the state to change the line and allow continued use of that water," the bureau's McCracken said.
Until then, state water officials say, the county would be wise not to deliver water to future houses and golf courses.
"State law is pretty clear," said Barbara Leidigh, the water rights attorney who oversees the Friant region for the state water board. "If you're outside the line, it's an illegal use of water."