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Settlement Will Provide Water for Parched River

After a long fight, the San Joaquin will get enough year-round to revive a salmon run.

August 20, 2006|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

FRIANT, Calif. — "Remember this, water is California's most valuable possession -- we need every drop that falls on the mountains and on the plains."

The speaker was Gov. Earl Warren. The year was 1949. The occasion was the opening of two giant valves at the base of Friant Dam, for the first time sending the cold, Sierra-fed waters of the San Joaquin River pouring into an irrigation canal big enough to float a destroyer.

In few places in California was Warren's mandate taken to heart as conscientiously as at Friant, northeast of Fresno.

By the time the 151-mile canal running to Bakersfield, the Friant-Kern, was inaugurated two years after Warren's speech with a fly-over of 100 planes and flotilla of bathing beauties in cruising power boats, one of California's greatest rivers was in its death throes, swallowed virtually whole by the nation's biggest irrigation project.

About 60 miles of the San Joaquin, the state's second-longest river, shriveled to dust as its mountain waters were rerouted to a million acres of farmland up and down the arid eastern flanks of the San Joaquin Valley.

A chinook salmon run of tens of thousands was wiped out.

The lower stretch of the San Joaquin filled with runoff and farm drain water so tainted that it came to be known as the "lower colon of California."

Now, thanks to a settlement in a tortured, nearly two-decade-long court fight, the San Joaquin is about to get some of its water back.

The agreement, in the final stages of approval, is designed to resurrect the salmon run and return year-round flows to the river for the first time since Harry Truman was president.

"The San Joaquin was just killed," said Harrison "Hap" Dunning, a UC Davis emeritus law professor and authority on water law. "It's a monumental restoration."

It has not come easily.

Kole Upton is a 63-year-old Chowchilla grower with a sharp sense of humor, an engineering degree from Stanford, and 1,200 acres of cotton, corn, almonds and wheat that would wither without water from the San Joaquin.

He has been one of the leaders in years of off-and-on settlement negotiations involving growers, environmentalists and the federal government, which operates the dam.

He says he takes a lot of grief for dealing with environmentalists. Other growers tell him: "You're selling us out."

But he said he thought there was no choice but to deal, and ultimately settle, after a series of unfavorable court decisions in a 1988 environmental lawsuit made it clear that if the growers didn't help decide how much water to put back in the river, a federal judge would do it for them.

"We've been through this for 18 years," he said. "We spent a lot of money. We delayed as long as we could."

Everywhere Upton drove that morning there was water from the San Joaquin. It bubbled up like a clear spring from underground irrigation pipes at the edge of a field of waist-high cotton plants dotted with white and pink blossoms. It glistened in the sun as it flowed down long, neat furrows.

It dropped into a large concrete culvert at 1,600 gallons a minute, pumped from lateral No. 2, a feeder canal that runs from the 35-mile-long Madera Canal that snakes north from the dam.

The pumping would continue round the clock for two days to draw enough water to irrigate one 80-acre cotton field.

Twenty-four hours earlier the water had been in Millerton Lake, the 15-mile-long reservoir that backs up behind Friant.

Beyond Upton's fields, on the distant horizon, rose the hazy outlines of the Sierra peaks that give birth to the 350-mile-long San Joaquin River near Yosemite National Park.

Asked if he ever looked at the river and thought of what it had been, he replied: "I'm part Indian. I think more about what they did to the Indians.

"Congress in the 1930s decided to dry it up," Upton added.

"We can argue whether they should or should not. But they did. And a lot of people based their lives on that water being available. And it worked," Upton said.

Still, he's glad the case seems to be finally over. "If we can deal with people like the Red Chinese, why can't we get along on California water issues?"

On the other side of the negotiating table from Upton has been Hal Candee, a Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney who helped file the San Joaquin lawsuit 18 years ago on behalf of a coalition of conservation and fishing groups.

Candee, 53, has been involved ever since, driven by outrage that the federal government took a valuable public resource -- water -- and turned it over to a single constituency -- agriculture.

"It was handouts to a favored clientele with no regard to impacts downstream," Candee said.

For the slender, bespectacled Princeton graduate from New Jersey, the settlement is not just a victory for the San Joaquin. It is another step in a struggle to loosen Western agriculture's historic hold on massive amounts of cheap federal water and give some of it back to the environment.

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