Growers Group Awash in Water While Neighbors’ Crops Die Growers Group Awash in Water While Neighbors’ Crops Die

The liquid haul is enough to flood 630,000 football fields in a foot of water - while neighboring farmers watch their crops die.

It is an ironclad guarantee based on California's quirky water-allocation and priority system, which bestowed senior water rights over the past century based, essentially, on who showed up first to take the water. In short, the farmers who used San Joaquin River water for their crops and dairies before the Friant Dam was built in 1942 were guaranteed water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in exchange for allowing the dam to be built.

Friant Dam, on the San Joaquin River 25 miles northeast of Fresno, created Millerton Lake, which was used to supply farms and communities that sprang up later. The Bureau of Reclamationsupplies water to the exchange contractors through the Delta Mendota Canal, built in 1951.

'A good deal'

"This year they are getting more water than there would normally be in the river if the dams weren't in place," said Tom Stokely, the water policy analyst for the California Water Impact Network, who pointed out that the exchange contractors are getting about the same amount of water as the entire city of Los Angeles. "It certainly seems to me that these folks have a good deal."

The exchange contractors aren't the only ones. Almost 4,000 districts and farms, including the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors, have senior water rights in California, meaning rights secured based on historical use before 1914. It is an unbalanced, often unfair, system that many conservationists and water users are unhappy with, but nobody seems to know what to do about it.

Nowhere is the inequity more obvious, according to critics, than along the San Joaquin River. The exchange is getting three-quarters of its 840,000-acre-foot allotment this year, while the farmers in the neighboring Friant Water Users Authority are getting zero - as in, not a drop - from their normal source, Millerton Lake. An acre-foot is the amount it would take to cover an acre of land in a foot of water.

Water-intensive crops

The exchange contractors are, in fact, siphoning away some of the reservoir water that normally would be used by the Friant Water Users Authority. Because the delta was already overburdened by drought, the west-side farmers who are in the exchange are exercising their senior rights and taking their guaranteed allotment from Millerton Lake, the first time that has happened since 1951.

The water is being used to water almond, pistachio and walnut orchards, pomegranates, fruit trees, tomatoes and melons. Alfalfa and 25,000 acres of cotton are being grown, as well as small quantities of wheat, oats and barley. There are also 60 dairies in the district service area, according to Steve Chedester, executive director of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors.

The almond and other orchard trees are water-intensive. Cotton and alfalfa are some of the thirstiest crops, but Chedester said farmers in his district are more water-conscious than ever. The amount of cotton grown by exchange farmers has been reduced by about 55,000 acres in the past 15 years, he said.

The water saved, Chedester said, is being sold to other districts. "We moved 13,500 acre-feet over to the districts most in need."

Chedester contends that the system is as fair as it can be.