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Valley Growers At Odds Over Millerton Lake Water

Ezra David Romero
Valley Public Radio
Millerton Lake is the site of the state's latest water fight, pitting downtstream San Joaquin River growers against those who typically get Friant water on the valley's east side.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced today that for the first in this history of Friant Dam, the oldest water rights holders on the San Joaquin River - the Exchange Contractors  - will begin to draw down water from Millerton Lake.

The move pits farmers in Merced County against those on the east side of the valley from Fresno to Kern, and underscores the divide between the holders of historic water rights, and those whose supplies came about in the middle of the 20th century.

Cannon Michael, president of Bowles Farming in Dos Palos and part of the Exchange Contractors, says the move was unprecedented but necessary. 

Michael: "The decision is a historic one obviously because we haven't ever had to make a call back on the San Joaquin River. It's less than an ideal situation for everybody. But operationally and from a water rights standpoint Reclamation has to make some tough decisions this year."

The Exchange Contractors got their name through a water swap that dates back to the beginning of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project. When the CVP's Friant Dam began to divert the historic water flows on the San Joaquin River to supply the east side of the valley, farmers downstream on the San Joaquin agreed to exchange their river water for supplies from Northern California through the Delta-Mendota Canal. But in the event of an extremely dry year without water from the north, the Exchange Contractors retained their rights to call on water from the San Joaquin. And that's exactly what happened with Tuesday's announcement. 

Michael says that while the Exchange Contractors worked with the Bureau of Reclamation and the east side's Friant Water Users Authority, he recognizes the move will be controversial.

Michael: "Obviously it's going to be an imposition on Friant, and I know they're considering their legal options."

It's unclear exactly how much water the Exchange Contractors will receive. Under their agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation, they are entitled to 75 percent of their normal supply, but Michael says that's not likely to happen this year. 

Michael: "The trajectory is already set for most people. The time is limited. Even if they increased summer supplies now, there's nothing anybody can plant. We're already into middle May, and the water decisions for 2014 have already been made." 

Joel Nelson of Californian Citrus Mutual, which represents many east side growers who typically get water from Millerton Lake through the Friant Kern Canal issued a statement blasting the decision. 

The federal government also announced Tuesday that wildlife refuges south of the Delta will receive 65 percent of their normal supplies. 

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