Plans for a new dam on the San Joaquin River above Millerton Lake are on a collision course with a new proposal from the Bureau of Land Management to designate a portion of the area as a “Wild and Scenic River.” Conservationists say it would save some rare land values while improving public access, but supporters of the dam say the designation would essentially kill the project. What does the incoming Trump administration mean for the reservoir? FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports.
Spelunker Paul Martzen and I are crawling into a cave system a mile or so east of Millerton Lake along the San Joaquin River.
“You can see how the rock has been carved into fantastic shapes by the water over hundreds of thousands of years. It would take another hundred thousand years to recreate it,” says Martzen.
Spelunkers from around the country travel here to meander through the cave system. But the caves are in trouble. If plans for a reservoir called Temperance Flat are approved the caves would sit several hundred feet under water.
“We have something so unique to this area and we are going to destroy it in favor of crops that we already have surplus of and that just seems like a tremendous shame because we've got gazillions of oranges and only one cave like this,” says Martzen.
Even still Temperance Flat is being touted as reservoir that could help solve the California water crisis. It’d be sort of a reservoir within a reservoir upstream of Millerton Lake. It’d increase the capacity of both Friant Dam and itself to around 1.5 million acre-feet.
Extra runoff from really wet years would be captured creating water storage that farms and towns could tap into.Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley says the project is needed especially for farms and towns on the east side of the Valley hit hardest by the drought. Worthley says the new presidential administration could move the project forward faster.
“We think that this incoming administration may be more resource oriented and a little less preservation minded than some of the previous administrations,” says Worthley.
That’s a dig at the Bureau of Land Management's proposal to preserve an area of the river as wild and scenic. That five or so mile strip of river is in the reservoir area and would need federal approval. If the river gets the designation it would make it nearly impossible to build the reservoir. Worthley also thinks the proposed $3.3 billion reservoir could be used to create a system for year round groundwater recharge.
“Instead of trying to hold as much water back as you could, you would as the opportunity presents itself you would release water into recharge basins that already exist and certainly many more that can be developed,” Worthley says.
It’s not just farmers in Tulare County that support the project. Mario Santoyo is with the California Latino Water Coalition.
“At the end of the day you really have to weigh out what the value of this large project produce to the larger population versus the loss to some individuals,” Santoyo says.
Farmers like Zack Stuller in Ivanhoe say the potential extra water from Temperance Flat would alleviate his need to pump groundwater. Today he’s pumping well water into giant ponds that he’ll flood his fields with to keep oranges and mandarins from freezing.
“To do what we’re doing here my wells are running 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep this reservoir full and I’m only irrigating a quarter of the time,” says Stuller.
Stuller says if there was year round flow of surface water to his eastside farm he wouldn’t have to pump groundwater at all. Even though Stuller thinks Temperance Flat is a good idea, he also is a little skeptical. He’s only for the project if it’s cost effective.
“Any damn that we can get built in this day and age is a good thing, but I want it to be the most efficient process and for the farmers to get the most bang for their buck,” Stuller says. “I don’t think we should spend billions and billion of dollars and not reap the benefits.”
Stuller isn’t the only person skeptical of the project not panning out financially. Pacific Institute Scientist Peter Gleick thinks the reservoir isn’t worth the environmental or economic cost.
“It’s a massively expensive project that effectively produces a tiny amount of new water that can be allocated on a river that's already grossly over allocated,” says Gleick. It’s hard for me to think of any pros.”
Another person that hates the idea of Temperance is Anita Lodge. Her great-great grandfather set up camp along the San Joaquin above MIllerton Lake in the 1800s.
“He was walking up the canyon hunting and he ran into a gold miner and he traded his rifle for the gold mine,’ says Lodge. “Then he went back and got his wife and they moved up here actually on the claim.
The family never left and built homes along the San Joaquin River. Today the Lodge’s two-story rustic home is surrounded by public land. As she refills her wood burning stove with logs she says Temperance Flat would basically drown her house."
“I can’t believe they would be even considering it,” Lodge says. “It makes me sick. It’s been so much of part of our legacy. It’s always been the central hub of our family and it would all be lost.”
It’s still early for the project to get a green light, but the Bureau of Reclamation will have a final feasibility study and an environmental impact report out sometime in 2017. The Bureau of Land Management has already released their first study on the wild and scenic river proposal and now it's up to the next administration to decide which direction it goes.