The Bureau of Reclamation has notified the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Authority (Exchange Contractors) that due to the exceptionally dry conditions, the Exchange Contractors will only be receiving 40% (or 336,000 acre-feet) this year, far below their 75% (or 650,000 acre-feet) critical year entitlement that is specified in their contracts.
The San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Authority serves approximately 240,000 acres of prime farmland located east of I-5 and west of the San Joaquin River, spanning from Patterson to Mendota. The Exchange Contractors are comprised of the Central California Irrigation District, the San Luis Canal Company, the Firebaugh Canal Water District, and the Columbia Canal Company, and together, they hold some of the oldest water rights in the Central Valley, dating back to the establishment of the Miller and Lux cattle empire in the late 1800s.
During construction of the Central Valley Project, development of the Friant Project between Chowchilla and Bakersfield depended upon water from the San Joaquin River being diverted at Friant Dam, rather than flowing downstream to the west to satisfy the established water rights of Miller and Lux. So the government asked the heirs of Miller and Lux to agree to exchange their water from the San Joaquin and Kings River for water instead from the Sacramento River that would be delivered them through Reclamation facilities. The water right holders agreed, and the necessary agreements were reached in 1939. Those agreements guaranteed the Exchange Contractors 100% of their contractual water allotment of 840,000 acre feet, except in critical years where the amount is reduced to 75%, or 650,000 acre-feet.
Those agreements, however, did not contemplate the drastically dry conditions the state is currently experiencing, and in the letter, Reclamation cites the need to conserve water for public health and safety purposes as the reason for the 40% allocation, instead of the contractual 75% allocation for a critically dry year.
The letter foresees further difficulties on the horizon:
“ … the SWRCB will be conducting workshops to obtain additional, up to date information on the operations of the state and federal water projects. Based on the uncertainty of these actions, Reclamation, along with other junior and possibly senior water right appropriators may be compelled to comply with the curtailment notices and other orders from the SWRCB. This could further complicate Reclamation’s ability to service all CVP users, including deliveries under your contract.”
This situation has not occurred before. It is important to note that the Exchange Contractors did not abandon their San Joaquin River water rights, but instead, agreed not to exercise those rights if water deliveries were continued by Reclamation through other means. The Exchange Contractors website states: “In the event that the Bureau is unable to make its contracted deliveries of substitute water to the Exchange Contractors, the Exchange Contractors have reserved the right to receive their water from the San Joaquin River to satisfy their historic water rights.”
Whether they will choose to do so remains to be seen.
For more information:
- Read the full text of the letter here: Settlement_SJRECWA_Allocation_2-15-2014
- Click here to visit the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Authority online.
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