The Freeport Regional Water Authority water intake facility and pumping plant located on the Sacramento River, upstream of the town of Freeport. John Chacon / DWR

GUEST COMMENTARY: San Joaquin County Deserves a Fair Chance to Develop its American River Water Right Application

Commentary written by San Joaquin County Supervisors Chuck Winn and Kathy Miller

Last month, the State Water Resources Control Board (SCWRB) held a public hearing on the pending water-right application of San Joaquin County for a permit to appropriate water from the South Fork American River at the Freeport Regional Water Authority Facility on the Sacramento River. The hearing spawned a lot of misinformed conjecture, especially among Sacramento County water interests, as to why San Joaquin County should receive priority water rights to the American River superseding other Sacramento-area water providers.

It cannot be emphasized enough that San Joaquin County never intended to rely on the American River. The SWRCB and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) forced us into this position in the 1950’s by directing the County onto the American River to meet its water needs. Due to this regulatory action, the County was denied local sources of surface water supply, principally from the Stanislaus and Mokelumne rivers. With false hope given by failed promises of water from the cancelled Auburn Dam as well as restricted access to other local rivers, the County filed a 1990 water right application on the American River to help ensure future water supplies.

The Freeport Regional Water Authority water intake facility and pumping plant located on the Sacramento River, upstream of the town of Freeport. John Chacon / DWR

Based on binding directives from State and Federal regulators, San Joaquin County has a legitimate claim on the South Fork of the American River for water needed to preserve the agricultural economy, stop groundwater overdraft, provide for current and future water needs, survive drought, address loss of existing water supplies due to state regulations, and respond to climate change. Throughout the application process spanning several decades, SWRCB and USBR have agreed citing, “We affirm that there is a public interest in supporting efforts of San Joaquin County to obtain adequate water supplies”. 

The current water right application seeks to divert American River water downstream off the Sacramento River at Freeport. This would be done only in above normal and wet years, putting this water into groundwater storage for use in dry years. San Joaquin County would not rely on Folsom Reservoir storage, would not change the reservoir’s operation, and would pass water down the American River with negligible effect on fishery resources or American River Forum flow management standards. There are no water diversions proposed in the application during normal, below normal, or dry years.

Just as Sacramento-area stakeholders are searching for reliable water supplies for ever-expanding commercial and residential growth projects in areas like Natomas, Elk Grove, and Folsom, San Joaquin County also has essential priorities that require sustainable resources. American River water is necessary to meet long-term needs; provide a reliable, resilient source of supply; provide water for recharge to reduce overdraft; respond to drought and climate change; and meet ultimate levels of demand for all beneficial uses. Project planning is underway to address each of these priorities where American River water is part of the equation.

San Joaquin County understands the complexity of this water rights application and does not take its significance for granted. The County has diligently pursued the American River water right application by engaging in regional water management planning efforts, such as developing the Integrated Conjunctive Use Program, Integrated Water Management Plan process, and Eastern San Joaquin Groundwater Sustainability plan. All of these efforts rely in part upon the American River water for use and groundwater recharge in the County. The County has also completed two feasibility studies to identify and refine alternatives for using American River water. Further, the County and our partners have demonstrated that there is both water available and capacity in the Freeport diversion facility and have made great progress in identifying and addressing potential environmental impacts from proposed projects and operations.

Most importantly, the County is proud of the trust-based relationships that have been built with our local water partners. We have developed a joint pilot project with East Bay Municipal Utilities District and the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District to evaluate groundwater banking opportunities and for American and Mokelumne River water. Finally, the County recently executed a letter of intent with our two largest water purveyors, the City of Stockton and California Water Service Company, to negotiate and enter into an agreement to pursue the water right application jointly.

The SWRCB has an opportunity to make good on their past promises by ensuring San Joaquin County has a sufficient opportunity to develop the water supplies it assured us generations ago by allowing us to proceed with our American River water rights application. We look forward to continued progress on our application and working in genuine and honest collaboration with our fellow Sacramento Valley neighbors to protect and enhance our collective water resources.

Chuck Winn (4th District) and Katherine Miller (2nd District) both serve on the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors.

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