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A Water War Coming
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Early in June the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a Biological Opinion (BO) on the impacts of the State Water Project and Federal Water Project (Projects) on endangered salmon and steelhead fish populations. Both Projects pump water out of the Delta to send to the South part of the State and it is these actions that the BO addressed. The BO stated that in no uncertain terms, both salmon and steelhead were being harmed and immediate and long-term actions were necessary to protect them.
In NMFS’ Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives (RPA) Report a solution to help remedy the problem on the Stanislaus is to “take” 100,000 acre feet from the two irrigation districts during normal years and up to 300,000 acre feet in critical years. Those “irrigation districts” are South San Joaquin and Oakdale Irrigation Districts. Both districts are senior water right holders on the River and have a federal agreement with the USBR that allowed the Bureau to get its permits from the State Water Resources Control Board to operate New Melones. Under that agreement the Districts share the first 600,000 acre feet out of the basin. If this BO were in place in 2007 the OID would have received 150,000 acre feet of its 300,000 acre foot share; 150,000 in 2008; and 150,000 in 2009. The RPA supports taking 17 percent of the “irrigation districts” water supply in normal years and 50 percent of their water in 4 out of 10 years (critical years). That’s only enough water to meet the needs of 27,000 of the 55,000 irrigated acres in OID’s Service Area with similar draconian results for SSJID’s agricultural area.
The RPA is disturbing on a number of fronts; First and foremost OID and SSJID waters are not under federal control; SSJID and OID water rights are pre-1914 rights established before state controls were in place and they are adjudicated rights, affirmed in the State’s Supreme Court in 1929. Additionally, both districts signed an agreement affirming the seniority of those rights in the 1980s prior to the filling of the federal government’s New Melones Dam. It’s bad enough when federal agencies come in and circumvent or disregard state law, but it’s bad government when they disregard their own agreements.
In response to this action, both District Boards authorized the filing of a legal suit against NMFS and the USBR to stop this illegal, arbitrary and capricious taking of water. The water community as a whole is up in arms against the RPA Report and the proposed heavy handed approach taken by NMFS. Unfortunately NMFS position sets the stage for a protracted and expensive legal battle.

Steve Knell is the General Manager for Oakdale Irrigation District. He may be reached at (209) 847-0341.