San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

Editorial: Water bombshell. Judge's ruling on San Joaquin River may actually help clarify matters.

Fresno Bee - August 31, 2004

A judge's ruling Friday that the federal government broke the law when it built Friant Dam doesn't end the war between farmers and environmentalists over control of the water behind the dam, but it may clear some of the smoke from the battlefield.

Environmentalists hailed the ruling as a big step toward restoration of the river; farmers along the Valley's east side, who use most of the water for irrigation, predicted economic catastrophe. But no final outcome is likely for some time, given the appeals and bureaucratic wrangling that is sure to continue.

What does seem clear is that restoration of the river is no longer a matter of if, but rather of when.

Even that doesn't tell us much. What kind of restoration? How much? At what cost, and to whom?

U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton answered none of those questions in his ruling, and hasn't said yet whether he'll throw the problem into the laps of state officials or divide the waters himself. Doing the job himself might lead to a more objective solution than is possible in the highly politicized atmosphere of state water politics, and would certainly take less time. But for now, we don't know which direction he'll choose. A couple of things are clear, however. More study is needed. Both environmentalists and farmers take exception with parts of the scientific research that's been done on the issue of restoration. Those questions must be answered to the general satisfaction before moving ahead.

More important are some realities that have to be faced.

Some environmentalists dream fondly of the day that Friant Dam is taken down and the full flow of the river restored. That won't happen and shouldn't. Irrigation isn't the only purpose of the dam. Friant Dam also protects an increasingly dense urban area from flood waters.

Nor can the multibillion east side ag industry, with its 15,000 farms -- most of them family operated -- be blithely sacrificed. The economic ripples from that would decimate a whole series of small towns and cities along the Valley's east side, from Chowchilla to Kern County. That's not acceptable.

By the same token, farmers must reconcile themselves to the fact that some considerable amount of restoration will take place.

All that means it is increasingly likely that new storage -- another dam upstream of Friant -- will be needed to satisfy all the various and growing needs. That won't go down well with environmentalists, and it won't be easy to pay for, but it's difficult to see another practical solution.

And that's what we must have: a practical solution. Farmers can't have all the water for irrigation; environmentalists can't have it all for restoration.

To the extent that the judge's ruling last week injected a greater sense of urgency into the issue, it's welcome. As for the rest -- we'll have to wait and see.#

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