Months without rain in California have given notice that the state does not have enough water in storage to get through really bad dry periods, especially in the San Joaquin Valley. Farmers in eastern portions of the Valley, around Fresno, are particularly vulnerable. My new blog looks at a highly controversial plan to build a new dam, called Temperance Flat, in the upper San Joaquin River behind the Federally operated Friant Dam. Farmers want it; environmentalists oppose it; water officials and politicians line up on both sides of the issue. It’s a fascinating story, rooted in one of the most painful chapters in California water history. Blog follows:
Down the spine of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains south of Yosemite, huge granite peaks stand shoulder to shoulder more than 13,000 feet high, with no passage through them. Only hikers can cross the rugged range for more than 200 miles.
|Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lakes mark the headwaters of the San Joaquin
River in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Photo by Alex Breitler
These tall mountains – the Southern Sierras – extending from the San Joaquin River watershed east of Fresno to the southern edge of Sequoia National Forest, epitomize California’s erratic water supply. In wet years, so much water pours down the mountains that its volume would scare the daylights out of any creature without wings. In drought years, meager streams cannot fill the reservoirs.
A Year Like No Other
“This year, no one has water” said Mario Santoyo, assistant general manager of Friant Water Authority near Fresno, a unit of the Federal Central Valley Project that provides irrigation for 15,000 farmers in eastern San Joaquin Valley. “The public has no idea how bad this is going to be….there will be nothing,” said Santoyo glumly. Friant Dam distributes water to more than a million acres of fertile fields that lie mostly east of highway 99, from Madera to Kern County. The area produces more crops per volume than any other in the nation.
Behind the dam, Millerton reservoir was dangerously low as of Feb. 7, and Friant’s managers were scouring the state to find more water. We were on a boat on Millerton, touring the site of a proposed new dam, Temperance Flat, that could rise at the back end of the lake, more than doubling storage in the reservoir. (Because of its position in low hills, Friant Dam cannot be raised).
Temperance Flat is one of the most controversial storage projects in California. Farmers want it; environmentalists oppose it; Federal officials have left it on the shelf for years. But this year, in the wake of California’s epic drought year, the project is alive and well. Like nothing else, these months with no precipitation have driven home the awareness that California does not have enough water in storage to get through really bad dry periods.