Environmentalists file new complaint in Friant Dam dispute

Tuesday July 29, 2003

CBS News

SACRAMENTO (AP) The federal government has not completed an adequate environmental review before renewing long-term contracts with farmers who receive water from the San Joaquin River, according to the latest legal complaint from environmental groups.

The filing in U.S. District Court in Sacramento last week is the seventh amended complaint by environmental groups in a 1989 lawsuit over the state's second largest river.

The groups, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Friant Water Users Authority over their failure to release water from the Friant Dam to sustain the fish and surrounding wildlife, saying it had caused parts of the San Joaquin River to dry up.

The NRDC claims the dam is subject to the same laws that require all other dams in California to release water to nurture fish populations.

Before the Reclamation Bureau built the dam, about 20 miles northeast of Fresno, in the 1940s, the river supported thousands of spawning Chinook salmon.

The Friant agency delivers water from the dam to about 15,000 farmers and several towns from Merced to Kern counties.

In 1999, the water authority and environmental groups had reached an initial settlement and agreed to negotiate a plan for restoring 267 miles of the San Joaquin until talks broke down in April, with both sides blaming each other.

The NRDC claims the river can be restored without hurting the area's agricultural economy. Farmers say restoring the San Joaquin for salmon would take nearly all the water away from farmers and residents.

``What we've got here, frankly, is environmental elitists in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.,'' said Kole Upton, Friant water authority chairman and a Merced County farmer. ``What they're proposing doesn't affect their families or their lives, so they can impose their elitist agenda on common folk in the Valley. I don't think we will lose this one.''

Hal Candee, an NRDC attorney, said if San Joaquin River users conserved their water or flushed more clean Friant water down to where it could be pumped into a canal and sent back to farmers, they could restore the river without hurting farmers.

``We've always pushed for a balance between water needs. The problem is that now there is no balance. It all goes to water users,'' Candee said.

Meanwhile, water users say they are working on their own plan to restore the San Joaquin, funded by $1 million in grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


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