Fight Intensifies Over California Water

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Seventeen California water districts sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, claiming its unprecedented diversion of water to farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley will leave them without any water from Millerton Lake this year, killing orchards and vineyards on the east side.
     Lead plaintiff the Friant Water Authority, and 16 other irrigation districts, claim the bureau is misusing water from the San Luis Reservoir by diverting it to wildlife refuges, the Grassland Resource Conservation District, and other junior water rights holders.
     Friant represents 150,000 farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.
      The Bureau of Reclamation is required to release water from Millerton Reservoir to west side farmers if no other reliable water sources are available, based on agreements signed in 1939, 1955 and 1967. But it has never been necessary until now, after three years of prolonged and debilitating drought, which has exacerbated historical tensions between farmers on the east and west sides of the San Joaquin river over dwindling water resources.
     "Under their agreement with the United States, the Exchange Contractors reserved their rights to use the water of San Joaquin River if the Bureau fails to provide sufficient substitute water to comply with the agreement in any given year. Before this year, this has never occurred," the lawsuit states.
     Friant members claim their needs have priority.
     "The Bureau of Reclamation's decision to use water from the Millerton Reservoir to meet its obligations to the Exchange Contractors poses an immediate threat of irreparable harm to Friant Water Authority and its members," the complaint states. "Many of the small, family-owned farms served by Friant Water Authority's members have relied on Friant's consistent water supply to plant citrus, almond, plum, olive, peach, walnut, and pistachio trees and vines that produce both table and wine grapes - plants that take years to cultivate before they start producing. The Bureau of Reclamation's unlawful decisions will put many of these farmers out of business."
     The Friant members want an injunction prohibiting the Bureau of Reclamation from reserving San Luis Reservoir Water for deliveries to the wildlife refuges until an appropriate amount of water is sent to the west side growers.
     Their lead counsel is Thomas Mayhew with Farella Braun + Martel, of San Francisco.