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San Joaquin River Settlement must be changed

Kole Upton Guest Comment December 31, 2008, Capital Press

We Americans are a decent people. We decry injustice and strive for our country to reflect the ideas and values we hold so dear. So, it was distressing to read your recent editorial endorsing the San Joaquin River Settlement.

This settlement signed some 27 months ago was a good-faith attempt to solve a longstanding lawsuit in a true American spirit of common sense and integrity. It involved farmers giving up water to restore a self-sustaining salmon fishery that was dried up by Congress in the 1940s. Congress did this to provide surface water to a vast area of the San Joaquin valley to offset the overdraft of the underground aquifer.

The program worked remarkably well and resulted in a million acres of the best farmland in the world with embedded communities of 1.25 million people.

The environmentalists got what they had demanded in court, a fishery that costs the most money and requires the most water. The option of a lesser fishery having less effect on the Friant service area was rejected. However, as part of the settlement, environmentalists promised to help mitigate the water losses to the area.

Instead, they have filed lawsuit after lawsuit over delta issues that have had the effect of seriously compromising any program to get our water back. In addition, these new lawsuits will require the superior water rights holders (the exchange contractors) to receive their water in some years from Friant Dam instead of the delta. Thus, instead of being able to mitigate our losses, we have lost a major tool to accomplish this goal, and another straw has been added to the dam.

The result will be the ultimate loss of 200,000 to 300,000 acres of fertile farmland, plus the expected detrimental effect on the communities in the Friant service area. We will see the same effect visited on our area as happened on the westside of the valley following the passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act in 1992.

More distressing than your recent editorial is the mindset it represents as to how society is viewing this settlement. Despite the many changes in the intervening months, the public relations campaign promoting it has not wavered. It is being promoted as a victory of reason as opposed to letting a federal judge decide a region's fate. Federal judges are frequently blamed by politicians and society for our water problems. In fact, the judges are merely enforcing the laws passed by our elected officials. In this case, the judge is relying on a California law (Section 5937 of the California Fish and Game Code) that states there must be a fishery in good condition below every dam.

The California legislature could declare that 5937's requirements are fulfilled with a warm water fishery, and society would have a live river without devastating the Friant service area. Don't hold your breath. Most California legislators apparently have already decided common sense is not needed to fulfill their duties.

The settlement is not yet law because Congress has not acted on it. However, this bill is part of an omnibus package of 150 bills that is expected to be passed in January.

When the negotiated settlement was presented to Congress, it was my expectation that Congress would look at it from a broader perspective for society as a whole. However, the government, the environmentalists, and the sponsoring legislators (Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Congressman George Radanovich) viewed this as a rubber stamp endorsing what the judge had ordered and had been negotiated. That was fine in September 2006, but a lot has happened since then.

In our society, we expect our legislators to make responsible decisions. How can the sponsoring legislators ignore the intervening events of the past 27 months? How can they continue to maintain this is a landmark compromise of great benefit to society? How can they ignore the effects of losing 200,000 to 300,000 agricultural acres, especially in this time of economic chaos? They will be taking away our most essential input for economic recovery.

What they should do is demonstrate true leadership and stand up to the environmentalists who have reneged on this agreement. They should take the decision out of the federal judge's hands, and enact a law establishing a live river but one that enables the Friant service area to survive. The excuse that they must do what the judge says and appease the environmentalists is a cop out, and an abdication of their responsibilities as representatives of all the people.

Kole Upton farms almonds, pistachios, corn, cotton, oats and wheat in Merced and Madera counties in California. He is a director of the Chowchilla and LeGrand-Athlone water districts and of the Madera-Chowchilla Water and Power Authority and chairman of the City of Chowchilla/Red-Top Conservation District Joint Powers Authority as well as the Merced Sphere of Influence Water Users Association.
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