Friant Water Users Reject San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement

Conservation and Fishing Groups Say Historic Plan to Bring Dead River Back to Life Will Still Move Forward

Growers' Action Sends 15-Year-Old Case Back to Court

SAN FRANCISCO (April 17, 2003) -- A settlement proposal to restore the San Joaquin River and resolve one of California's longest-running water disputes has been rejected by water districts who have diverted all the river's water for more than 50 years. By walking away from a federal mediator's final compromise proposal, the Friant Water Users Authority ended four years of negotiations with a coalition of conservation and fishing groups led by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), sending the case back to court.

If the Friant irrigation districts had accepted the compromise settlement proposal by the Chief Mediator of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, it would have marked an historic agreement between conservationists, fishing groups and farmers to restore flows and salmon populations to California's second largest river, which currently runs dry below Friant Dam. It also would have prevented a return to litigation, where the Friant farmers repeatedly have lost major rulings in both the trial and appellate courts. The current stay of litigation expires on April 22.

"We are disappointed and puzzled that Friant rejected this historic opportunity to restore the San Joaquin River," said Jared Huffman, NRDC staff attorney and San Joaquin River project manager. "After swallowing the entire river for more than 50 years, the Friant water districts just can't swallow the idea of changing business as usual."

The dispute centers on whether the federally owned Friant Dam near Fresno is subject to the same laws that require all other dams in California to release water to sustain fish. Unlike other major dams, Friant releases no water for the environment, causing parts of the river to completely dry up. Before the dam was built in the 1940s, the river supported hundreds of thousands of spawning salmon every year, the southernmost Chinook salmon run in North America.

The Friant water districts' gamble could put its users in a difficult position. The water users and their co-defendant, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the dam, have lost repeated rulings in the 15-year court battle. After Judge Lawrence Karlton of the U.S. District Court in Sacramento invalidated the water districts' federal water contracts in 1997, the U.S. government declined to appeal. The water districts appealed, anyway, and lost. The parties then began a four-year settlement process, during which they commissioned several joint studies of how the river could be restored in a balanced manner that would meet the water supply needs of current users. They also agreed that all new water contracts for Friant water users would depend on the outcome of the case.

"The comprehensive studies conducted by Friant and the environmental coalition over the past four years demonstrate that a living river can be restored while preserving a strong and healthy agricultural economy," said Gary Bobker, program director of the Bay Institute and one of the lead negotiators for the coalition. "In fact, there are dozens of water management measures that can be employed to benefit both farmers and the environment. But by rejecting the settlement proposal, Friant is trading a world of cooperation -- where partnerships with conservationists, government agencies and other water users, coupled with major funding for environmental and water management initiatives from Proposition 50 and other sources, would help support a smooth transition to restoring the river -- for a world of non-cooperation where the river will have to wait for a solution from the court."

"Historically the upper San Joaquin River was a major source of water to the delta," said Tom Zuckerman of the Central Delta Water Agency, which represents farmers in San Joaquin County. "Friant Dam cut off those flows and caused harm all the way downstream. This was aggravated by the export of water from the delta to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and the return of polluted drainage water back into the river. The Bureau of Reclamation's management has had a terrible impact on the health of the river and downstream agriculture -- all the way through the delta."

There is no question that the river will be restored, according to the NRDC, which leads 15 conservation and fishing groups in the case representing more than 2 million members. The plaintiffs say the only question is whether it will be accomplished through a mediated settlement or by court order.

"We must ensure that through balanced planning we can protect this vital public resource for farmers, families, fish and wildlife, not just for ourselves, but for our children and all future generations," said Huffman. "Only by taking action now to restore the river can we protect both our economy and our quality of life."

Despite significant concerns, the NRDC coalition accepted the mediator's confidential settlement proposal. "After meeting with both sides for months, the mediator proposed a compromise that would restore the San Joaquin River while ensuring an adequate, long-term water supply for Friant area farmers," said Huffman. "Neither side got everything it wanted in the mediator's proposal, but we made the difficult decision to accept this compromise in order to get on with the task of restoring the river."

"The drying up of the San Joaquin River has caused devastating hardship for California's fishermen and the communities they support," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Restoring the river will benefit a broad cross-section of the state, but it appears the growers who are calling the shots at Friant prefer to keep all the water themselves and continue to impoverish the fishermen."

NRDC v. Rodgers Milestones
  • December 20, 1988: NRDC and coalition of conservation and fishing groups sue the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over its operation of Friant Dam and renewal of water supply contracts.

  • April 30, 1992: The U.S. District Court in Sacramento rejects the Bureau of Reclamation's claim to be exempt from California's Fish & Game Code §5937.

  • October 12, 1993: The District Court rules that the Bureau of Reclamation must comply with Fish & Game Code § 5937 at Friant Dam.

  • May 31, 1995: The District Court holds that the Bureau of Reclamation violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when it renewed the Friant water supply contracts.

  • January 16, 1997: The District Court rescinds the 14 Friant renewal contracts for violating ESA.

  • June 24, 1998: The U.S. Court of Appeals affirms the District Court's orders finding that the Bureau of Reclamation violated the Endangered Species Act and rescinding the Friant contracts.

  • January 18, 1999: The District Court orders the case stayed to allow initial settlement discussions. Over the next four years, the environmentalists and Friant contractors commission joint studies for consensual restoration program and cooperate on restoration projects.

  • May 17, 1999: The U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear the Friant contractors' appeal from the Court of Appeals.

  • July 30, 1999: The District Court extends the stay, at the parties' request, to allow settlement discussions to proceed.

  • October 13, 1999: District Court grants second extension of stay.

  • October 23, 2000: District Court grants third extension of stay.

  • October 11, 2001: District Court grants fourth extension of stay.

  • November 19, 2002: District Court grants fifth extension of stay and orders the environmentalists and Friant contractors into mediation before the Chief Mediator of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

  • March 18, 2003: District Court orders sixth extension of stay.

  • April 16, 2003: The Friant contractors reject the Chief Mediator's final settlement proposal.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.