NRDC and Farmers Reach Agreement on Valley Water Contracts

Contracts Made Subject to San Joaquin River Restoration Effort

SAN FRANCISCO (February 16, 2001) - Under an agreement reached this week by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), 25 irrigation districts in the Central Valley Project’s Friant Division, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, new 25-year water contracts for farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley will be modified to facilitate future restoration of the San Joaquin River. NRDC negotiated the agreement on behalf of a coalition of environmental and fishing groups.

"The Friant water users and the federal government heard our concerns about providing for river restoration in the contracts," said Hal Candee, NRDC senior attorney. "We’re pleased that the contracts were amended to take into account the need for future changes to restore the San Joaquin River’s health.

"Given our past two years of progress on the San Joaquin, we all agreed that it’s more productive to keep working together toward restoring the river," Candee continued. "If we’re successful at creating a consensus restoration plan, then the agreement provides for the contracts to be altered in whatever ways are necessary to restore the river. If we don’t succeed in reaching a consensus restoration plan, then NRDC will go back to court -- not just to restore the river, but also to invalidate the new contracts."

NRDC leads a coalition of 15 environmental and fishing organizations that filed a lawsuit against the original Friant renewal contracts in 1988. In 1998, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals invalidated all previous Friant long-term renewal contracts. The current San Joaquin River consensus restoration process is part of an ongoing effort by the coalition and Friant water users to settle that pending lawsuit. So far, collaboration between the groups, with support from the federal and state governments, has resulted in new water flows in a dry stretch of the river in each of the past two summers.

The San Joaquin is the second-longest river in California and one of the two main sources of freshwater for San Francisco Bay. Before Friant Dam was built, the upper San Joaquin River supported the southernmost chinook salmon population in North America. Over the past 50 years, operation of the dam by the Bureau of Reclamation eliminated the salmon and has dried up vast sections of the river.

"We’re optimistic that the settlement process will lead to a positive outcome in the form of a restored San Joaquin River for all Californians. If we achieve that, it will show that environmentalists and farmers can successfully work together to make real progress on water issues in California," Candee concluded.