Dam Water Will Be Tapped for First Time in Decades Amid California Drought

Water from a dam near Fresno is needed to help farmers because of low water levels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Water stored behind a dam north of Fresno will be tapped for the first time in decades as California and federal water officials looks for ways to alleviate the effects of a third-consecutive dry year with no relief in sight.

Water will begin to flow Thursday from Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation official said during a Tuesday conference call about California's drought emergency. The water will be used to help California farmers as they face a dry, hot summer and low water levels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The dam forms the Millerton Lake reservoir north of Fresno in the heart of California's Central Valley region. Millerton Lake water is needed to meet the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's contractual water obligations to the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority, which holds senior water rights. The exchange provides irrigation water to about 240,000 acres of farmland between Patterson and Mendota, a vital agricultural area along the 5 Freeway.

The bureau has relied solely on Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water to meet the exchange's needs, but extreme drought conditions throughout the state have forced officials to look at more options, including Friant Dam water.

"We continue to be in a very serious drought with very serious impacts," Pablo Arroyave, of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said Tuesday.

In 1939, the federal government reached an agreement with the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority to take its water from the Delta rather than the San Joaquin River, unless the Delta could not meet needs. In the drought, the Delta cannot provide enough water, marking a first since the agreement was struck.

Steve Chedester of the exchange said that more water is always good news for the 2,300 farms he serves. But he noted that the government said it will provide an increased amount of water through October. He worries about November and December, adding that the bureau said it remains committed to finding supplies for the exchange then.

Aside from these changes, the allotment of irrigation water to many Central Valley farmers who aren't considered senior rights holders is expected to remain at zero for the rest of the year, officials said.

The bureau also announced that it is increasing from 40 percent to 65 percent of normal the amount of water to wildlife refuges south of the Delta. Mike Lynes of Audubon California welcomed the additional water to help migratory birds that depend on the Central Valley wetlands for their survival.

"It's hard times for everybody -- for farmers, for water districts, folks in the city and for wildlife," he said. "We're all in this together."

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