You are hereFarmer seeks payment over San Joaquin River seepage

Farmer seeks payment over San Joaquin River seepage

Posted at 11:39 PM on Friday, Oct. 22, 2010
By Mark Grossi / The Fresno Bee
Blaming underground water seepage from the restored San Joaquin River, farmer Jim Nickel says the federal government owes him $200,000 for tomato crop losses this year.

He is the second farmer to allege damage from the restoration, though he is working with the government on the problem instead of filing a lawsuit, as the first farmer did in August.

Federal officials have not confirmed a link between Nickel's losses and the restoration. But they will pay for a drainage system to protect his land, saying they want to see how such a system performs.

The fix could cost as much as Nickel's reported losses, officials said.

Allegations of crop damage are the biggest problems so far in the restoration, which has been largely considered a success by environmentalists, government officials and many farm water leaders.

The restoration began last year as part of a 2006 agreement settling an environmental lawsuit filed nearly 20 years before. In March, the long-dried river was reconnected with the Pacific Ocean as part of the federal project.

Nickel, whose family has farmed the west side for 150 years, says federal officials appear interested in helping, even though they have not concluded the renewed river flow is involved.

"It took a long time for the government to recognize the problem," he said. "Now I think they realize what's going on."

In August, the Wolfsen family filed a federal court claim, saying 13,000 acres of crops were damaged by the restored river. No dollar amount was included.

Federal officials say the renewed flow causes water to seep into the ground and spread to the surrounding underground water table. If the water table rises too high in nearby farm fields, it brings salts into root zones and stunts plant growth.

Like Wolfsen, Nickel is reporting this kind of damage on his 600 acres of tomatoes.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the restoration program, monitors the water table with ground-water wells. More wells will be added to the network over the next few years.

On Nov. 1, the bureau will double its water release for a 10-day period to simulate flows needed for salmon runs, which are supposed to be re-established at the end of 2012.

Based on ground-water monitoring, bureau officials will decide if the flow needs to be stopped at Mendota or Sack dams to protect property downstream. They have slowed down the flow in the past several months as the water table rose.

But Nickel said his property is near a flood control structure at the start of the Eastside Bypass. The Sand Slough Control Structure blocks part of the river's flow and forms a pool of water backing up to Nickel's property. There's more water around his land, he said.

"It's a problem," he said. "The structure isn't used any more. I think it should be taken out."

Officials declined to talk about the structure or Nickel's situation.

No matter what federal officials conclude about Nickel's damage, they will install a drainage system to protect his property, said Jason Phillips, bureau project manager. The system is a form of plumbing used by farmers to remove excess water below the surface of their land.

For Nickel, it would include a mile-long, perforated pipeline, buried alongside the river next his land to capture the rising underground water.

Such pipes, called tile drains, are attached to pumps that send the captured water into an irrigation system or back into the river.

Nickel and Phillips think the technology might solve his problem.

But Phillips said he considers the system a pilot project, as part of the learning process in the restoration.

"We know that as we increase the flow for the restoration in the next few years, there probably will be ground-water impacts," he said. "We need to know if this could be a tool for preventing problems down the line."


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