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Water delayed for San Joaquin River


Posted at 11:53 PM on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010 By Mark Grossi / Fresno Bee

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Federal officials have delayed a big boost in water releases this month for the San Joaquin River restoration. Farmers say it's because similar high flows in spring caused seepage damage to crops.

But federal officials say they are just trying to be careful, adding that they have not yet determined whether the spring flows were connected to any damage.

"We're using extra caution to fully understand the potential for impacts before we increase flows," said Jason Phillips, restoration program manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

He said the flow from Friant Dam will be ramped up Monday. Much of the extra water will be captured at Mendota Pool, near Mendota, and Sack Dam, east of Dos Palos. Then water will be released in small increments beyond Sack Dam so officials can quickly stop the flow if problems arise.

Releases from Friant were supposed to double Nov. 1 to simulate higher flows that migrating salmon need when they are re-established in the river at the end of 2012. Officials will monitor vegetation, water temperature, changes in the river channel and other reactions.

The restoration -- which started last year in accordance with a 2006 lawsuit settlement -- returned water to the long-dried riverbed on the Valley's west side this year. In March, the river re-connected to the Pacific Ocean.

But farmers say the revived river seeped into the ground on the west side, spreading beneath surrounding fields and raising the underground water table into root zones. Crop growth was stunted, they said.

One farmer blamed the seepage for a $200,000 loss in the yield of his tomato crop. Another west-sider filed a federal claim for damages to land, crops and buildings.

Bureau officials say they will continue to study the possible connection, but they don't anticipate completing their analysis until next year.

Added Phillips: "We are managing flows to keep them to an agreed upon limit that will not cause impacts."

Farm water officials say they have finished further analysis, using data from their own ground-water wells as well as information from the bureau's monitoring wells.

"It's clear in the data that the river caused a rise in the water table beneath the land," said Steve Chedester, executive director of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors, representing many west-side farmers.

Farm water officials said remedies are available, including establishing a safe level for underground water so crops won't be affected.

Other suggestions include installing an underground drainage system to capture most of the seepage before it reaches the farm fields. Bureau officials already have agreed to do that at the property of Jim Nickel, the farmer who said river seepage had damaged his tomato crop.

Chedester said impediments in the river channel also create problems, causing water to pool and spread closer to nearby fields. One of these problems is the Sand Slough Control Structure, which blocks part of the river's flow and forms a pool of water backing up to Nickel's property. No decisions have been made on the structure yet.

When the flow is increased next week, it should be done very carefully beyond Sack Dam, Chedester said. "The groundwater table already has raised to the safety threshold," he said. "They need to try to figure out how much water they can release without raising it any higher."

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