Exchange Contractors rally at emergency meeting in Los Banos

03/14/2014 12:59 PM

03/14/2014 1:07 PM

Exchange contractor officials are rallying residents to protest against potential reduction or outright cessation of water deliveries to thousands of land owners on the West Side.

According to information provided by officials before an emergency community meeting Wednesday, the State Water Project and Central Valley Project filed a Temporary Urgency Change Petition with the California State Water Resource Control Board.

The state water board’s job is to ensure the highest reasonable quality for waters of the State Water Resource Control Board, according to its website.

Exchange contractor officials Wednesday said the state water board is citing that water not be used for agriculture but for municipal and industrial uses instead. This could mean the exchange contractor’s water allocations are in jeopardy of being lowered to a possible 5 percent.

“There is a crisis,” said Steve Chedester, executive director with the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority, also known as the Exchange Contractors. “The water board is trying to take the water. It’s being done on a state board level.”

Potentially, officials said, the state water board could cause the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project agricultural surface water deliveries to cease until 2015.

Martin McIntyre, general manager with the San Luis Water District said ceasing water deliveries to agriculture for two years would have long-term impacts. “Recovery from fallowing all that ground is going to be incredibly difficult,” he said.

In February, the United States Bureau of Reclamation estimated 40 percent water allocation to landowners within exchange contract irrigation districts, which includes the Central California Irrigation District, the Columbia Canal Company, the San Luis Canal Company and the Firbaugh Canal Water District.

The bureau estimated in February no water will be delivered to federal district contractors south of the Delta this year.

“The way the deal for the Exchange Contract works is if they can’t give us our water down the Delta Mendota Canal, they are supposed to open up the gates at Friant and send Millteron water to us,” said Chris White, general manager for the Central California Irrigation District. “Even if they were to open the gates right now, there’s not a whole lot of water.”

Officials at the meeting also touched on how the decision may impact many across the state and, more important, the local economy. About 48 percent of people in the local area are employed in agricultural-related jobs, they said, and it is estimated that south of the Delta between 700,000 and 800,000 acres of farmland will be fallowed this year for lack of water.

White said if the state water board moves forward with a 5 percent water allocation, it likely means people won’t farm at all. This, officials believe, will lead to skyrocketing food prices and possible out-of-state food deliveries, among other issues.

Councilman Scott Silveira, who is also a dairyman, said when farmers are left without water to irrigate crops, one option they may have to turn to is paying someone to grow feed for their livestock, but at a high price.

“Do you know what that means to you at the grocery store?” he said. “That’s 12-15 dollar-a-gallon milk. That’s 10-15 dollar-a-pound cheese. That’s 10-15 dollar-a-pound butter. So it’s real. When you start crunching these numbers it’s phenomenal.”

Exchange contractors have put together a long-term plan they are prepared to submit to the state water board no later than March 21. They are asking the community to help by joining them at the rally in Firebaugh and by writing letters to state and federal elected officials to help protect the water rights.

“We need to illuminate this. The voices can’t just be the 1,900 landowners that are within my district,” White said. “It needs to be the 30,000 people that are in Los Banos. It needs to be a bigger voice of what the impacts are.”

A water rally is planned for 11 a.m. March 18 at the Andrew Firebaugh Community Center and Rodeo Grounds, 1655 Thirteenth St.

For more information, contact the Central California Irrigation District at (209) 826-1421.

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