Kangaroo rat, Congress keep Madera Co. water plan bottled up

Gary Bursey, board vice president of Madera Irrigation District, stands on a natural berm to Gravelly Ford, at right, on land planned for a water bank. In wet years, the district would pipe in extra water from area rivers.
Gary Bursey, board vice president of Madera Irrigation District, stands on a natural berm to Gravelly Ford, at right, on land planned for a water bank. In wet years, the district would pipe in extra water from area rivers. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA / THE FRESNO BEE

The Madera Water Bank has been touted for a decade as a savior for Madera County farm fields and new housing tracts in dry times - like right now.

Yet the underground water storage project, which is a hit with farmers, environmentalists and legislators, is still on the drawing board.

As a third year of drought unfolds, officials search the proposed bank site for Fresno kangaroo rats and other endangered species. They're trying to get approval from federal and state wildlife agencies to flood the land.

Madera Irrigation District, the third group to work on the water bank proposal in the last 10 years, says the project should be on a faster track because of the drought.

"Sure, I'd feel good if I had the project ready right now, because we really could use it," said farmer Carl Janzen, the district board president. "But it's not ready, and part of the problem is all the hoops we have to jump through."

The bank is well worth the effort, say most water experts. It would hold enough water to fill half of Millerton Lake.

During wet years, the district would pipe extra water from area rivers to the grasslands southwest of Madera, where it would seep into the ground. The water would remain underground for years, ready to be pumped out and used when needed.

The water bank could provide more than 40% of the water needed by district farmers each year.

Instead, delays continue. Over the last 10 years, legal action, political maneuvers and suspicion have stalled two attempts to build a water bank on almost 14,000 acres.

Residents and county officials have long feared the underground water would be sold to Southern California. That was the main reason a private investor's idea for the bank failed in the 1990s. The same thing happened eight years ago when a second effort was made by Azurix Corp., a spinoff of the notorious Enron Corp.

Madera Irrigation District picked up the idea in 2005, promising that locals would run the bank and that water would not leave the county. There were still doubts, legal action and political battles, but the district has moved beyond most of the controversy.

Now, in addition to endangered species considerations, there is delay in Congress. The House last week failed to pass a federal public lands bill that would have authorized many California projects, including the water bank.

The bill is expected to be reworked and possibly pass in the next several weeks. Once the project is authorized, it can go through the federal appropriations process for about $22 million, which will help pay for planning, pipelines and wells.

For irrigation officials, the bigger frustration might be the environmental documentation for the endangered Fresno kangaroo rat.

There currently are no known populations of the rat within its historical range in Fresno, Madera and Merced counties, according to the Endangered Species Recovery Program at California State University, Stanislaus.

The last time a Fresno kangaroo rat was captured in this area was in 1992, but experts say some small populations may still exist along the San Joaquin River or some isolated parcels.

"This is a unique subspecies," said Patrick Kelly, director of the Endangered Species Recovery Program. "It would be tragic if it was extinct."

Since the rat is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the irrigation district must conduct a thorough search of the area, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Thousands of attempts to trap the animals have come up empty, said district manager Lance Johnson. He said there are plenty of Herman's kangaroo rats, but no Fresno kangaroo rats so far. District officials don't think the rats have been in the area for decades.

"But Fish and Wildlife basically wants us to prove that the Fresno k-rat's not there," said Johnson. "We need to do some more surveying."

The Fish and Wildlife Service said there's more involved than kangaroo rats. Spokesman Al Donner said there are vernal pool species, a variety of plants and a long list of other animals, such as the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, San Joaquin kit fox and California tiger salamander.

"We need to know more about the area to analyze the impacts," he said. "It is what we would normally do." Johnson said the district does not plan to tear up the land by digging huge percolating ponds.

Instead, the district would funnel water onto less than 1,000 acres of land, which is laced with natural stream beds and low-lying areas known as swales. The water would fill the area and sink into the ground, he said.

"The cost of that is next to zero," Johnson said. "And we wouldn't be creating a big disturbance on the land."

The water bank also continues to face a legal challenge from the Taxpayers Association of Madera County. Association leader Jim Cobb said his group is seeking assurance that there would be no complicated exchanges or deals with other districts to move water out of the county.

But Cobb said he does not oppose water banking.

Most state and federal water officials still see the virtue of the Madera Water Bank. Unlike a new dam, it would not cost billions of dollars or inundate a pristine canyon in the Sierra foothills.

Mark Cowan, deputy director of California Department of Water Resources in Sacramento, said he likes the location of the Madera project.

"It's a premium location near the San Joaquin River and other tributaries," he said. "There's lots of flexibility to move water in and out of this bank."The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6316.