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County farmers could lose water

Rob Parsons June 6, 2008   

A federal judge could rule as soon as today to cut irrigation water on more than 150,000 acres of farmland on the western side of the Mid-Valley.

In April, U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger set a hearing for today to discuss the possibility of further water diversion cutbacks to farms and cities to protect endangered fish populations. If the judge says the endangered fish need immediate protection, part of his ruling could include ordering the gates of the Red Bluff Diversion Dam to be opened immediately.

“The prospect of economic harm that decision would have for our farmers and community is potentially catastrophic,” said Jeff Sutton, general manager for the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority.

The canal authority handles the contractually obligated water delivery that begins at the dam in Red Bluff. The gates of the dam are lowered for four months each year to divert Sacramento River water to crops in four Mid-Valley counties. The dam contains more than 10 iron gates that, when lowered, divert water to farmers in 18 water districts in Colusa, Tehama, Glenn and parts of Yolo counties.

According to the authority, the water supports a variety of crops that contribute more than $1 billion to the regional economy each year.

However, environmental studies have shown that when the gates are lowered they interfere with the migratory and spawning patterns of salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon.

The primary plaintiff in the lawsuit is Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, a west coast based political advocacy group for fishermen.

Zeke Grader, the association’s executive director, said the purpose of the lawsuit is not to hurt farming, but rather to protect endangered fish resources by reducing water diversion operations statewide.

“A permanent solution for the problem in Red Bluff has been a longstanding problem,” Grader said. “And the problem is we’ve had officials from the city of Red Bluff dragging their feet on a permanent solution. We have a Chamber of Commerce there that’s been more concerned with keeping their drag boat races than they’ve been about protecting the overall region.”

A proposal to build a new pumping plant near the dam has been a topic of debate for several years. Canal authority officials have said the pumping plant solution would solve the duel-problems of protecting endangered fish resources and providing farmers with a reliable water delivery system. The proposal has come under attack from business interests in Red Bluff that say pumping would be too expensive.

Sutton said significant progress has been made and the pump could be fully operational within three years. “To force farmers to change now would be a catastrophe for us, especially when we’re so close to having a permanent solution,” Sutton said.

“Canal authority officials have been concerned for awhile that this kind of action could come front and center, and now it has,” said Red Bluff City Manager Martin Nichols. “We believe there are other solutions to fish passage that have not been explored,” he said. Nichols also said raising the gates would be bad for Red Bluff’s tourist economy.

The city has received a financial boost each year from the tourist attraction created by the man-made Lake Red Bluff. The lake only occurs when the gates are lowered during diversion operations.

“Raising the gates early would absolutely hurt our economy,” Nichols said, “and it would be a huge problem for farmers with fields full of rice right now.” Nichols said a special meeting at city hall in Red Bluff next Tuesday would used to address the issue publicly.

Canal Authority officials said they are hoping the judge will allow operations to continue for at least the rest of the current growing season.

John Amaro, Glenn County’s 3rd District supervisor, said nearly half of all Glenn County crops would face setbacks for years, should the gates be raised early. “A decision like that would be a crippling blow for us,” Amaro said. “You’re talking about huge losses for our labor market and to our crops.”

Amaro said large portions of canal authority crops are permanent crops such as olives. “When you don’t have a reliable water source for your crops, banks and lenders can deny loans,” Amaro warned. “Fewer crops produced also means lower property tax revenues and which eventually hit our social service programs,” he added.

Sutton said the canal authority would argue that fish are not in immediate danger from dam operations. “The impact this could have, coming in the middle of a world food crisis, is not going to help anyone,” Sutton said.

Contact Rob Parsons at 934-6800 or rparsons@tcnpress.com.

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