FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) --They've turned on the faucet at Friant Dam. Most of the water is heading for farms in Merced County. It's the first time in 70 years water has been diverted there, but the government has a contractual obligation to provide it even though its leaves other water users high and dry.
You'd think this surge of water, during a drought would be welcome. But even the farmers who are receiving this water are not pleased.
Cannon Michael said, "We have really no choice and it's a terrible position to be in."
Michael is an exchange contractor. His family farm in Merced County once relied on water from the San Joaquin River. But when the Bureau of Reclamation built Friant Dam 70 years ago, the flow was stopped.
The farms that once relied on that water were promised water from Northern California, in exchange. But, their contract said that in extreme drought conditions, like we have now, they could tap the San Joaquin again. That's happening now, and the result is no water for growers on the east side of the Valley.
"We don't want our agricultural brethren on this side and the communities to suffer on this side," Michael said.
But they are. Michael joined irrigators from the east side at Fresno City Hall to call on the Federal Government to find other water sources to meet the exchange contractor's needs.
Ron Jacobsma of the Friant Water Authority says tens of thousands of acres of citrus trees will die.
"This is not just a lost crop, these are permanent plantings that will have to be replaced if the small growers can afford to do that and it may take 3, 4, 5 years to get back into production."
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin fears a major impact to the local economy.
"The city of Fresno's economy is intricately tied to what happens to production agriculture all around us."
The Bureau of Reclamation says its hands are tied. Michael Jackson, director of the agencies Fresno office says environmental restrictions to protect Salmon prevent water releases from Shasta Dam being diverted, and says the agency is obligated to provide water to the exchange contractors, whose water rights go back more than 100 years.
Jackson explained, "We are doing the best we can under the drought conditions that we have under the statutes that we have and under the contract that we have."
The increased flow is expected to lower the level of Millerton Lake dramatically over the summer.
As of Thursday the water was flowing into the river at a rate of 700 cubic feet per second. It will be increased to 1200 cubic feet per second. The high flows are expected to last through October.
Water released Thursday will take about two weeks to reach the Mendota pool, about 40 miles downstream, where it will be diverted into irrigation canals for use by the exchange contractors.
Even with this water they will be at 65% of their allotment. They are supposed to be guaranteed 75%. But many other water districts are receiving 0% this year.