The decent (but not great) rain season just got a little better for Fresno.
City Hall announced last week that the Feds will allocate 18,000 acre feet of Millerton Lake water to Fresno this year. That’s 30% of the 60,000 acre feet we get annually when normal amounts of rain come and we’re not fighting off a four-year drought of historic severity.
The 18,000 acre feet will begin arriving in June and is Fresno’s first “scheduled” allocation from the Bureau of Reclamation since 2013.
But another big chunk of San Joaquin River water – perhaps as much as 18,000 acre feet – will begin heading Fresno’s way on Friday, April 1.
The catch: Fresno must take all the water in a mere 30 days – April 1 through April 30.
And that’s impossible to do, given the current state of Fresno’s water system. In fact, the system can handle only 4,000 to 5,000 acre feet in 30 days.
What’s Fresno to do? Say no to water when we’re dying of thirst and our groundwater table keeps plummeting?
No way. A confident Public Utilities Director Tommy Esqueda told the Feds to send us the unexpected bounty (officially called an “uncontrolled season release”).
“The beauty for us is Fresno Irrigation District is our partner,” Esqueda told me on Wednesday.
Things are moving fast, so details are subject to change. But here’s how Esqueda describes the situation:
1.) We’re at 12.88 inches of rain so far, a little above our season average of 11.5 inches. Even with that unusually warm (and dry) February, there’s a good amount of snow in the Sierra.
2.) Millerton Lake holds about 520,000 acre feet. We’re at about 361,000 acre feet now. The folks in charge of Friant Dam must manage the lake’s level while keeping an eye on the rate of snow-melt.
3.) That’s how we came to have this “uncontrolled season release.” The feds are going to send 100,000 acre feet down the Friant-Kern canal in April. They’re asking customers along the East Side if they want some of that water.
4.) Fresno said: We’ll take 18,000 acre feet. The feds said: We’ll sell you a maximum of 18,000 acre feet. It might be less if a lot of our East Side customers raise their hands.
5.) For the sake of argument, let’s say Fresno gets all 18,000 acre feet. The city’s northeast surface water treatment plant, its small treatment plant in the east-central part of town and its big Leaky Acres recharge basin can handle 4,000 to 5,000 acre feet per month.
6.) FID has plenty of farmers gearing up for the growing season. They can make excellent use of 13,000 to 14,000 acre feet in a heartbeat, let alone a month.
7.) I’m sure you get the picture – we’re talking about an exchange. FID’s farmers will take the extra water from Fresno’s “uncontrolled season” allocation. Then, later this year, FID will repay the debt with water from Pine Flat Dam.
8.) Fresno’s treatment plants and the Leaky Acres recharge basin are assured of staying busy with river water for months to come. Farmers, the backbone of the Valley’s economy, keep growing food and regional wealth.
“This is a great opportunity for us to work together,” Esqueda said. “I give a lot of credit to FID.”
Esqueda briefly mentioned the “uncontrolled season” release on March 18 at a meeting of the Fresno Area/North Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency. About 25 water experts gathered at FID headquarters in South Fresno.
The agency, still in its infancy, will soon mature into a governing body with authority to regulate how all of us tap into the Valley’s aquifer. The name of the game will be the cooperative use among many stakeholders of a precious resource.
Esqueda told me that he expects the City Hall/FID partnership for this “uncontrolled season” release to be an object lesson for the agency’s stakeholders.
“It’s a good opportunity for the community and the area to figure out how we work together,” Esqueda said.
One final point – “Uncontrolled season release” or not, Esqueda said, conservation remains our passion.