The James Irrigation District in western Fresno County has sued the Westlands Water District over its plan to let farmers pump salty groundwater into the Mendota Pool in exchange for water from the San Luis Reservoir.
The lawsuit could scuttle Westlands’ plans to create a certain supply for its farmers as they, and farmers throughout the Central Valley, adapt to new water uncertainties under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a measure to restrict groundwater pumping.
The 20-year exchange program was billed by both Westlands and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as a way to “optimize water supplies and reduce pumping impacts.” The Bureau would supply the exchange water from the San Luis Reservoir.
Farmers in the James Irrigation District, however, fear the program will leave them with water that’s little better than salty muck, according to the district’s General Manager Steve Stadler.
“So, by pumping 1,600 TDS (salt) water into the Mendota Pool, that — per your EIR — is helpful to James Irrigation District,” Stadler said at Westlands’ Jan. 23 meeting when its board approved the environmental impact report for the program.
“Well, quite frankly, we don’t need your help in that respect.”
Westlands and the Bureau have argued the water coming to James wouldn’t be 1,600 TDS because so much water is moved into and out of the Mendota Pool, that amount would be blended down.
And the program wouldn’t issue exchange credits for overly salty groundwater, according to Michael Jackson, area manager for the Bureau’s California-Great Basin Region.
“If it’s crappy at the well-head, (the farmers) don’t get credit for it so there’s no reason for them to pump it into the pool,” Jackson said.
TDS stands for total dissolved solids, which are mostly salt. Water at 700 to 800 TDS is considered the “sensitive limit” for some crops, according to the University of California Cooperative Extension research, meaning higher levels can damage or kill plants.
James filed its lawsuit against Westlands Feb. 20 seeking a permanent injunction to halt the exchange program. It also filed a notice of legal action against the Bureau, which OK’d the environmental impact report for the program on Jan. 10. But Stadler said he’s unsure whether the district will sue the government.
Under the program, 11 Westlands farmers would be allowed to pump 26,000 acre feet of groundwater a year into the Mendota Pool, which lies about 35 miles west of Fresno.
In exchange, the Bureau would give those farmers 25,000 acre feet a year off the San Luis Canal. That’s the northern section of the California Aqueduct and serves lands west of the Mendota Pool from San Luis Reservoir down to Coalinga.
No man’s pool
The Mendota Pool is somewhat of a no man’s land that’s a linchpin for water movement within the federal Central Valley Project. It holds about 3,000 acre feet of water and lies at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Kings rivers and the Delta-Mendota Canal.
The Mendota Dam is owned and maintained by the Central California Irrigation District but, otherwise, inflow, outflow and water quality isn’t regulated — except by lawsuit.
The benefits of the exchange program, according to Westlands and the Bureau, include a 5 percent “leave behind” in the Mendota Pool, giving more water to other pool users.
And participating Westlands farmers, known loosely as the Mendota Pool Group, would get assured deliveries, said Tom Birmingham, General Manager of Westlands, when explaining the program to SJV Water in late January.
“This program, and the duration of this program, provides the farmer some certainty,” he said at the time.
As to salt, Birmingham said in January that the program increases water quality monitoring and requires pumping to be reduced or stopped if water quality degrades.
He declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Who’s pumping what
James’ farmers did not buy those assurances.
According to its lawsuit, James is contractually entitled to water with no more than an annual average of 450 TDS from the Bureau.
A program that allows hundreds of wells around the Mendota Pool to each pump groundwater up to 1,600 TDS into the pool would blow well past that level, according to Stadler and James’ lawsuit.
The lawsuit also questions one of Westlands’ and the Bureau’s main justifications for approving the project — that an unknown number of landowners already pump groundwater into the Mendota Pool without restrictions.
“The EIR provides no data about the quantity or quality of other pump-ins, arguing that ‘no information is available,’” the lawsuit states.
Further: “The EIR admits that (Mendota Pool Group) pumping under the existing programs constitutes 20-30% of all pump-ins to Mendota Pool in a normal year. Such a proportion is not ‘minor.’”
Though the Bureau isn’t being sued, if an injunction were granted against Westlands, that would effectively kill the program, said the Bureau’s Jackson.
“It’s a two-party program,” he said. “Even though we wouldn’t be subject to a state court action, it would stop Westlands from doing their part (pumping into the Mendota Pool), so we wouldn’t do our part (exchange San Luis water.)”
The lawsuit was filed in Fresno County Superior Court, which has postponed most civil actions due to the COVID-19 crisis.