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Westlands Water District is again eyeing San Joaquin River water

 •  by Lois Henry
An egret flies away with dinner at the Hills Ferry Barrier on the San Joaquin River near the confluence with the Merced River in 2018. CREDIT: Lois Henry

Westlands Water District sent shockwaves through the Central Valley water world recently after it alerted several districts that it intends to apply for rights to flood flows on the San Joaquin River.

A previous attempt by Westlands to get rights to San Joaquin River water 20 years ago ignited a ferocious east-west battle in the valley that ended in failure for Westlands and left east side farmers with a bitter taste and lingering suspicions.

This time around is different, said Tom Birmingham, General Manager of the giant Westlands district, which covers most of western Fresno County.

While he expects news of Westlands’ intent to apply for flood water on the San Joaquin River to scratch at the scar of that old fight, he vowed that no existing water users would lose a drop of what they have now.

“This application is significantly different,” Birmingham said in reference to Westlands’ attempt to get river water back in 2000, which could have taken water from hundreds of farmers in Tulare and Kern counties.

“Our analysis indicates we can divert flood water without injuring any other legal users. The point of our reaching out to the other districts is to assure them that any right Westlands may receive as a result of this application would be subordinate to their rights,” Birmingham said.

Westlands’ plan is to use those flood flows for groundwater recharge, something every water district is scrambling to do under the state’s new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

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