The San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority (Exchange Contractors) is a Joint Powers Authority formed in 1992 by its member agencies—the Central California Irrigation District, San Luis Canal Company, Firebaugh Canal Water District and Columbia Canal Company.

The Exchange Contractors are responsible for administering water conservation plans, water transfer programs and water resource planning, as well as advocating for dependable water supplies for its agencies and the roughly 240,000 acres of agricultural land they represent.

The reality we are facing is that the water supplies we depend on are becoming less and less reliable. The combination of the current regulatory environment along with climate change and the drought has placed California’s water supply in severe jeopardy

My first “What You Need to Know about Water” article described the beginning of the Exchange Contractors’ water rights to the early 1870’s and the start of the Central Valley Project (CVP) in 1933.  As a result of the CVP, a vast undertaking of building dams took place throughout the Central Valley, which utilized the Sacramento, American and San Joaquin Rivers.

One of the dams that was being considered at the time, the Friant Dam located north of Fresno, was dependent upon water being diverted into storage from the San Joaquin River with the goal of delivering it to the east side of the valley.

This would impact the water supply from the San Joaquin River that farmers on the west side of the valley depended on. In order to allow the project to continue, the west side farmers agreed to the “Exchange Contract,” whereby they would instead receive a distribution of water from Sacramento River in “exchange” for water from the San Joaquin River.

The Exchange Contractors, as they came to be known, also retained their rights to the San Joaquin River water. This means that if in a given year the water deliveries from the new Sacramento River water source are short of the amount they are guaranteed in the contract, Reclamation makes up the difference by receiving a distribution from their original water source, the San Joaquin River.

Water supplies and reliability continued to increase with further development of the CVP, in addition to the State Water Project (SWP), in the 1960’s. This resulted in the construction of the San Luis Reservoir and the San Luis Canal/California Aqueduct in our area and the formation of various water districts, such as the San Luis Water District headquartered here in Los Banos.   The era of water supply development began to reverse around 1990 when a series of regulations began to be implemented. These regulations are complex and have different goals, like protecting various fish species or water quality throughout the state. Many have been poorly designed or implemented, resulting in inconsistent water flows to the Central Valley, with inconclusive evidence that they have accomplished their intended results.

Our federal water district neighbors, like San Luis Water District for example, have received a 0% water supply for both this year and last year. In fact, they have received a 0% allocation in five years out of the last 10.  

In addition to these serious circumstances, Reclamation has been unable to generate enough water from the Sacramento system to meet the demands of the Exchange Contract and consequently have had to make releases down the San Joaquin River from Friant Dam in accordance with the Exchange Contract. This has happened now in 2014, 2015 and 2022, events none of us would have thought possible 15 years ago.

The decades of progress made to create water reliability in the Central Valley is now being undone. In the next article, I will begin to focus on the local implications of these dire conditions, and what needs to be done to help implement solutions.

Editor’s note: What You Need to Know about Water is a regular feature of The Westside Express.