The Central Valley and the western United States continue to face a significant drought, and we can expect more dry years in the future. It is critical that we come together to find solutions to this problem. At the same time, we need to be careful to minimize the potential consequences that could come by upending the longstanding system of water rights that allowed for the creation of the Central Valley we know today.

Last month, the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority received a letter from the United States Bureau of Reclamation requesting to open renegotiations of the Exchange Contract, which has underpinned the system of water supply and infrastructure development in the Central Valley for almost 90 years. For the Exchange Contract to be modified, both the Exchange Contractors and the Bureau of Reclamation would need to jointly and mutually agree to any changes.

The Exchange Contract is the foundation for the creation of water supply and infrastructure in California. It was the essential agreement that allowed for the development of the Central Valley Project and the construction of the Friant and Delta-Mendota Canal systems in the Central Valley. This led to the creation of the most important agricultural region in the United States.

In the first half of the 20th century, as the need for more irrigation and farmable land in the Central Valley increased, the United States Department of Interior started the Central Valley Project, a vast undertaking to build dams throughout the Central Valley that 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. To allow the project to continue, the west side farmers agreed to an 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.

The impact of renegotiating this agreement, especially if it resulted in a reduction of our water supplies, would be devastating to the region. It would undermine decades of investments and financial commitments upon which our economy is built.
We recognize the seriousness of the current drought affecting the western United States and the many complicated trade-offs with managing it. The Exchange Contractors have long had a productive working relationship with the Bureau of Reclamation, and we are always willing to work creatively to address the ongoing drought.

But the consequences could extend beyond the lost jobs and the significant economic losses to agriculture. Tens of thousands of people in our local disadvantaged communities depend on water that is provided to or conveyed by the Exchange Contractors, and we cannot afford to make any changes without regard to on-the-ground impacts on real people. Furthermore, local wildlife refuges are sustained by water supplied and conveyed by the Exchange Contractors.

We are in conversation with Reclamation to further understand their intentions and we will continue to have an open line of dialogue. While we are not willing to agree to change the Exchange Contract, we will continue to seek creative and collaborative solutions for reliable regional water supplies while advocating in support of our farmers, our communities, and our economy. C

Chris White

Executive director. San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority