By Lewis Griswold, The Fresno Bee
FRIANT – The proposed Temperance Flat dam on the upper San Joaquin River east of Fresno likely will be at the head of the line when the state awards big money for water storage projects.
The San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority last week submitted an application seeking $1.3 billion in bond funds from the California Water Commission, which is doling out $2.7 billion of Proposition 1 money for water storage projects around the state.
The Temperance Flat dam is estimated to cost $3 billion.
Plans call for a structure that would be 655 feet high and hold back almost 1.3 million acre-feet of water. That’s about three times more than Millerton Lake east of Friant, which is downstream.
The nine-member commission is expected vote on the application in June 2018.
Twelve water storage projects have applied for Proposition 1 bond money, but Mario Santoyo, executive director of the Water Infrastructure Authority, said he expects Temperance Flat and the proposed Sites reservoir project near Sacramento, which is seeking $1.6 billion, will both be awarded money.
“They’re probably going to give Temperance Flat and Sites equal amounts,” Santoyo said. “It’s enough seed money to get this thing going.”
But Friends of the River in Sacramento said it will lobby against Temperance Flat on grounds that it’s too expensive for the amount of water it would deliver and would cause irreparable harm to the river gorge.
“It’s never been constructed because it’s costly and doesn’t develop more water, but it’s obviously got the political winds behind its sails,” said Ron Stork, senior policy advocate.
Indeed, the project has been talked about for more than 20 years, and local governments and institutions are on board.
The list of supporters includes the Building & Construction Trades Council, five Valley counties (Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare), the Fresno County Farm Bureau, California Citrus Mutual, the city of Fresno, water agencies and other groups.
If Temperance Flat gets state bond money, the authority will seek federal funds and money from private sources such as water districts to fully fund the project.
Meanwhile, the authority has been seeking support from key legislators.
On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Los Angeles took a boat ride upriver from Friant Dam to view the gorge where the dam would be built.
Rendon said he was there “to listen and to learn.” He was accompanied by AssemblymanJoaquin Arambula, D-Fresno.
The site was identified in 2000 as one of two possible dams – the other being Sites – that might help improve the health of the San Joaquin Delta ecosystem and was worthy of study. (Historically, the site was identified for a dam before World War II, but Friant Dam was built for the Central Valley Project.)
“There’s a lot of attractive elements to this project,” Rendon said. But he stopped short of endorsing it and noted that the final decision about state funding rests with the California Water Commission.
Rendon said he’s been to Fresno before with Arambula and has met with residents of agricultural communities hit hard by the drought.
“When you meet families who are not farming because there’s not enough water to irrigate the fields, when you meet farmers who are laying off agricultural workers and having to fallow land because there’s not enough water, you never forget those faces,” he said.
Arambula said the dam would help both California and the region.
“Unfortunately, California’s investment in water infrastructure has not kept up with the ever-growing demand for water supply, so the need for more above-ground storage continues to mount,” Arambula said.
Among the points emphasized during Rendon’s visit was the proposed dam’s south-of-the-Delta location.
If Delta water supplies to Southern California should be disrupted, supplies from Temperance Flat could be called upon during times of water emergencies, proponents said.
But preparing for the next major drought like the one that started in 2012 and ended this year is a key reason why Valley residents should support it, Santoyo said.
“Everyone will be in a better position to withstand drought,” Santoyo said. “If there had been a bigger cup with a substantial amount of water (during the last drought), that could have been made available to water contractors.”
The proposed dam would capture vastly more water in wet years than is now possible, he said. Millerton Lake is too small to hold the kind of water produced in wet years, he said.
In 2017, “2.5 million acre-feet came down the San Joaquin River,” he said. “That’s going to San Francisco Bay and out to the ocean.” In fact, in about eight high flow years since 1978, more than 1 million acre-feet went to the lower river as flood releases, yet a dam could have stored some of that water, he said.
Flood control, recreation and ecosystem improvements would be gained, he said. Those are requirements to get the Proposition 1 money, a measure passed three years ago.
Salmon on the lower San Joaquin River need cold water to survive and Temperance Flat could provide that, Santoyo said. Also, water could be delivered to wildlife refuges, he said.
Millerton Lake would also be more user-friendly for recreation. If the dam were built, Millerton Lake and Temperance Flat would be jointly operated. Millerton could be kept at a mostly constant level, and the lake behind Temperance Flat would rise and fall with inflows and outflows, he said.
Another talking point of the proponents is that water captured in wet years could be used to recharge groundwater supplies in the Valley and meet the goals of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
The dam would help farmers and communities in the Valley, from Chowchilla to Bakersfield on the east side, and Los Banos to Kettleman City on the west side, he said.
“It’s the first project in the Valley has a unity of east and west sides,” he said.
Water would be available to send to the Mendota Pool for west side farmers to use, he said.
Additionally, water districts and communities across the Valley could buy storage space behind the dam to keep water that would be released when they want it, he said.
“The investors have an opportunity to buy a safety box,” Santoyo said.