Defenders of Wildlife applauded a decision by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to request a renegotiation of a decades-old use contract for the San Joaquin River that could spark stronger protection for wildlife and drought management. Defenders and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) urged the Bureau of Reclamation to reform its water supply contract with the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority before the conclusion of the renegotiation period. On Oct. 14, the Bureau sent a letter to the Exchange Contractors, four days before the deadline, with its intent to renegotiate. Though the contract may be reviewed every five years, it has not been reviewed since 1968.
"Renegotiating the Exchange Contract is an essential step towards sustainable water management and protecting endangered species that depend on a healthy and flowing San Joaquin River," said Ashley Overhouse, California water policy advisor for the Defenders of Wildlife. "We look forward to negotiations that incorporate fundamental environmental laws to an inequitable contract, such as the public trust doctrine."
Since the last contract review in 1968, the state enacted the California Endangered Species Act (CESA), which was last amended in 1997. The CESA now includes the Chinook salmon, a keystone species, and smelt from the San Francisco Bay Delta as threatened species. The San Joaquin River is a critical habitat for threatened species such as these which could benefit under a new contract that is informed by the scientific developments and research conducted over the past 54 years.
Since the 1930s, the Exchange Contractors received water from the Sacramento River in a trade for infrastructure projects on the San Joaquin River while holding senior water rights and access when deliveries fall short. This year, the federal agency serviced the Exchange Contractors through the San Joaquin River to make up for the shortfall created by extreme drought conditions on the Sacramento. As a result, the river was effectively turned off, preventing juvenile and mature salmon migration for more than 40 miles. Presently, this major waterway lacks the capacity to support both restorative flows and deliveries to Exchange Contractors.