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San Joaquin River restoration putting Friant water users on the map

Richard Moss, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority and the 25 agencies in Fresno, Tulare, Madera and Kern counties under the authority's umbrella are no longer "under the radar " on California water issues.

Water users along the East Side of the San Joaquin Valley are no longer the silent ones not because Moss and others in the Friant service are aggressively fighting Westlands' Water District's attempt to hijack San Joaquin River water.

It is due to the unqualified success they have had in working with environmental groups and federal agencies in a common goal of restoring salmon to the San Joaquin.

It has been 50 years since salmon ran in the river and that has long been a sore spot with many people. However, the return of San Joaquin salmon may not be that far off.

A pilot project to release water down the river put together by basically farmers and radical environmentalists has been so successful, even Moss, the architect of the plan, calls it "amazing." It has progressed so far that Moss is "fairly optimistic" that either Friant Dam will be raised for more storage in Millerton Lake or another storage facility will be built somewhere else on the river to provide more water for both farmers and fish.

The pilot project was simple: release water from Friant Dam for river restoration; Recapture some of it downstream, dump it into California Aqueduct and send it to Kern County where it is used to grow crops. The water is used twice - once for fish and a second time for crops. What is lost flowing downstream in the river is supplemented from other sources. And, it worked to the satisfaction of both farmers and people like the radical National Resource Defense Fund. It has worked so well the federal and state governments have awarded $22 million to take the project to the next step toward salmon restoration.

There are many reasons for its success, according to Moss. He told Western Growers Association's annual meeting that there has to be "positive engagement" with those who have been battling farmers in court and the political arena for years.

Moss said all stakeholders must be at the table. Goals must be stated clearly on both sides, even if they are mutually exclusive. Bring federal agencies to the table in a technical, advisory role, but leave the decision making to the stakeholders. The feds tried to fix the salmon problem years ago and "never got past first base because they were mired down in a lobbying war," Moss said. "It has to be open and transparent. Flush out agendas on the table," he said. Take small incremental steps and let successes there dictate progress. Build relationships and reinforce good behavior, he added.

"It takes a lot of hard work - a lot more work than turning something over to attorneys for court battles," said Moss. "Litigation seldom settles issues. Negotiations settle issues."

While the Friant Water Users Authority is basking in its success, Moss is the first one to say there are many issues left to resolve before salmon once again permanently run in the San Joaquin. Nevertheless, Moss remains optimistic and that was fueled recently from visit with a NRDC member. Moss was explaining that 5,000 acre feet had to be released from the lake in the fall to make room for projected snowmelt.

The environmentalist was bemoaning the water loss that could be used next summer for river restoration. Moss explained that as water management professionals the water had to be released to ensure flood protection for next spring and summer. He asked Moss if anything could be done to save excess water and the response was "build more storage. He liked that idea."

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