What is the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority?

The San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority Exchange Contractors is a joint powers authority formed in 1992 by its member agencies Central California Irrigation District, San Luis Canal Company, Firebaugh Canal Water District, and Columbia Canal Company. It is responsible for administering water conservation plans, water transfer programs, and water resource planning, as well as advocating for dependable water supplies for its organizations and the roughly 240,000 acres of agricultural land they represent.

The Exchange Contractors water rights date back to the early 1870’s when San Joaquin and Kings River Canal Company and Miller and Lux constructed canals to divert water from the San Joaquin River and the Kings River to allow for irrigation in the western portion of Fresno, Madera, Merced, and Stanislaus counties. These canals were essential to the creation of the agriculture industry in the Central Valley and were the beginning of what has come to be the most important agricultural region in the United States.

As the need for more irrigation and farmable land in the Central Valley increased, the United States Department of Interior in 1933 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. In order 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. 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, the Bureau of Reclamation makes up the difference by receiving a distribution from their original water source, the San Joaquin River.

What impact has drought in recent years had on the Central Valley?”

For decades, the Central Valley was able to rely on dependable water supplies that provided the region with sufficient resources to grow the food and other crops that supply the rest of the state and much of the nation. While there have been droughts before, climate change and new state and federal regulations have had a major impact on the region in recent years, resulting in a prolonged drought. This has caused decreased water flows throughout the state, including the Sacramento, American, Feather and San Joaquin River, which impacts the Exchange Contractors and our neighbors. In recent years, the Exchange Contractors have been received only 75% of our typical allotted water distribution and other regions have faced even more severe cuts to their water allocations.

In 2023, we had a significant rainfall and snowpack, with a continuous series of atmospheric rivers that alleviated severe drought throughout the state. This was beneficial for water users across California, as reservoirs and other bodies of water refilled and there was significant groundwater recharge.

We know California’s climate can shift quickly, as we saw in 2023, but the reality is we need to do more to make the most of these years by capturing, storing, conveying, and recharging as much water as we can when it is available. That is why we continue to advance new infrastructure projects, invest in groundwater recharge efforts, and push for policies that make our water system more sustainable for future years.

What are the Exchange Contractors doing to conserve limited resources?

The ongoing drought requires innovation and new sustainability efforts to make more efficient use of the limited water we have.

Since 1989, over $200 million has been invested in conservation funding. These investments include large projects such as the one at Orestimba Creek, which once completed will create nearly 80 acres of recharge and storage ponds, harnessing previously evaporating water to store for use in dry years and relieving demand on groundwater pumping. They include smaller, targeted efforts, like our $100 million On-Farm Conservation Programs, which provide grants and low-interest loans to help individual farms transition to more sustainable practices like drip-irrigation and high-efficiency micro sprinkler irrigation. And they require technological innovation, such as new hardware and software that remotely controls flows within canals, increasing delivery reliability while reducing and eliminating wasteful water spills.

We’re committed to being good stewards of the water resources we receive and we are continuing to invest in sustainable water systems that prepares us for the future.

How is water distributed throughout the Central Valley and what are the Exchange Contractors doing to help others in the region?

Since the Central Valley Project, countless contracts and agreements between the State and Federal governments and different water agencies, authorities, businesses, and individuals have been signed that determine how water is distributed through the Central Valley.

The Exchange Contract plays an important role in this process. That original agreement allowed the Central Valley Project to move forward and led to the Central Valley becoming the most important agricultural region in the country. Today, the Exchange Contractors provide or convey water to other local agencies and a large percentage of local wildlife and refuge areas. The Exchange Contractors’ conservation and groundwater management efforts help make it possible for the Exchange Contractors to continue supplying other local areas.

Additionally, the water supplied to the Exchange Contractors helps to solidify the groundwater supply in the surrounding region. The Exchange Contractors manage their groundwater in order to maintain supply for disadvantaged communities in the region, and the distribution of water to the Exchange Contractors resupplies the groundwater resources for five nearby disadvantaged communities that rely upon groundwater pumping. Another disadvantaged community relies entirely upon surface water from the Exchange Contractors, and the Exchange Contractors are continuing to meet their needs as a result of conservation and management efforts.

For more information, visit our page detailing Support for Disadvantaged Communities and Water Users in the Region.

How does the water resulting from the Exchange Contract impact the surrounding environment?

The Central San Joaquin Valley contains the 160,000 acre Grassland Ecological Area (GEA), home to the largest remaining wetland complex  in California. The GEA is comprised of private, State and Federal Wildlife Refuges and rangeland under habitat conservation easements. The San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors play a central role in ensuring the sustainability and vitality of these habitats. These wetlands, recognized as a Wetland of International Importance under the RAMSAR Convention, are intensively managed and rely significantly on water from the Exchange Contract.

The Grasslands is home to more than 550 species of birds, animals, and plants, including more than 40 species that are federally listed as sensitive, threatened, or endangered. It is a critical stopping point for waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway, a wildlife corridor that extends from Patagonia to the Alaskan Peninsula. Millions of waterfowl rely on the GEA annually and it is designated as one of the most important shorebird reserves in the world.

While 95% of wetlands in California have already been lost, the Grasslands remain a healthy habitat for the species that rely on it. The overwhelming majority of the water that supports these habitats is delivered by the Exchange Contractor member agencies. The Exchange Contractor water transfer program has also long been a vital source to the Central Valley Project’s Refuge Water Supply Program.

The imported surface water delivered to the wetland complex and the surrounding Exchange Contractor farms provides critical groundwater recharge to communities in Stanislaus, Merced and Fresno Counties. In other words, the water received by the Contractors is not only used to grow crops, but also recharges the groundwater supply, supports the wildlife habitat, and many small and rural communities.

Farms surrounding the Grassland Ecological Area provide additional habitats for many species of wildlife. Swainson’s hawks are common in recently disked fields, and white-faced Ibis, geese, and sand hill cranes frequent flooded fields and canals. Exchange Contractor farms not only provide additional habitat, but also serve as a buffer against urban encroachment and other incompatible land use conversion.

The partnership between the Exchange Contractors, Grassland Water District and the State and Federal Wildlife Refuges has endured many challenges and successes over the years. The Exchange Contractors are proud of our work to support the Grassland Ecological Area and will continue to be good stewards of the water resources we have to support the San Joaquin Valley and the state.

What can be done to prepare California for the future climate changes?

The Exchange Contractors are at the forefront of conservation and sustainability efforts in our region and continue to invest heavily in order to be able to meet both the agricultural needs of our region and the needs of surrounding communities.

Just as the Central Valley Project allowed for the distribution of water throughout the region and led to the development of the Central Valley, today we need new public investments in water storage facilities, distribution networks, and other conservation efforts in order to meet the water needs of the state.

Are there other reasons besides recent drought that water distribution to the region has become less reliable?

Yes! Over the past few decades there have been multiple different regulatory decisions that have impacted water distribution to the Central Valley. These regulations are complex and have different goals, like protecting different fish or wildlife in different parts of the state. Many have been poorly designed or poorly implemented, resulting in inconsistent water flows to the Central Valley and inconclusive evidence that they accomplished their intended results. We continue to work in good faith with the government and other stakeholders to implement solutions to these issues but it is important that we do so in a thoughtful and pragmatic way that benefits everyone involved.

Can we protect fish species and have a thriving agricultural economy in the Central Valley?

Yes! While the drought has certainly decreased the amount of available water in California, there are a number of different plans that should be implemented to protect wildlife and increase the dependability of water flows throughout the state.

What is the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, what is the role of the Exchange Contractors, and why is it taking so long to implement?

In 2009, federal legislation known as the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act was passed, authorizing the federal government to implement a settlement between different parties that have been in a legal dispute for almost 20 years. The goal of the settlement was to restore and maintain fish populations, while recapturing and restoring water flows for the Friant Division. This was to be accomplished through a number of different infrastructure projects, including new levees, dam passages, bypass improvements, fish passages, and other upgrades to existing infrastructure.

While some progress has been made, unfortunately there have been continued delays and restarts of key components of this plan. Almost 13 years after the passage of the legislation, many projects still remain stuck in planning and design phases. The Exchange Contractors are working in good faith to help move forward these projects as quickly as possible but repeated bureaucratic hurdles and plan changes by the government have resulted in ongoing delays. We are optimistic that we can make more progress in the near future and we will continue working with our partners to help make that happen.

Why does so much of the state’s water go to the Central Valley in comparison to major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles?

The crops grown in the Central Valley do not stay in the Central Valley and it is important to understand how vital the Central Valley is to other regions. The Central Valley produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40% of fruits, nuts, and other table foods.

While much of the food grown in the Central Valley is consumed in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, the water required to grow that food is not counted in their water usage. But the reality is that the state is interdependent. We all rely on each other for different goods and services, and the Central Valley plays a critical role in the state’s economy. At a time of high inflation, decreased water flows to the Central Valley would result fewer crops being produced and higher food prices for consumers.

Furthermore, while agriculture does require a considerable amount of water, the Exchange Contractors are at the forefront of sustainability and conservation efforts. This is not just limited to reductions in water usage through investments in efforts like drip irrigation, but also the conservation and groundwater management efforts to ensure continued water availability for other disadvantaged communities in the region.

Additionally, the Central Valley has seen a large influx of new residents in recent years as coastal cities have become more unaffordable and remote work has become more common. While many of the state’s major coastal counties have seen population decreases in recent years, the Central Valley has seen population growth, increasing the need for water resources.

How have regulations and other laws affected the reliability of water to the Central Valley?

Since 1978, there have been a series of new regulations that have severely impacted the water allocations upon which that the agricultural industry in the Central Valley relies. The intentions of these regulations vary and the evidence of the effectiveness of the different approaches is somewhat inconclusive, but the effect on the reliability of water distributions is clear. Overall water allocations have decreased significantly, causing real hardship for the region and the agricultural industry.

What is really challenging is that the reliability of these water allocations swings wildly from year to year. While it is true that the annual average water allocation has been almost cut in half since 1978, that figure is just an average. In reality, the allocations vary greatly from year to year with little predictability about what the following year will look like. This instability makes it difficult for growers to plan ahead for expansion or future yields.

Actual Water Allocations Received By West Side Agricultural Contractors In Recent Years:
2013 – 20%
2014 – 0%
2015 – 0%
2016 – 5%**
2017 – 100%
2018 – 50%
2019 – 75%
2020 – 20%
2021 – 0%**
2022 – 0%

*Water was not allowed to be used until the year after, so in effect the allocation for the year was 0%.
**The allocation started at 5% in February but was reclaimed by Reclamation in May, making it 0%.