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A River Doesn't Run Through It


A 20-year battle over the San Joaquin River may finally come to an end.


By Sarah Parsons


California’s majestic San Joaquin River once ran for 350 miles, flowing from the Sierra Nevada west into the San Francisco Bay-Delta. As the second largest river in the state, the San Joaquin was a thriving ecosystem brimming with Chinook salmon. People who lived along the river described the fish as so plentiful you could practically cross the river on their backs. 

But with construction of the Friant Dam in 1949, everything changed. Sixty miles of river dried up, decimating salmon runs and destroying the wildlife and fisheries that once populated the river’s banks.

“Flows have dried up in several parts for about 60 years, and that’s resulted in a loss of a lot of vegetation and a lot of habitat,” says Monty Schmitt, a water resources scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the project manager for the San Joaquin River restoration. “It’s a pretty altered river.  It doesn’t really look much like any of our other large rivers in California.”

If, however, Congress passes a bill currently under consideration, the fate of the San Joaquin River may not be so dismal. Last week, the House Natural Resources Committee conducted a hearing on the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, a proposed bill that would open the dam, restoring river flows, and reintroduce salmon into the river over the next 20 years.

The San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement is the result of an 18-year battle between environmentalists, farmers, and the federal government. In 1998, the NRDC filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation (a federal water management agency that operates the Friant Dam) on behalf of 14 environmental groups to restore the river to its original state. The suit met opposition from farmers and other water users who use the dam’s water for crop irrigation. The NRDC added a number of claims over the years, and in 2004 a judge ruled that the dam violated a section of the California fish and game code, which requires dam operators to protect fish below the dam.

After the judge’s ruling in favor of the NRDC, the Friant Water Users Authority (FWUA), which represents 26 water districts, and the Bureau of Reclamation settled the lawsuit, which resulted in the San Joaquin Restoration Settlement. The settlement outlines a 20-year plan to allow the river to flow continuously once again and eventually to reintroduce Chinook salmon to the river. Under the plan, the Friant Dam will start releasing water in 2009, with full flows restored by 2014. If all goes well, salmon will be reintroduced to the river in 2012.

The river’s recovery hinges on the bill being signed into law. The Bureau of Reclamation has already begun some of the project’s initial planning, and hopes to have a document plan ready for next month. The actual restoration, however, will require federal funding to help cover the project’s $250 million to $800 million price tag.

“Legislation opens up a funding stream that we can use to implement the program,” says Jason Phillips, interim program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. “We have authority to do planning activities, but at some point we will not have enough money. It’s critical that [the Restoration Settlement Act] passes this year if we want to stay on schedule.”

Kate Poole, a senior attorney for the NRDC, says that despite its controversial history, the settlement has generated support from both environmentalists and farmers who would like to have a living river. The next step is for Congress to approve the funding that will make the restoration possible.

“The settlement does call for some funding, and you never know how Congress is going to feel about approving new funding for something,” Poole says. “So we’re hoping that they’ll see the value in this.”