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by Ron Forbes

Finally, a river runs through it!

"Only after the last tree has been felled, the last river poisoned and the last fish caught, man will know that he cannot eat money.”
                                                             A Cree Indian Saying

The San Joaquin River Restoration Project

For the last three years I have been Delta Fly Fisher's representative at the San Joaquin River Restoration Project (SJRRP) meetings held at U.C. Stanislaus in Turlock or at various federal facilities in Sacramento. The two committees I have served on are the Water Management and Fisheries Management Technical Committees. These committees are comprised of two groups. The first group is the technical staff and second are those who have a vested interest in the project such as those interested in the fisheries or those with interest in the water issues such as irrigation districts. When I began attending these meetings, I had no idea of the complexities involved in the restoration of the fall and spring run of chinook salmon, nor of the complexity involved in restoring a river that has been seriously neglected for over 60 years.

First, a brief history the why and how the SJRRP came about: The San Joaquin River flows from the High Sierras in a southwesterly direction to the Central Valley where it turns abruptly to the northwest and eventually into the Delta at Suisun Bay. The San Joaquin is 320 miles in length. The section under restoration extends from the base of Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River and is 153 miles in length.

Friant Dam is a concrete gravity dam on the upper San Joaquin River in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Fresno County, California near the town of Friant. The dam, completed in 1942, forms Millerton Lake and was built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns and operates the dam. BOR photo.

Prior to the construction of Friant Dam in 1942, the San Joaquin hosted both a spring and fall run of Chinook salmon. It is thought that the number of salmon spawning in the San Joaquin was equal to the salmon spawning on the Sacramento River and its tributaries. The San Joaquin spring Chinook run was the largest in North America. These fish are now extinct. After the dam was in place, a section of the river 30 miles below the dam basically dried-up for 60 miles which destroyed the salmon's century old spawning grounds. Historically it is now recognized that the loss of the fall run was the first to be caused by low water flows and high temperatures. By 1949, both the fall and spring salmon had disappeared from the San Joaquin.

California's Dept. of Fish and Game (DFG) put forth huge efforts in trying to save the both salmon runs, especially the spring-run. In 1950, they said that the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), who was operating the dam, must comply with DFG Code 5937 and release enough water to maintain any fish, planted or otherwise, in good condition that was below the dam. BOR officials and Friant Dam water users said the main purpose of the dam was for irrigation and they had no legal obligation preserve the fish

In 1951, California's Attorney General Pat Brown gave the opinion the the federal government did not have to comply with the state's DFG codes. According to Brown, any preservation of fish,"would constitute a waste of water in the grave need for all available water for higher use elsewhere". DFG was very unhappy with Brown's opinion and pursued the matter, going to an early version of the Dept. of Water Resources (DWR). Unfortunately, DWR found DFG's actions to be, "not in the public interest." However, the dam was required to release minimum water at least to a point 30 miles downstream know as Gravelly Ford. Today, except in flood years, the San Joaquin is bone-dry most years for 60 miles beyond that point. The loss of the San Joaquin River was California's the first major loss of a salmon fishery, unfortunately to be followed by many others.

Brown was elected governor in1958, and halted any further legal action by DFG to prevent further loss of the salmon. Now because of the construction of Shasta Dam and other obstructions without any concern for our fisheries, many runs of salmon and steelhead are either threatened or extinct. For example, in Northern California, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&W) says that of 22 tributaries on the Sacramento River they have worked on, 18 of 22 populations of steelhead are now extinct. Now Governor Jerry Brown, with his proposed dual conveyance/peripheral canal scheme, is following directly in his fathers footsteps. If he succeeds, as his father did, all salmon in the Central Valley will become extinct.

In 1988 the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) were plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Friant Water Users Authority (FWUA). The FWUA is a group of 29 water districts. The NRDC was joined in the suit by a coalition of environmental and fisheries groups. After 18 years of contentious haggling between all parties, the suit was settled in 2006. In the settlement, Judge Lawrence Karlton concluded that the BOR's operation of Friant Dam was a disaster and had destroyed not only the salmon population, but the rainbow trout, the splittail, the river's habitat and qualities. He was angry with the defendants for re-litigating the same arguments. All parties were given a period of time to settle their dispute, but if they didn't, the court would settle it in a manner that would probably not be satisfactory to any of the litigants.

Despite the BOR's poor management of Friant’s water resources, Karlton did suggest that agriculture's use of water for irrigation should not suffer unduly in the restoration of the river. His ruling considered needs of all parties involved in the action.

The two main objectives in the case settlement are, 1) restore and maintain the fish populations in the San Joaquin River from Friant Dam to the confluence with the Merced River. These fish are to be self sustaining populations and, 2) to reduce or avoid adverse water supplies for long tern contractors that might result from either interim or restoration flows.

The state is a supporter of the settlement and has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with all parties using the state's Environment Protection Act (EPA), DWR, DFG, and the Resource Agency. If all goes as planned, all environmental goals will be met along with water supply certainty for the over 15,000 farms irrigating 1 million acres which produces $4.5 million in crops annually. This will be in addition to the recreational benefits the river will again provide and improved water quality benefits below the dam.

The SJRRP is a massive effort. Four counties, Fresno, Madera, Merced, and Stanislaus are involved. The 153 miles of restoration has been divided into 5 reaches: .
Reach 1 Friant Dam to Gravelly Ford .
Reach 2 Gravelly Ford to Mendota Dam .
Reach 3 Mendota Dam to Sack Dam .
Reach 4 Sack Dam to Bear Creek/ /Eastside Bypass .
Reach 5 The Bear Creek/Eastside Bypass to the Merced River confluence

Because of differences in the physical and environmental makeup, some of the reaches have been subdivided into more than one section. All reaches present complex and unique problems that must be dealt with.

Current Issues

In 2010, there were pictures in all the papers and on TV of water flowing down the San Joaquin River past Gravelly Ford for the first time in over 60 years. Since then there have been repeated water releases for experimental purposes and data collection. In my naiveté when I first started attending the meetings I thought if you just released enough water from Friant Dam to fill the canal and restocked the river, the situation would be resolved. I was wrong. The problems with restoring the San Joaquin are very complex and there are no easy answers.

The San Joaquin River near Los Banos, September 2009. Fresno Bee
BOR has a major concern with the section between Gravelly Ford to the Mendota Dam. The levees in Reaches 2 and 3 are badly degraded after 60 years of neglect and pose a major problem for flood control. Another problem will be levee foundation seepage after the river flows on a full time basis. Also, the canal flow has been seriously degraded because of a build-up of sediment and heavy intrusion of vegetation. More than 10 miles of the river channel must be widened as it approaches the Mendota Pool. Then a bypass around the pool will have to be built for salmon passage. Each reach presents specific problems that are unique to that part of the river.

One of the major agreements in the San Joaquin Settlement Act is to re-establish its fall and spring-run of Chinook salmon and all other fish that existed in the San Joaquin prior to the building of Friant Dam. After 60 plus years of total neglect, this too is proving to be a huge undertaking. The area below the dam has issues that are going to be hard to overcome. In addition to some of the problems previously mentioned, the river now presents a lack of spawning beds and has a relatively flat gradient which prevents silt from being washed downstream from existing beds and those to be constructed.

Fortunately, descendants of the original fall-run Chinook in the San Joaquin can still swim above the Hills Falls barrier, in Salt and Mud Sloughs, and other locations above the confluence with the Merced River. These fish will be tagged with both visual and acoustic tags to help with research as the project continues and their eggs will be used to establish the new run for fall Chinook.

Unfortunately, the spring-run is going to be far more difficult to establish than the fall-run of the Chinook. Despite the heroic efforts of DFG members, the spring-run Chinook became extinct in 1949, to be replaced with 60 miles of sand. After much research, the USFWS has decided to use brood stock from the Feather River. This year approximately 560 eggs were segregated from the spawning operation at the Feather River Fish Hatchery.

First, under the requirements and permits required by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), these eggs will be held at a holding-quarantine facility at the Feather River Hatchery. As of the last meeting I attended on November 2, the eggs were still in the Feather River facility. They will stay there until it has been determined the all compliance and permits have been met under experimental population section of the Environmental Species Act (ESA).

After satisfying the ESA requirements, the brood stock will be transferred a holding facility consisting of enclosed pens to be located somewhere on Reach 1 on the San Joaquin River. It is important that these juveniles be reared on the San Joaquin to develop homing instincts. An estimated 54,400 eggs will be harvested and ultimately released. The Restoration Program plans to start monitoring of return of adults by 2015. In the next 10 to 12 years a return 10,000 fall run and 30,000 spring run-run Chinook is hoped for. The USF&WS scientists I have spoken with feel it will be more than 20 years before these chinook will be self-sustaining.

The restoration of 153 miles of a river with the complex nature of the San Joaquin, has never been attempted in America's history. The recent issues presented by local, county, state, and federal governments only increase the complexities. The restoration of an extinct species, including all fish previously existing in a river, has never been accomplished. It has been frustrating to watch the SJRRP trying to progress with all the collateral issues that have developed. But it is heartening to watch the attempts of all who work on the project. Their attitude is that the restoration of the San Joaquin is for perpetuity, and they want to get it right.

Ron Forbes Conservation Chair

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