San Joaquin River Restoration

March 25, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The U.S. House voted 285-140 in favor of a massive public lands bill that included a bill restoring water to the San Joaquin River.The bill calls for water releases from the Friant Dam into the river, which will push the water level up as much as three feet. Some farmers think it'll also destroy their chances of growing anything on the valley's east side.

The calm banks of the river provide a sharp contrast to the frenzied fight over its water on Capitol Hill. "If you vote for this bill today, you vote to end agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, during debate over the bill.

Rep. Nunes fought the river restoration bill that passed the House on Wednesday.

It takes as much as 20% of the water going to farmers on the east side, and sends it into the San Joaquin River. Rep. Nunes says farms will dry up and agriculture will die out. "This essentially puts the eastside in the same situation the west side is in," he said. "Over time, this will idle 300,000 acres of farm ground."

Thousands of acres on the west side of the valley are barren this year because of a water shortage partly caused by a federal court ruling limiting water pumping on the San Joaquin Delta to protect the smelt population. Another court also ruled that salmon should return to the San Joaquin River and they needed more water.

Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, says the bill was meant to protect some water for farmers. "All of the water districts feel this is a better plan than just letting it go back to the judge, whose only option is to run water down river to bring salmon back," he said.

Many east side farmers say the bill was the best option they could find and it guarantees they'll get some water.

Friends of the river say it will be more user friendly, increasing the speed of the current and making the water colder. "It'll make canoeing on the river and recreation a lot more enjoyable," said Richard Sloan of RiverTree Volunteers.

The bill's on its way to President Obama's desk now. Once he signs it, water releases should start in October and salmon would follow in the spring.

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