Restoring the San Joaquin River

September 25, 2009 10:17:52 AM PDT
The first major step in restoring the San Joaquin River is about to get underway. Flows out of Millerton Lake, through Friant Dam will begin October first. Michael Jackson, of the Bureau of Reclamation's Fresno office says it will start small."I don't know that they will notice anything substantial with this relatively minor increase."

The initial increase in the flow out of Friant Dam may not be enough to push water into the 60 mile stretch of dry riverbed West of Fresno. But a bigger release in November should do that. Flows will be increased gradually over the next few years to help restore the natural river environment.

"The goal would be to reintroduce Steelhead Salmon into the system and have a natural functioning system that would have fisheries and habitat and those type of things throughout the year." Jackson said.

But water that stays in the river stays out of valley farms. Growers like Kole Upton, of the Friant Water Users Authority fear the deal is shaping up to be a big blow to agriculture.

"The consequences long term of this in the Friant Service area 2 to 3 hundred thousand acres will have to be fallowed."

The government expects farm water supplies to be cut no more than 15% and the settlement of a 20 year legal fight to restore the river contains provisions to protect agriculture and give growers back some of the water.

"Restoration was one of the goals in the settlement. The other goal was a water management goal so one of the things we're going to be looking at is how much of this water can we recapture and bring it back to areas where it's coming from." Jackson said.

But Upton says the settlement contains no guarantees and fears recent biological opinions to protect fish will take the water farmers were supposed to get back. He says the fight is not over.

"The bright side it's now a law so if you have a major change in congress and you get some folks who actually listen to the people then maybe we can get a law change and get some common sense into this situation." Upton said.

The conflict over the San Joaquin River is the result of a settlement of a Federal Court ruling in 2006. That ruling held that the construction of Friant Dam violated the law because inadequate steps were taken to protect fish species. The dam was completed in 1949.

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