It is Time to Restore Salmon to the San Joaquin River

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Last year marked the fifth year of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program and the two year anniversary of renewed river flows - the first since the 1940s when the operation of Friant Dam dried up the river and ended the historic salmon runs.  Thanks to years of hard work on the part of state and federal agencies, farmers, conservation groups, water districts and other stakeholders, the San Joaquin River once again flows all the way to the sea.

The Restoration Program is now ready to achieve its most important objective: the reintroduction of salmon in 2012. 

In preparation for reintroducing salmon, the Restoration Program successfully achieved many key milestones this year, including renewed flow releases, water supply benefits, successful salmon experiments, environmental plans and permits, and improved flood management.

  • Renewed Flow Releases - Now in the third year of renewed water flows in the river, the information the river releases provide continues to inform the development of water supply, habitat restoration and flood protection projects. The releases also enrich wildlife habitat along over 150 miles of river and improve water quality downstream.
  • Water Supply Benefits – The Restoration Program has succeeded in providing substantial water supply benefits to Friant farmers as promised in the San Joaquin River Restoration settlement agreement.  Since river releases began two years ago, almost 100,000 acre-feet of water has been recaptured downstream, recirculated back into the water supply system, and returned to Friant farmers.  In 2011, flood releases from Friant Dam were creatively used to meet virtually all flow requirements. The wet year conditions also allowed the Restoration Program to provide an additional 350,000 acre-feet of water – bringing the total amount of water the Restoration Program has provided to Friant water districts to 450,000 acre-feet.  By contrast, in the first two years of renewed flows 358,000 acre-feet of water was released to meet requirements to restore a living river.  The Restoration Program has actually increased local water supplies by almost 100,000 acre feet. 
  • Successful Salmon Experiments - As part of an experiment leading up to full reintroduction of salmon, 1,200 juvenile fall run Chinook salmon were released in late April of last year. This was the first time salmon have been released in the river.  Over 40% of these fish successfully migrated 150 miles downstream past the confluence with the Merced River – a comparable survival rate to those seen on the Sacramento River and in San Joaquin River tributaries. Moreover, these fish successfully migrated down both the river channel prior to the construction of planned restoration projects as well as down the Chowchilla Flood Bypass system.  Along with other studies, this experimental release provides important information to support achieving the long term goal of restoring an average of 30,000 salmon per year to the San Joaquin River.
  • Environmental Plans and Permits - In April, the Restoration Program released the draft programmatic environmental document that will guide implementation going forward. Five years in the making, the document includes plans for over a dozen restoration and water supply projects as well as a wealth of information about fish restoration and water management. Scheduled for completion this spring, the document is the basis for other permits that are necessary to begin constructing habitat, as well as flood and water management projects to achieve the Restoration Program’s goals of restoring flows and salmon while minimizing water supply impacts.
  • Improved Flood Protection - The restoration project area on the San Joaquin River has never had the level of flood protection of cities downstream like Stockton and Sacramento. Bordered by mostly agricultural lands, these converted wetlands have a long history of high groundwater tables that are sensitive to water seeping away from the river channel during flood control releases.  Last year, the Restoration Program and local landowners completed a three-year effort to develop a seepage management plan to avoid significant impacts from restoration flows.  A foundation for the plan is an impressive network of over 130 groundwater monitoring wells along the river (often at the request of local landowners), that allow landowners and the Restoration Program to monitor groundwater seepage and manage flows. 

Salmon reintroduction can be achieved this year as well.

Reintroduction of salmon is not a single event – it’s a process that will begin slowly.  A wealth of information will be gleaned in the first years of initial releases and returns that will help inform the construction of restoration projects currently in development.  The numbers of fish released this year may be small, and they will face less than ideal conditions, but the Restoration Program can begin reintroducing salmon this year.

There will always be opponents. It took eighteen years for farmers, the federal government and conservation groups to agree that it was better to work together than to fight in court. Unfortunately, there is still a vocal minority who continue to try to block reintroduction of salmon and overturn the court-approved negotiated restoration agreement.  Valley congressmen Devin Nunes and Jeff Denham, along with downstream land owners and water districts who have benefited from a dry river, have attempted to delay reintroduction of salmon, defund the Restoration Program and overturn the broadly supported settlement agreement.   So far, these attempts have been unsuccessful.  Unfortunately these political attacks may continue, with restoration opponents seeking to delay the required reintroduction of salmon in 2012.  Opponents overlook the many accomplishments of the Restoration Program and the data showing that the river can support salmon.  Delay is their only hope of keeping California’s second largest river dry and lifeless.

Restoring the San Joaquin River was never envisioned to be a simple task.  But from the outset, the Restoration Program has been developing solutions to the challenges we face.  The accomplishments thus far show that we can overcome six decades of neglect and degradation.  The Restoration Program was intentionally designed to achieve the long term goals in phases and to improve conditions in the river over time while reintroducing salmon by the end of 2012.  Despite the size and scope of this effort, there is no challenge ahead that cannot be overcome.

When the first major milestone of restoring flows to the river was achieved in 2009, opponents tried hard to block the release, claiming there would be widespread flooding and water supply impacts.  Instead, the flows provided information needed to improve flood management and enabled the implementation of water supply projects that not only achieved the intended goal of reducing impacts but actually resulted in water supply benefits for farmers.  Change is never easy, but after 60 years the time has come to put salmon back in the San Joaquin River.