This week, flow releases out of Friant Dam resumed as part of the effort to restore the San Joaquin River that resulted from the historic settlement agreement between NRDC, the Friant Water Users Authority and the federal government. Last fall, from October 1st to November 20th, flows were released to the San Joaquin River for the first time in over 60 years. Those initial flows were covered extensively in the media, from the local Fresno paper to the New York Times.
The 2006 settlement agreement set in motion one of the largest river restoration efforts in the nation by requiring flows and salmon to be restored to the San Joaquin River, which was dried up and lost its salmon runs in the 1940’s. The restoration flows being released in these initial years – called Interim Flows - are intermittent in nature and are less than the full flows that will go down the river once the river channel is restored and barriers to salmon migration are fixed.
The flows that began on February 1st will continue until December 1st of this year and will provide a wealth of information critical to the restoration effort. The releases this spring will be the largest yet – up to about 1600 cubic feet per second –enough water to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool in about 53 seconds. Given that the river has been dry for most of the last 60 years, releasing flows several years before salmon are reintroduced in 2012 will help refine our knowledge about the river and how best to manage the limited water provided under the Settlement (about 18% of the historic flows) in ways that maximize the benefits to fish and wildlife. Over the next few months data will be collected regarding water temperatures and other habitat characteristics of the river. Information will also be collected about the river’s ability to convey flows in order to identify places where the channel may need to be modified to safely carry higher releases of water. Additionally, these flow releases will help improve water supply management by providing opportunities to recirculate and reuse restoration flows for agricultural purposes once the water has provided the intended environmental benefit.
The resumption of restoration flow releases down the San Joaquin River, even at a fraction of its once mighty flows, is a monumental event. Aside from being a major step forward in restoring California’s second longest river, it will also provide flows to the struggling San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem, a source of water for 23 million residents, and help revive the ailing salmon runs that are the life blood of California’s commercial fishing industry. But perhaps even more importantly, these flows and the restoration effort are an example of how farmers, fishermen, environmentalists, and state and federal agencies can work together to implement real solutions to California’s conflicts over water resources.