(Re)Discovering the San Joaquin River: Water flows and salmon coming soon.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for MSchmitt fish.jpg

In 1950, George Warner, a California Department of Fish and Game biologist, held one

 of the very last salmon in the San Joaquin River. Spring-run Chinook salmon once numbered in the hundreds of thousands were nearly decimated after Friant Dam became fully operational in the late 1940s. As a result of the dam operations, the flows were increasingly diverted to farms and the salmon disappeared above the river's confluence with the Merced River, leaving the river bone dry and nearly dead.  

But today the story of the San Joaquin River is changing thanks to a historic settlement agreement between farmers, environmentalists and the federal government to create one of the largest and most ambitious river restorations ever in the West. In 1988, NRDC filed a lawsuit against the federal government, who owns Friant Dam, for dewatering the river and violating state laws protecting fish. After years of litigation, a historic 2006 settlement agreement resulted in the creation of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program to restore water flows and healthy runs of spring and fall run Chinook salmon, while also providing opportunities to improve water supply management.

Seven Years in the Making

After seven years of planning and preparation, life along the San Joaquin River is about to change for wildlife, landowners and communities along its 150 mile course. Over the next few years, flows will be increasing, bringing new life to the dry river bed. Restoration projects will improve wildlife habitat and flood protection along the river. Water supply projects will improve water management to support the needs of farms and cities. Beyond the benefits to fish and farmers, the Restoration Program will create tangible economic and ecological benefits for communities in the San Joaquin River Valley and beyond by creating 11,000 jobs and making the San Joaquin River a community treasure and a destination for camping, fishing, bird-watching and other kinds of recreation. 

For example, the San Joaquin River Restoration Program is funding a weed removal project along the banks of the river that is not only improving the environment but also creating jobs. Workers are being paid to remove weeds and invasive plants along the San Joaquin River in Merced, Madera and Fresno counties. Improvements that will be made to the river by the restoration effort will only further enhance it as a public resource for folks to enjoy. For example, the increasingly popular sport of stand-up paddling is starting to make a big splash in the area as the cool waters of the San Joaquin River provide a great escape for local residents who are enjoying the sport and have discovered a new way to explore the river.

First-ever fall Fresno SalmonFest

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Fresno salmon.png

San Joaquin River as it begins to undergo exciting changes. One opportunity folks will have this fall is to come and see first-hand some of the first salmon being reintroduced to the river. NRDC, Trout Unlimited and the San Joaquin River Partnership are hosting the first-ever 2013 fall Fresno SalmonFest on November 9th, an event where residents, anglers and other river enthusiasts will be able to see Chinook salmon captured and release into the river at Lost Lake Park near their historic spawning grounds below Friant Dam. This year marks the second year of releasing and tracking adult salmon in their historic spawning habitat below Friant Dam (here is a link to last year’s effort), and the fall Fresno SalmonFest will celebrate the return of salmon, along with enhanced angling opportunities in and around the river mainstem, and the progress in the San Joaquin becoming once again a living river. For more information about the event location and times go here.

While the effort to revive the San Joaquin River and its historic salmon runs is just beginning to show tangible results, the effort has come a long way and much work still needs to be done. It will take time and there are some big challenges that the restoration effort is working hard to overcome. But all it takes is to see mighty salmon being released into the river to understand why this effort is about more than just fish, it’s about restoring a living river for everyone to enjoy today, and for future generations.