The San Joaquin River Restoration Suggests Path Forward for the Delta and Salmon

Something unexpected lies buried in the conflict over our collapsing salmon fisheries and water exports: a solution. 

Some parties in this dispute have presented it as a zero sum game, claiming it’s a matter of “jobs vs. fish.”  This is a canard for two reasons.  First, fish represent jobs just as much as agriculture – good jobs, jobs that generate employment and revenues well beyond the commercial fishing sector.  Seafood processors and purveyors, restaurants, hotels, boatyards and chandlers, tackle, boat and fuel retailers – these are all part of the salmon fishing industry.

Second, we don’t have to choose between fish and agriculture; we can have both.  We know this because a recent precedent in California demonstrates that both fishermen and farmers can reach an agreement on how to manage limited water supplies while safeguarding their livelihoods.  In this case, however, the two sides had to overcome their long-established positions and reach out to each other.  They had to compromise.

The San Joaquin River drains the southern portion of California’s Central Valley, and conjoins with the Sacramento River at their shared delta near Stockton.  At one time, the San Joaquin supported huge salmon runs, second only to those of the Sacramento.  But massive water diversions for San Joaquin Valley agriculture dried up the river and destroyed the fishery.  Indeed, for most of the past six decades, parts of the river ran dry – even in winter.  The efforts of fishery advocates to restore the river were met with fierce resistance by farmers equally determined to maintain control over their water sources.

The fight over the San Joaquin was heated – easily as fierce as the current battle over the Delta and the Sacramento River’s salmon fisheries.  Decades of litigation culminated in a lawsuit over the restoration of flows and the proposed creation of fish habitat below Friant Dam near Fresno; this case alone lasted 18 years.  But though its provenance was rooted in contention, it ultimately resulted in a settlement – one based on mutual interests, shared resources and – yes – compromise.

The San Joaquin settlement established two primary goals: restoring robust, self-sustaining populations of salmon and other fish below Friant Dam and programs to minimize water supply impacts that could result from the restoration.

Under the terms of the agreement, restoration of wildlife habitat will proceed along the course of the river. Water releases will be keyed to the specific needs of spring-run and fall-run Chinook salmon, with the amount varying depending on how wet or dry conditions are in the region.  One aspect of the agreement is particularly dramatic, and serves as a metaphor for the entire settlement process: when full implementation is achieved by 2016, the 153-mile length of the San Joaquin River will have year-round, fish-sustaining flows for the first time in 60 years.  Earlier this year, a milestone in the settlement was achieved when initial flows were released from Friant Dam, linking the river with the Delta, San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

This restoration program will require on average about 18 percent of the San Joaquin water historically delivered to Friant’s long-term contractors.  Impacts to farmers will be reduced through projects to improve the recharging of groundwater reservoirs during periods of water surplus, water transfers and exchanges, and water recapture and recirculation programs.

Ultimately, we expect the San Joaquin to regain its status as one of the West’s great living rivers.  Thousands of salmon will again spawn here, and lush riparian forests, sustained by the year-round flows, will line the river’s banks, providing food and shelter to birds and other wildlife.  The river will become a focal point of recreation and relaxation for all Californians – a place to fish, boat, bird watch, or simply watch the water go by.

No single interest group “prevailed” on the San Joaquin; nobody got it all.  But everybody and everything – including the salmon – got what they needed.  And if we can do it on the San Joaquin, we can do it with the Delta.  The good snowpack that recently has accumulated in the Sierra has given us a little – very little – breathing room in regard to settling the salmon and water crises.  We’d prefer to use that time negotiating instead of litigating.