House Votes to Undo Part of Settlement to Restore the San Joaquin River

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed Congressman Denham’s amendment to undo part of the court approved settlement to restore the San Joaquin River and its historic salmon runs.  The amendment, which was attached to the appropriations bill for the National Marine Fisheries Service, would prohibit the agency from spending any money to reintroduce spring run Chinook salmon to the San Joaquin River.  The settlement requires the federal government to begin reintroduction of salmon to the San Joaquin River in 2012. Congressman Denham’s amendment attempts to prohibit the federal government from fulfilling its obligations under the Settlement.

In 2006, the Bush Administration approved a historic settlement agreement between farmers, fishermen, conservation groups and the United States to restore the San Joaquin River.  Just three years ago, a bipartisan majority in Congress approved the Settlement Act, authorizing implementation of the settlement, as part of P.L. 111-11.  The Settlement Act was supported by the State of California, all of the parties to the settlement, and was supported by downstream landowners and water districts (including the Exchange Contractors and San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority).  This settlement agreement between farmers, fishermen, and the state and federal governments resolved a long-running water conflict, and offers great benefits to the public: it brings California’s second-longest river back to life, providing opportunities for fishing, boating, swimming and recreating; it funds water supply and other projects that benefits local farmers; and it restores the river’s historic salmon runs. 

The Settlement Act contained numerous legal protections for downstream landowners and water districts, including the Exchange Contractors, and the Exchange Contractors and other so called “third parties” agreed these protections were sufficient in 2009 when they supported the Settlement Act.  What’s more, much of the cost associated with restoring the river will be spent on projects that benefit these parties, including flood control, groundwater monitoring and seepage projects (addressing problems caused by inadequately maintained levees, shallow groundwater and natural seepage), fish screens and other infrastructure projects, and a fish bypass around Mendota Dam. 

Sadly, the Exchange Contractors now seem to be reneging on their support for the Settlement, and trying to delay implementation of the Settlement or entirely undo it (as H.R. 1837 would do).  Congressman Denham specifically cited the opinions of the Exchange Contractors and the San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority on the House Floor as a reason why the amendment was needed.  None of the parties to the settlement supported the Denham amendment, yet the House voted to overrule the parties to the Settlement and substitute its judgment for that of the agencies. 

None of the purported reasons for the Denham Amendment hold water:

  • The downstream landowners already have legal protections from any liability for killing spring run Chinook salmon in their water diversions and other infrastructure, so the amendment is unnecessary to protect their interests.
  • The agencies plan to begin the reintroduction of spring run salmon with excess hatchery fish from the Feather River hatchery, so the reintroduction will not impact on threatened and endangered salmon populations in the Sacramento River and its tributaries.
  • Prohibiting funding for salmon reintroduction may mean eliminating funding for studies, permitting, and other projects to help prepare for full reintroduction of salmon.  These studies and projects are sound investments in the long term success of the program.
  • Salmon reintroduction can begin this year, as called for under the Settlement (as my colleague explained in more detail earlier this year).  The Settlement planned that fish reintroduction would begin before construction projects were completed, recognizing that juvenile fish that are released this year won’t swim back upstream for several years.  Waiting to begin reintroduction until all of these projects are completed was not required by the Settlement, and instead improving conditions in the river over time while beginning to reintroduce salmon by the end of 2012.

It’s very disappointing to see the Exchange Contractors renege on their promise to support the settlement and to oppose amendments to the Settlement Act, particularly in light of all of the benefits and legal protections they receive under the Settlement Act. While Congressman Denham and others in the House continue to attempt to unravel the settlement to restore the San Joaquin River, we hope and expect that the Senate will kill this amendment and keep the Settlement on track. 

About the Authors

Doug Obegi

Senior Attorney, Water program

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