Rains Restore Flows to the San Joaquin River, Benefiting Fish, Communities and Farmers

SJRRP flows blog photo.jpg

Photo: Dave Hunter

For two years, the San Joaquin River has received no water due to the drought. But this week, water releases resumed, reviving the parched river. This is good news for communities that live near the river and use it for fishing and recreation. It's also good for fish and wildlife, which depend on the river for their survival. And finally, it's good for farmers, who will reap the benefits downstream.

Thanks to rains this past year, the Bureau of Reclamation provided an initial allocation of 2,380 acre-feet for the month of February to the San Joaquin River Restoration Program. While this initial amount (equal to less than 1% of the average of the total projected runoff for this spring) is a small fraction of what the river is entitled to in an average year, it will help revive the river and its fisheries while also providing water supply benefits to farmers downstream.

Restoring a Living River

The Restoration Program began with a small initial release of 80 cfs (cubic feet per second) that will continue over the next two weeks. These flows will advance efforts to restore a healthy San Joaquin River by reviving more than 20 miles of dry riverbed. The water will improve habitat conditions for fish and wildlife and support efforts to assist offspring from 935 Chinook Salmon adults that were released upstream last fall to complete their migration downstream to the sea. The flows will not only provide new stretches of river for fish to use but also for boaters and fishermen looking to enjoy recreational opportunities in the lower river.

Water for the River and the Valley

This year, the San Joaquin Valley has received the most rain it has seen since the drought began four years ago. Last week, the California Department of Water Resources forecast estimated the average runoff from the upper river would produce about 1.11 million acre-feet, which is about 88% of normal. While this is good news, it still falls short of hopes and expectations that the current El Niño weather pattern would erase the effects of the drought.

The truth is that it will take more than time and rainfall to address drought impacts - it will take changing how we manage water in the region. Some negative consequences, like ground subsidence due to excessive local groundwater pumping, are permanent. However, there are steps we can take to improve water management. And restoring the river is one of them.

Virtually all of the water released this month will infiltrate into the riverbed and help recharge depleted groundwater aquifers in the area. This is just one of the ways the Restoration Program is benefiting agricultural water supplies in the region.

Water Supply Benefits of River Restoration Program

Since river restoration flow releases first began in 2009, more than 38% (286,000 acre-feet) of the water has been recaptured downstream for reuse by the Friant Water Districts. Another 40% of the water released to benefits to fish and wildlife (about 300,000 acre-feet) infiltrated into the riverbed, recharging groundwater aquifers for nearby farms and communities. In addition, the Restoration Program has further benefited agricultural water supplies by providing over 651,000 acre-feet of water in previously wet years at significantly reduced prices to encourage increased groundwater banking in the region.

To further promote storing water underground for use during future dry years, the Restoration Program is also helping to create groundwater recharge projects like the one currently under construction in Tulare County, which received $1.9 million dollars in funding. And the Restoration Program has three more similar projects already in development. These and other efforts are part of the Program's water management efforts to reduce or avoid water supply impacts to Friant farmers.

A Living River Provides Valuable Information

During these initial releases the Restoration Program will collect information to improve future designs for water supply and restoration projects, as well as projects to protect agricultural lands along the river. Historically, the lower 60 miles of the restoration area was a matrix of wetland and riparian forests with a naturally high groundwater table. When the river was dried up after the construction of Friant Dam in the 1940s, farmers were able to drain fields and plant valuable crops. In order to protect fields from potential impacts from rewetting the river, the Restoration Program has already spent more than $50 million dollars on projects and other improvements. Slowly increasing the amount of water that is released into the river will provide information to further advance projects to protect downstream farmers from floods and high groundwater.

The San Joaquin River Restoration Program is the result of a 2006 settlement agreement between the federal government, Friant Water Authority and NRDC, representing a coalition of fishing and environmental groups to restore California's second largest river. As the Program enters its ninth year, it is poised to achieve critical milestones towards restoring a living river. The 2015 updated program management plan provides a clear and achievable roadmap for the restoration of flows and salmon to the river while also making water supply and flood protection improvements to support the region's agricultural economy.

About the Authors

Join Us