NRDC Coalition Wins Ruling to Restore San Joaquin River

Decision a victory for the environment, millions of Californians, says NRDC

SACRAMENTO (August 27, 2004) -- In a decision with ramifications for millions of Californians, a federal judge in Sacramento has ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation illegally dried up California's second longest river, the San Joaquin. The ruling means that the bureau will have to release water from Friant Dam near Fresno for the first time in 55 years, according to NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).

"The judge's decision means that we can look forward to bringing a dead river back to life," said Michael Wall, a senior attorney with NRDC. "It's a tremendous victory for all Californians who deserve a healthy, living river."

NRDC led a coalition of 13 conservation and fishing groups in suing the bureau over its operation of the federally-owned dam and the renewal of water supply contracts for the Friant Water Users Authority, which represents irrigation districts on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. The suit charged the bureau with violating Section 5937 of the California Fish and Game Code, which requires that "[t]he owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water to pass over, around or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam." The lawsuit was first filed in 1988, making it one of California's longest running water disputes.

"Restoring the river will benefit everyone," said NRDC senior attorney Hal Candee. "It will benefit downstream farmers who will get cleaner, more reliable irrigation water. It will benefit the 20 million people in the Bay Area and Southern California who rely on the delta for clean drinking water. And restoring the river's once thriving salmon fishery will help bring back more fishing jobs to our state."

Before Friant Dam's completion, the San Joaquin River supported one of the most important salmon fisheries on the Pacific coast and the southernmost Chinook salmon run in North America. Today, virtually all the water upstream from the dam is diverted for irrigation, and two sections of the river totaling 60 miles have completely dried up.

In his 41-page decision, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton wrote that before the dam, "So many salmon migrated up the San Joaquin River during the spawning season that some people who lived near the present site of Friant Dam compared the noise to a waterfall. Some residents even said that they were kept awake nights by the myriad salmon heard nightly splashing over the sand bars in the River. A fisherman who lived downstream recalls that, in the 1940s, the salmon were still 'so thick that we could have pitch-forked them. One almost could have walked across the River on the backs of salmon when they were running.'"

Writing of the dam's damaging effects, the judge noted, "In the words of the Department of Interior, Friant Dam's operations have been a 'disaster' for Chinook salmon."
Restoring the San Joaquin River could be one of the biggest, most important environmental restoration projects in California history. The conservation and fishing plaintiffs say it can be done without harming valley farmers. "With improved water management, we can restore the river while protecting our agricultural economy," said Wall.

And restoring the river will benefit downstream farmers in the delta region near Stockton who have suffered from low flows and poor water quality. "The plight of the San Joaquin River is a national disgrace that must be remedied," said Dante Nomellini of the Central Delta Water Agency, an irrigation district that supported NRDC's position in the case with an amicus brief. "This decision is a good first step."

"This ruling will help restore one of the two great rivers that sustain the health of San Francisco Bay," said Grant Davis, executive director of The Bay Institute. "It is now time to begin restoring this vital resource for future generations."

"This has been a long time coming, but after 60 years, Judge Karlton has finally righted this wrong," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "We have now started down the road to restore one of the West Coast's premier salmon runs, and, along with it, fishing jobs in California's coastal communities."

The plaintiffs in the suit are NRDC, Trout Unlimited, California Striped Bass Association, National Audubon Society, Stanislaus Audubon Society, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, United Anglers, CalTrout, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Sierra Club, Bay Institute, San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center, Friends of the River, and Nor-Cal Fishing Guides and Sportsmen's Association.

The case is Natural Resources Defense Council, et al. (Plaintiffs) v. Kirk Rodgers, as Regional Director of the United States Bureau of Reclamation, et al. (Defendants) and Orange Cove Irrigation District, et al. (Defendants-Intervenors); Case No. CIV-S-88-1658 (U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California).