Tuesday, September 29, 2009

River Restoration: Ready for Dry Run

Fresno Bee
Published Tuesday, Sep. 29, 2009

FRESNO  It all starts Thursday with a gentle surge of water to be released from Friant Dam,
northeast of Fresno, into the San Joaquin River.
A massive, unprecedented and unpredictable river restoration project will begin, reawakening
miles of dried riverbed and salmon runs that have been extinct for six decades.
Long stretches of the river have been dry since the dam was built in the 1940s. Parts have
become a gutter for the San Joaquin Valley, collecting muddy seepage, trash and abandoned
Now, in a nine-year effort that could cost up to $1.2 billion, the 350-mile San Joaquin will be
reconnected with the Pacific Ocean. Salmon, which once teemed in its waters, may again
migrate from near Fresno to the ocean.
The project begins with test releases to determine how the river will respond. Engineers then
will widen the riverbed in some places and dig new channels around obstacles.
In recent years, government agencies across the nation have attempted other big-river
restoration projects, from the Penobscot River in Maine to the Klamath in Oregon. But
nobody is restoring a big, salmon-supporting river this far south  or a river as damaged as
the San Joaquin.
"I've never seen anything like this on this scale," said Bay Area-based biologist Chuck
Hanson, a longtime fisheries consultant and now a member of an independent advisory
committee on the San Joaquin restoration.
Farmers will lose water
Not everyone relishes the challenge.
Under terms of a complex, controversial court settlement, east-side valley farmers  15,000
of them, cultivating 1 million acres from the center of the valley to the foothills  will give up some of their irrigation water so the San Joaquin can be reborn.
The water loss comes at a dark moment for California agriculture.
The valley's west side  a national symbol for farmers battling environmentalists over water already is reeling from three years of drought and restrictions to preserve a rare fish species, the Delta smelt.
Though river restoration will send more water downstream into the west side, farmers in the hard-hit Westlands Water District would get no share. Some could benefit from river water that seeps into the water table, but the potential benefit is unknown.
There are plans to pump some replacement water back through an aqueduct from the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where the river ends, to help east-side farmers. But that
water may instead be needed downstream to ease problems for threatened fish, such as the
Delta smelt.
For worried farmers, the restoration boils down to a single question: Can the government
rebuild this river without crippling the valley's internationally known farming industry?
Environmentalists and scientists think the odds are good, but nobody knows for sure.
Waste of taxpayer money?
Farmers have dreaded this moment since 1988, when environmentalists sued to rescue the
San Joaquin. Decades earlier, it was the river that rescued farms. Friant Dam was built in the
1940s to capture most of the river's water and irrigate dying farms in Merced, Madera,
Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties.
The river and its salmon runs were deliberately sacrificed, although even then the state fish
and game code required a stream of water beyond the dam for the native fish.
Environmentalists used that provision as a cornerstone in their 1988 lawsuit.
Farmers fought the suit for 18 years, but decisions in the case were consistently going
against them. They were running out of options. So they cut a deal in 2006  a compromise
intended to restore the river and salmon runs but preserve most east-side farming.
Three years later, some farmers have begun to doubt they will see much river water
circulating back from the restoration to their fields. And they wonder whether salmon, a coldwater
fish, will even survive in a warming climate over the next century.
Farmer Kole Upton, one of four people who negotiated the restoration deal in 2006, has
changed his mind about the settlement for many reasons, including the salmon issue.
With climate change, "It's going to get very warm here," he said. "This looks like an ultimate
waste of taxpayer money."
Fishery biologist Peter Moyle of the University of California, Davis, disagrees, saying the San
Joaquin may be a refuge for salmon because it taps a part of the Sierra likely to remain a
source of ice-cold water in spring.
"It does drain some of the highest Sierra, which will still have a snowpack," he said.
Salmon runs won't be big
The fishing industry is elated about this restoration. Decimated fisheries in the Pacific Ocean forced authorities to shut down salmon fishing for the second consecutive season this year. The idea of restarting San Joaquin salmon runs sounds good. "I don't know if we'll ever get 110,000 fish (in the river) like we did before, but I think it will help," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, which was a plaintiff in the 1988 lawsuit.
But the restoration probably won't return the river to a pristine state with robust salmon runs, said Ron Stork, senior policy expert for Friends of the River, a statewide advocacy group. There's not enough water in the settlement for big salmon runs, he said.
Stork's group also was among the 14 environmental, fishing and conservation organizations that filed the 1988 lawsuit.
"The restoration is symbolic," Stork said. "This is a very big undertaking in a place where the
political and institutional culture is to capture every bit of water that falls on the Sierra
Nevada and use it in the valley. The culture is that none of this water should leave the area."
Cost could hit $1 billion
The restoration will span the middle 150 miles of this 350-mile river  from Friant Dam to
the place where the Merced River empties into the San Joaquin.
But there is much more to the San Joaquin, especially above Friant Dam. The headwaters are
at Thousand Island Lake, east of Yosemite National Park.
The river runs through a mountain wonderland, passing near the spectacular volcanic
columns of the Devils Post Pile and flowing through breathtaking glacial canyons. It arrives at
Millerton Lake after about an 80-mile journey that takes it through several hydroelectric
dams and lakes, such as Redinger and Kerckhoff lakes.
The 150 miles from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced is where the river must be
rebuilt. Beyond that, it refills with tributary water from the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus
rivers on its run to the Delta. All three major tributaries have salmon runs.
Even far downstream, however, the river has problems: Farm pesticides and urban waste
contaminate the flow. Some cities, such as Antioch, get water from the Delta. Fresh water from the restoration might help water quality for those residents. It also might improve conditions at the deep port of Stockton, where fish suffer from a lack of dissolved oxygen in the slow-flowing river. The city discharges millions of gallons of treated sewage into the river each day. Many believe a restored San Joaquin ultimately will improve the health of the Delta by providing a stronger push of fresh water to guide dwindling species away from massive water pumps.
The cost of the river revival isn't small, although it could be as little as $600 million. The price tag easily could push beyond $1 billion because officials may need to buy private property to widen the river and build expensive facilities to help replace irrigation water farmers lose.
Congress has authorized $250 million, but the money will have to be approved by federal lawmakers, as it is needed for projects in the next decade. The state has committed about $200 million through water bonds. The work will be done over the next nine years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, owner of the dam and architect of the restoration plan.
Officials will release water from the dam during the next several years to study the river and
answer several questions, including: How much water will sink into the ground? How much
will seep into neighboring property? How fast will the vegetation return?
Potential for water damage
While east-side farmers have reached an uneasy peace over the river's fate, the fight over
the restoration has shifted to the valley's west side, where the most significant expense is
Farmers working 240,000 acres near the river already are considering their own lawsuit,
fearing a reinvigorated river will destroy their crops.
They are part of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Authority, representing growers
who traded their historic river rights for Northern California water decades ago.
These west-side farmers have developed crops near a 25-mile stretch of the old, dried
riverbed beyond the Mendota Pool, which is part of Reach 2, the section of river from
Gravelly Ford to Mendota Dam. When the river fills, water might seep through the levees and
onto their land, swamp their crops and cause big losses.
The Bureau of Reclamation has assured them monitoring wells will be in place and water flow
will be slowed if excess seepage is detected.
But farm officials say the monitoring wells have not been installed, and the government will
run out of time.
If officials decide to use the natural river, they'll have to spend $350 million or more to buy
miles of private land so they can rebuild the waterway deeper and wider. Federal officials will
decide in the next two years.
Chris Acree, executive director of Revive the San Joaquin, a Fresno-based advocacy group,
prefers to see the natural river restored, even though there are obstacles. For instance,
someone 30 years ago built a house in the river channel in Merced County. It would have to move.
But, "It's only one house," Acree said. "There could have been cities built."
Contact The Fresno Bee's Mark Grossi, (559) 441-6316 or mgrossi@fresnobee.com.

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