San Joaquin River flowing through dry stretches

By Carolyn Jones, San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2010

Water is released by the Friant Dam, sending the San Joaquin River flowing through two stretches that had been dry. (Photo by Mark Crosse, Fresno Bee)

Six months after the courtordered release of water from a Central Valley dam, the San Joaquin River is now reconnected with San Francisco Bay, a major development in the river's longterm recovery and re-establishment of chinook salmon populations.

The river, 64 miles of which had been choked into a dusty wasteland after the Friant Dam was built northeast of Fresno in the 1940s, is now flowing along its historic channels, merging with the Merced River, pouring into the delta and emptying into the bay.

"People are kayaking, sunbathing with their ghetto blasters, swimming. Six months ago it was all sand," said Chris Acree, director of Revive the San Joaquin, a Fresno nonprofit group that's been working to restore the river. "It's great to see the river running again." The water releases started six months ago, as part of a long-fought settlement among the Bay Institute and other environmental groups, the federal government and Central Valley farmers.

Mostly dry stretches

The San Joaquin River, California's second-longest river, was dammed for flood control and to provide water for farmers. But as it hooks through Fresno and ambles north, the river was mostly dry in two sections, totaling 64 miles. The only water came from local storm runoff - much of it tainted with fertilizers, pesticides and other agricultural residue - and occasional releases from the dam after heavy snowmelts.

When the river dried up, the fish population did, too.

"If you want to screw up a river, the San Joaquin is a perfect example," said Gary Bobker, program director for the Bay Institute, which helped negotiate the restoration. "It's like a horror museum." Hoping to restore the salmon runs, in 1988 the Bay Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam.

2006 settlement

Almost 20 years later, in 2006, the parties reached a settlement that will eventually replenish the river for the salmon, refill the aquifer below Fresno and leave more room in the reservoir for farmers. The agreement was signed by President Obama in March 2009.

Small pulses of water were released starting on Oct. 1 to re-wet the dry parts of the riverbed. On Feb. 1, the amount was increased to a steady 350 cubic feet per second, and on Monday it was bumped up to 1,100 cubic feet per second. Scientists are studying the effects on levees and channels, many of which haven't been used in decades, and by 2014 hope to see the river fully restored year-round.

Much of the dry riverbed has been littered with rusty cars, old refrigerators and other debris, Bobker said.

The river runs through Lost Lake Park in Fresno County, where fishermen welcome the return of flowing water. (Photo: Eric Paul Zamora / Fresno Bee)

Birds returning

But now, at Mendota, for example, the river is 3 feet deep and 50 feet across, Acree said. The banks are lined with 6- foot lupine, and birds, including eagles, are swooping overhead.

The project will cost about $500 million, covered by state bond funds, the federal government and increased fees on the 15,000 farmers who rely on the Friant Dam for some or all of their water.

The Friant Water Users Authority, which represents farmers from Merced County to the Tehachapis, supported the settlement because eventually the water from the San Joaquin, when it reaches the delta, will be pumped or channeled back to the reservoir for agricultural use.

"In essence, we'll get to use it twice," said the authority's manager, Ron Jacobsma. "But at this point we are very anxious to get our water back."

Friant's farmers will see an 18 percent drop in their water allotment because of the releases, he said.

Ripple effects

Although this year most farmers have ample reserves, another year or two of decreased water shipments could lead to fallow fields, laid off farmhands, higher prices for produce and economic ripple effects throughout the Central Valley, he said. "It's like when you exhaust your bank account," he said. "It might be OK this year, but it affects your stability in the future."

For the bay, a restored San Joaquin means "we have a chance to restore these salmon runs that were destroyed," Bobker said. Salmon won't be able to pass the dam, but they will be able spawn in the hundreds of streams that trickle into the river.

"This is not going to solve the problem entirely, but it does mean we'll be able to finally begin healing this river," Bobker said. "So we're crowing right now."

San Joaquin River

Length: 350 miles. Its basin covers 38,000 square miles - nearly a quarter of California - an area the size of Indiana.

Headwaters: Several points in the mountains east of Fresno.

Fish: In 1945, the year before Friant Dam was completed, 56,000 chinook salmon swam up the San Joaquin to spawn. After the dam was finished, the number dropped to zero. Fish could not swim past the confluence of the Merced River, 150 miles downstream, because the San Joaquin was dry.

Irrigation: The San Joaquin provides water for 1 million acres of farmland, producing $2 billion in crops every year. Source: San Joaquin River Parkway and Preservation Trust