Friant settlement reached Friday
AP Newsbreak: Deal reached to restore salmon in San Joaquin River
By JULIANA BARBASSA, Associated Press Writer
fresnobee.com-- June 30, 2006, 6:55 p.m.
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A settlement was reached Friday in an 18-year-old court battle over how much water should be allowed to flow from a dam on the San Joaquin River to restore the salmon population, attorneys said.
Terms of the settlement won't be released, and the agreement won't take effect, until all parties - environmental and fishing organizations, farming interests and irrigation districts, federal agencies and the court - approve them, attorneys said.
When Friant Dam started operating in 1949, it transformed San Joaquin Valley's main artery from a river thick with salmon into an irrigation powerhouse that nourishes more than a million acres of farmland in some of the country's highest-grossing agricultural fields.
But the 314-foot barrier also dried up long stretches of the river below the dam, making it a more likely home for tumbleweeds and lizards than spawning salmon.
In 2004, Sacramento U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton agreed with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which claimed the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that built and maintains Friant Dam, had broken the law by not letting enough water flow down the river to sustain the salmon that once lived there.
Since then, environmentalists, federal water authorities and the farm interest that depend on that water had been trying to come to a mutually acceptable settlement and avoid a court-ordered solution.
"We're very encouraged that all these parties were able to work diligently over the last nine months to come to a place that seems to be a reasonable compromise," said Ron Jacobsma, general manager with the Friant Water Users Authority, a party in the case. The irrigation district distributes San Joaquin River water to thousands of farms in the valley.
Kate Poole, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the approval process for the settlement will take up to six weeks.
"We are hopeful that these approvals will be obtained rapidly, and that the parties to this historic settlement can begin a new chapter - working together to restore the San Joaquin River in a manner that will benefit not just the environment, but millions of people around the state, including Northern California salmon fishermen, Delta farmers and Southern Californians who will drink cleaner Delta water," she said in a statement.
Among the sticking points in negotiations were how much water should be sent down the river, and how to finance and carry out what will likely be one of the most ambitious and expensive river restoration projects in the country, parties said.
"What we're trying to do is provide the conditions for salmon to return above the Merced River without sacrificing the country's most productive agricultural economy," said Gregory Wilkinson, attorney for the Friant Water Users Authority.
Legislators and state officials who have played an important role in pushing for this resolution likely will be important actors in the financing and implementation of the settlement, according to the court document filed in Sacramento Superior Court announcing the deal Friday.
The state's participation is key, since it's responsible for maintenance of some levees that hold back the San Joaquin River as it flows into the delta, and out into the San Francisco Bay, said Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation.
Earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger became the first governor to intervene in this water fight when he wrote Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, encouraging the federal agency to join in the settlement.
The governor's letter expressed his "strong support for this potential settlement to restore the San Joaquin River in a reasonable and practical manner."
Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein also played a key role in bringing the parties back to the table for this final round of negotiations.
The court document filed Friday said the settlement includes proposed legislation that will be presented to Congress.