The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Friant Water Users Authority reached an unprecedented settlement agreement Wednesday to restore the flow of the San Joaquin River. NRDC, representing a number of local, state and federal environmental groups, and the FWUA had been at war in court for 18 years.
"Bringing the San Joaquin River back to life will be one of the greatest restoration projects ever undertaken in the United States,” said Peter Moyle, professor of Fisheries biology at UC Davis.
A 60-miles stretch of the river in western Fresno County has been dry since the dam was built in the late 1940s due to irrigation diversions south in the Friant-Kern Canal and north in the Madera Canal.
The settlement agreement documents were handed at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning to the court of Judge Stanley Karlton, United States District Court, Eastern District of California, Sacramento Division.
It is anticipated that the increased flows to the river will be enough to provide for both spring and fall runs of Chinook salmon. Before the Friant Dam was constructed, creating Lake Millerton at the base of the Sierra foothills east of the City of Fresno, the San Joaquin River was the southernmost range of the Chinook.
“As a farmer who grew up on the San Joaquin River, I know that salmon and farming can coexist-I’ve seen it,” said Walt Shubin, Fresno County raisin farmer.
Between now and 2026, between 15-20 percent of the water formerly flowing to long-term Friant irrigators will go to restoring the river. A number of financial devises, which the settlement agreement suggests in draft federal legislation should be under the control of the secretary of the Department of Interior, will pay for restoration of the river channel and flood control downstream of the Friant Dam. Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, chairman of the House Resources Committee Subcommittee on Water and Power, has already scheduled in hearing to hear this suggested legislation. Both sides expressed optimism Wednesday that the House could pass it before the end of the year. According to the settlement, the agreement is void-able if the resources committee – chaired by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy – does not approve the bill.
Kole Upton, representing the 15,000 farmers on about one million acres and a number of towns in FWUA, already experienced in conjunctive use techniques, expressed optimism that the irrigators would find the right combination of recirculation, recapture, reuse and exchange or transfer programs to continue farming. He said the irrigators needed certainty about the amounts of water they would receive, which the settlement gives them.
The settlement proposes that about $11 million per year in fees currently paid by the irrigators will be dedicated to river improvement; the proposed legislation (part of the agreement) could produce an additional $250 million in federal funds, either through bonding, guaranteed loans or other financing. The settlement also anticipates financial participation by the state of California. Greg Wilkerson, attorney for FWUA, said the $5.4 billion Clean Water and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2006 (Prop. 84) contains $100 million earmarked for San Joaquin River restoration.
After the press conference, Hal Candee, lead attorney for NRDC, released an orphaned Red-Tailed Hawk, raised by the San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center before a crowd of about 50 people from the media and parties to the lawsuit.
What people are saying about the settlement agreement:
Restoring the San Joaquin River will benefit salmon and numerous other native wildlife species and it will improve the natural habitat along much of the river. It will also improve the quality of life for Valley residents and provide recreational opportunities. – Lydia Miller, president, San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center
… Over 150 mile4s of river will once again provide vital habitat for not only salmon but for a wide array of other nativ3 fish, plants and wildlife. Restoring one of California’s long lost salmon runs will be strong symbol of our willingness to make California a better place for both wildlife and people. I also anticipate that restoring flows to the river will have a positive effect on the Delta, an ecosystem in crisis. This monumental restoration effort could not come at a better time. – Peter Moyle, professor of fisheries biology, UC Davis.
Over the past century, West Coast salmon rivers have been devastated by water development and other activities. This agreement provides salmon fishermen with a ray of hope. A restored San Joaquin River will literally bring back to life one of California’s greatest salmon rivers. Our fishing communities deserve a little good news. – Zeke Grader, executive director, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association
Drying up the San Joaquin River harmed more than fish. It virtually destroyed the water supply for farmers in the Delta. Restoring the San Joaquin River will help rectify a national disgrace by restoring fisheries and improving water quality, benefiting farmers along the San Joaquin River and in the Delta. Restoring the river is good for farmers, the Delta and all of California. – Dante Nomellini, manager and co-counsel, Central Delta Water Agency.
This settlement represents the triumph of optimism and collaboration among the parties. A jointly supported restoration plan is the best outcome for all. It reverses a historic wrong by reviving a living San Joaquin River for the California public, which owns this important resource. This agreement also demonstrates that the laws protecting the public’s rivers are alive and well. – Philip Atkins-Patterson, outside counsel for the NRDC Coalition, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton LLP
The San Joaquin River is the missing limb of San Francisco Bay. Dewatering the river severed the connection between the Bay and a critical part of its watershed. Restoring flows and salmon to the San Joaquin will not only revive a great river but also improve water quality and habitat conditions in the Bay, at a time when it is facing unprecedented threats. – Gary Bobker, program director, The Bay Institute
This is a truly historic settlement that not only breathes life into a dead river but will measurably improve water quality and lessen human health impacts in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. State and federal agencies would do well to consider the elements of this settlement as they begin to fashion a vision for the future of the Bay-Delta estuary. – Bill Jennings, executive director, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance
…this agreement to restore the San Joaquin can bring back this important part of our natural heritage. In fact, restoring flows for salmon could be the best thing to happen to our overdrafted aquifer in Fresno and Madera counties in 60 years. Walt Shubin, Fresno County raisin grower
The settlement shows the remarkable things that people can accomplish when they work together to restore damaged ecosystems. Trout Unlimited and its 15,000 California members are thrilled that this historic agreement puts California on a course to bringing salmon back to this once-mighty river. – Chuck Bonham, senior attorney, California director, Trout Unlimited.
Some irrigation districts north of Fresno, who unsuccessfully tried to enter the settlement meetings before the agreement was reached, have expressed concerns about its impacts on them and are lobbying for a say in decisions during the implementation stage of the agreement.