More than 20 years ago, Jim Nickles, Stockton Record reporter, wrote one of the outstanding newspaper series on California water that we've ever seen. With his dual focus on the Delta and Friant Dam, he captured the central flaw in the federal Bureau of Reclamation's grand Central Valley Project, the largest (and most destructive) irrigation system in the world, like few before or after him.
If you bother to ask why Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, simply assumes that all institutions are about him and his lawless, lying crew of Republicans up to the president, observe in the following pages how San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and public agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation have treated and still treat the Public Trust rights to waters of the United States in his district.
There have been a number of changes in the CVP since 1996, from the new agreement between California and the upstream states about sharing Colorado River water to preliminary funeral arrangements for the Delta smelt. But, concerning Nickles' focus, the Natural Resources Defense Council et al lawsuit against the BOR and the Friant Water Users Authority was settled and, despite unflinching opposition of Nunes and his crew of scofflaws, planning, funding and work to improve the San Joaquin River progresses. -- blj
San Joaquin lifeline a poisoned stream
By Jim Nickles
Special report: A river under siege
First of three parts
HD: San Joaquin lifeline a poisoned stream
BY: Jim Nickles
Record environment reporter Jim Nickles spent more than six months exploring the San Joaquin River. He traversed the stream from the Sierra to the Delta, interviewing scores of people and sifting through dozens of scientific studies. He found a river in deep trouble and division over how -- or even whether -- the river can be restored.
Once one of California's mightiest rivers, the San Joaquin originates near the crest of the Sierra Nevada in the vast, rock-bound wilderness between Yosemite and Kings Canyon national parks.
Its the state's second-longest stream and one of its hardest-working,
allowing millions of acres of crops to bloom and supplying drinking water to 20 million Californians.
In San Joaquin County, the river irrigates Delta farmland, brings oceangoing ships to the Port of Stockton and is a water-sports mecca, attracting legions of boaters, swimmers, water-skiers and anglers.
But by the time it reaches San Joaquin County and enters the Delta, the river carries tons of selenium, salts, pesticides and other chemicals at concentrations that are often toxic to fish and other aquatic life, and
sometimes even to humans.
An investigation by The Record found a river that routinely violates state and federal water quality standards; is polluted annually with thousands of pounds of selenium, a poison as deadly in high concentrations as arsenic; and, with every major rainstorm, delivers toxic pulses of pesticides into the Delta.
San Joaquin County residents pay an increasingly high price for living next to the sick river.
In Stockton, ratepayers face higher utility bills for a sewer-plant upgrade needed because the lower San Joaquin River is polluted before it even reaches the city.
Delta farmers who irrigate with the rivers salty water say crop yields are dropping. Anglers encounter signs warning them not to eat too many fish caught from the river. And mountain drinking water originally earmarked for the region is being sacrificed to dilute the polluted San Joaquin just before it enters the Delta.
Despite its degraded condition, Stockton officials are eyeing the river as a potential future source of drinking water.
Its a dead river
The San Joaquin has been re-engineered like no other river in California and maybe the nation.
Upstream, an average of 98 percent of the rivers natural flow from the Sierra Nevada gets diverted at Friant Dam near Fresno to irrigate farmland in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
Meanwhile, the lower river carries off salt- and selenium-laden runoff from farms irrigated with water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta. That water is pumped 130 miles south via the Delta-Mendota Canal.
The lower river also carries waste from hundreds of dairies, untreated storm-water runoff, treated wastewater from several cities -- including Stockton -- and a plethora of pesticides.
Its a dead river, said Lydia Miller, a Merced environmentalist who has called on state officials to improve the San Joaquin. Its become an elite few's sewer.
Now, more than any time in decades, the rivers fate hangs in the balance.
From the halls of Congress to the hearing rooms of powerful state water boards -- but largely out of the public eye -- farmers, water suppliers and environmentalists are waging a quiet battle over the river.
The struggle has huge implications for San Joaquin County and much of Northern California, which have borne the brunt of the rivers decline while other
regions have reaped the benefits.
On one side, a diverse and growing collection of river advocates, from San Joaquin County water providers to anglers, Delta farmers and environmental groups, says it's time to clean up the pollution and provide the San Joaquin with adequate flows from its watershed high in the Sierra Nevada.
Most people in California are not aware of what the San Joaquin River once was, and they are most certainly not aware of what it has become, said Southern California environmentalist Carla Bard, who has filed a petition with
the State Water Resources Control Board to require additional releases from Friant Dam. That is something that I hope we can accomplish with this complaint, ... to get the state board to finally do its duty.
On the other side, farm interests in the southern San Joaquin Valley are moving to protect their de facto monopoly on the rivers water.
Representatives of farm groups in the southern Valley say releasing water from Friant to revive the river is just not feasible and would devastate a regional economy built on imported water. Dependent on that water are numerous
communities, including Fresno, and a $2 billion-a-year farm economy.
"Friant can't provide any water to the river," said Dick Moss, general manager of the Friant Water Users Association. There's just no way. The losses to farmers would be too great.
River more like a dump
Flowing 350 miles from the Sierra Nevada to the Delta, the San Joaquin River is a study in contrasts and in the human and environmental costs of California's massive water diversions.
The upper 145 miles can be a raging torrent that flows down the granite canyons of the southern Sierra and fills several high-mountain lakes. At Friant Dam, where the San Joaquin emerges from the mountains, sailboats and
water-skiers cut wakes in the blue water of Millerton Lake.
But the lower river is a shadow of its former self.
For 205 miles, from Friant to the Delta, on the southwest edge of Stockton, the river follows a twisting, tree-lined course that winds through the farmland of the San Joaquin Valley. But depending on how much snow falls in
the Sierra, 20 to 100 miles of the channel can be bone-dry for months or even years at a stretch -- more a garbage dump and a sand-and-gravel quarry than a live river.
Along the east side of the southern Valley, orange groves bloom, and alfalfa and cotton fields extend to the horizon, all irrigated by imported water from Friant. That water, some of it pumped 150 miles to the south, has allowed
Fresno, Madera and Kern counties to become one of the richest farming regions in the country.
It was the salvation for this whole area, said Randy McFarland, a spokesman for the Friant Water Users Authority.
Meanwhile, trees lining the banks of the river near Los Banos turn brown from the rivers high salt content.
In the largely low-income farm town of Mendota, on the west bank of the river about 75 miles downstream of Friant, residents cant drink tap water. Because
of a lack of freshwater recharge from the river, the city's groundwater has deteriorated, leaving the municipal water supply with severe taste and odor problems.
Today, the city of Mendota has to buy bottled water, said Ed Petry, a retired contractor and former Mendota city councilman, his voice rising in anger and disbelief. City Hall buys bottled water!
Miller and other environmentalists blame state and federal agencies for the rivers decline.
The condition of the river is directly the result of the regional boards failure to take the necessary actions to protect it, said Patrick Porgans, an independent environmental consultant from Sacramento, referring to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. That's primarily because the regional board is more interested in serving the agricultural drainers and the polluters than it is the public, which it is supposed to
Officials of the regional board, in charge of pollution control in 28 counties from the Oregon border to Bakersfield, denied that and said they are working
to improve the river.
But the job is not easy.
We've been on it for a long time, said regional board member Clifford Wisdom, a Stockton resident and former San Joaquin County supervisor. We do the best we can with the resources we have.
Said William Crooks, the regional boards executive director: "It goes without saying that were not satisfied with the quality of the San Joaquin River and we would like to see it upgraded.
"Unfortunately," he said, "most of the pollution is coming from nonpoint sources such as farm fields and urban streets, which are difficult to clean up, as opposed to point-source pollution coming from a pipe.
"The regional board is just beginning to crack down on nonpoint pollution," he said.
"At the same time," Crooks said, "the loss of most of the river's natural flow at Friant Dam makes it much harder to clean up the lower river."
That diversion began in the late 1940s, when the federal Bureau of Reclamation completed the Central Valley Project, the world's largest irrigation system.
The state Water Resources Control Board, the regional boards' parent, granted the bureau a permit to divert the water in 1959 -- 10 years after the fact.
"It wasn't the regional board that determined that that water should go someplace else," Crooks said. "And that made things very difficult for the river. ... Its that lack of water that causes the biggest part of our problem."
State board officials declined to comment on the condition of the San Joaquin except to say they are investigating the petitions by Bard and others to clean
up the river.
A spokesman for the bureau said that when Friant was built, the river was already in bad shape, having been dammed and diverted by farmers and power companies for decades. "It will take more than water from Friant to revive the river," said Jim Turner, " a lawyer for the Interior Department who represents the bureau.
"The bureau is not accepting total, complete responsibility for having caused the problem," he said.
The rivers plight has cost San Joaquin County millions of dollars -- directly in higher water and sewer prices, and indirectly in a lower quality of life for anyone who enjoys the outdoors.
No San Joaquin County communities get their drinking water directly from the river, though the city of Tracy gets part of its domestic supply from the south Delta.
But the city of Stockton has asked the state for permission to divert up to 125,000 acre-feet a year from the river west of the city. If the state approves their water-rights application, a process that could take several
years, city officials say the water could be put directly into the municipal system or traded with farmers for water from the Sierra Nevada.
River toxic in places
"You think what this river could be if the city was focused on it," said Bill Jennings, head of DeltaKeeper, a Stockton-based anti-pollution campaign.
"The parks we could have ...
"Instead," he said, For a 40- or 50-mile stretch, this river is toxic to aquatic life."
Alex Hildebrand, a Manteca farmer who has fought for decades to clean up the San Joaquin, says poor-quality irrigation water from the river costs farmers in the south Delta about $2 million a year in reduced crop yields, according to estimates by the South Delta Water Agency.
Moreover, San Joaquin County leaders complain, what few recovery efforts are under way are being done at the expense of this region, which doesn't have the
political or financial clout of the southern Valley, Southern California or the Bay Area.
For instance, San Joaquin County water agencies, which spent $65 million on a project to bring water from New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River to farms and Stockton, have watched in dismay as the federal government has used virtually all the lake's excess supplies to dilute pollution in the lower San Joaquin River.
"That makes everybody else in the state happy," Stockton water attorney Dante Nomellini said, "because that water is running to the benefit of the exporters."
That is, the additional releases from New Melones, which is also part of the Central Valley Project, make more water available for the state and federal pumps near Tracy to send to farmers in the southern Valley and to 20 million Southern Californians.
At the same time, state officials want to force Stockton to spend an additional $50 million upgrading the city's wastewater-treatment plant, above and beyond the $150 million the city already plans to spend expanding the
facility over the next several years.
"City officials don't know exactly how much the extra work will add to the average sewer bill, but it could be substantial," said Morris Allen, director of the city's municipal utilities.
The regional board says the work is needed to improve the lower river. But city officials say the board is hammering Stockton while doing nothing about
upstream diverters and polluters.
"We bear all the burden of the river. And we're causing actually a small portion of the problem," county Supervisor Dario Marenco said.
The state's own rules require that waterways be maintained free of toxic substances that harm human, plant, animal or aquatic life.
But a growing body of scientific data shows that the San Joaquin River and its tributaries frequently violate that rule.
Under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, water is classified as toxic when it kills or slows the growth of test species of fish, insects and algae.
One recent 2 1/2-year study by the Central Valley regional board found a 43-mile stretch of the San Joaquin toxic to aquatic life about half the time. Some of the rivers tributaries are toxic up to 75 percent of the time.
Biologists are increasingly concerned about diazinon, an organophosphate insecticide sprayed on cherries, almonds, peaches and other crops. In 1990, nearly 62 tons of diazinon were used in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties on one crop alone, almonds, the regional board said.
Regional board researcher Christopher Foe, author of several pesticide studies, said diazinon regularly appears in the river in concentrations that kill the most-sensitive aquatic species, the tiny invertebrates known as
zooplankton and phytoplankton that are the building blocks of the entire river ecosystem.
Both types of plankton are in decline in the Delta, as are several species of fish that feed on them.
"The cause of the decline is a subject ... of great speculation and argument," he said. "The pesticide levels seem high enough to be causing problems for zooplankton in the rivers -- the San Joaquin -- and probably in the Delta."
Winter rains wash diazinon and other pesticides off the fields and into sloughs and ditches that drain into the river. After one storm in February 1993, the river at Vernalis, in southern San Joaquin County, was acutely
toxic to test insects for eight days, Foes study says. After another storm, the river was lethal for 12 days.
Soil samples show poisons
Last February, a river sample collected near Vernalis contained nearly 17 parts per billion of diazinon -- higher than the 14 parts per billion that the state Department of Health Services considers the maximum for safe drinking
Regional board officials say that's the highest reading of diazinon ever recorded in the river, and it triggered warnings to public-health officials in both Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties.
San Joaquin County environmental-health officials say they took no action after verifying that no municipal water systems get their supplies from the river.
In Contra Costa County, which does get part of its domestic water from the Delta, officials said they couldnt recall being notified.
Selenium is a natural mineral that drains off the farm fields of the Valley's west side. In the 1980s, selenium-laden runoff was blamed for killing or deforming thousands of waterfowl in Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge.
Its impact on the river is not well-understood, researchers say. But like such poisons as DDT and dioxin, selenium bioaccumulates in the food chain, spreading from small creatures like clams and crayfish to the fish, birds and
mammals that consume them.
Tissues of fish caught in the river and its two largest west-side tributaries, Mud and Salt sloughs, routinely contain high levels of selenium. Anglers are warned not to eat many fish caught in the area.
But biologists say they don't know what effect the selenium is having on, say, the raccoons that eat crayfish from Mud Slough.
"What's going to happen (to those other species?" asked Mary Dunne, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Games Bay-Delta team. "It's not really being addressed, and it never has been addressed."
Foe agreed that more studies are needed to understand better where the pollution comes from, where it goes and how it affects wildlife and humans.
"It's clear that the pollution problems in the San Joaquin are complex," he said."Frankly, we are quite ignorant."
But if pollution is one side of the equation that's led to the rivers decline, the other side is lack of water.
Below Friant, the San Joaquin is just a trickle most months of the year. A few miles west of Fresno, at a spot known as Gravelly Ford, the river disappears entirely into the underground basin, or aquifer.
A 20-mile stretch between Gravelly Ford and Mendota dries up during the late spring, summer and fall.
When it built Friant, the bureau constructed a canal to carry water from the Delta to Mendota Pool, a shallow reservoir on the San Joaquin River about 130 miles south of Stockton.
"The purpose of the Delta-Mendota Canal was to re-water the lower San Joaquin," Hildebrand said. "But," he said. "the lower river has no guaranteed minimum flows for fish or -- upstream of the Stanislaus River confluence -- any enforceable water-quality standards."
On average, Friant takes 550,000 acre-feet more out of the upper river than reaches the lower river via the canal.
The imported Delta water is seven times saltier than the rivers natural flow.
And rather than going directly into the river, it's put to work irrigating 600,000 acres of farmland on the west side of the Valley -- soils that contain high levels of salts, selenium, boron and other compounds.
So during the dry months, the lower river from Mendota all the way to Stockton gets most of its flow from polluted, highly saline agricultural runoff.
"In the summer, the San Joaquin is 50 percent tailwater, or farm runoff," Foe said.
"Before Friant, the river in southern San Joaquin County had an average salt content of 400 parts per million," Hildebrand said --"high, but still OK for growing most crops. Today, before its diluted by New Melones water arriving via the Stanislaus, the river sometimes has a salt content of 3,000 to 5,000 parts per million -- far too high to grow much of anything.
+What we've never solved in California is how to get rid of this drainage safely," said Lloyd Carter, a Fresno lawyer and president of the California Save Our Streams Council. "I mean, that river is a sewer."
Facts about the San Joaquin River
· The 1996 World Almanac lists the San Joaquin River as 350 miles long, from the junction of the south and middle forks in Madera County to Suisun Bay. By
comparison, the states longest river, the Sacramento, flows 377 miles from its headwaters in Siskiyou County to the Bay.
· The San Joaquin watershed covers 13,540 square miles, the second-largest area in the state. The Sacramento's watershed extends over 24,000 square
· Friant Dam celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1995. But actually, the dam and other components of the Friant Unit of the Central Valley Project, such as
the Friant-Kern Canal, were completed in bits and pieces from the early 1940s to the early 1950s, according to Friant Water Users Authority spokesman Randy McFarland. Friant Dam is 319 feet high and 3,488 feet wide and took 2.1 million cubic yards of concrete to build.
Who's who and what's what in the states water world
· The State Water Resources Control Board, whose five members are appointed by
the governor, issues water-rights permits and otherwise regulates the states
surface-water supplies. It is the parent agency of the Central Valley Regional
Water Quality Control Board, one of several regional boards that enforce
water-pollution laws and issue permits to cities to discharge their storm
water and wastewater.
· The state Department of Water Resources operates the State Water Project,
which includes Oroville Dam and the Banks Pumping Plant near Tracy, which
sends water from the Delta to Southern California.
1. The federal Bureau of Reclamation built and operates the Central Valley Project, the world's largest irrigation system, extending from Shasta Dam on
the north to Friant Dam in the south. The bureau also has a pumping plant in the Delta that sends water down the Delta-Mendota Canal to the Mendota Pool on the San Joaquin River.
A water glossary
· Acre-foot: Measures a quantity of water. Each acre-foot is 326,000 gallons or enough to cover — acre to a depth of — foot. The average family uses
between one-half and one acre-foot per year.
· Cubic feet per second: A measurement of water velocity at a specific point.
A flow of — cfs for one minute requires about 450 gallons. Thats the same as 60 garden hoses flowing full-blast for one minute.
· Flood plain: The entire landscape along a river that could be covered by floodwaters. Before dams and levees contained their flow, the flood plains of
both the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers were several miles wide.
· Nonpoint-source pollution: Pollution that doesnt come from a pipe; that is, it flows off streets, parking lots, farm fields, logged areas.
· Point-source pollution: Pollution that flows from a defined point such as an industrial pipe, a well, a car or a boat.
· Watershed: The land area drained by a river.
· The San Joaquin River once carried crystal-clear water and teemed with wildlife. A river of steamboats and barges and huge salmon runs would spread
across the Valley floor for miles during spring floods. Read the history of the once-vibrant river, which biologists are trying to restore.
Nobody knows exactly what would be needed for salmon to reproduce naturally
in the main San Joaquin River. But see how the fish are getting human help.
· Nothing involved with cleaning up Californias second-longest river is simple, inexpensive or without controversy. Take a look at possible solutions under consideration for improving the rivers quality.
· See how a plan to drain pollution into the San Joaquin River may someday help save it.
Stream was full of bounty
By Jim Nickles
The water barely moves and is a thick, muddy brown.
Boats cruising past Stockton's water-treatment plant carve cappuccino-colored wakes topped with greasy, translucent foam.
By the time it enters San Joaquin County, flows past Mossdale and meanders around Rough and Ready Island near the Port of Stockton, the San Joaquin River seems hardly fit for human, beast or chinook salmon.
It wasn't always that way.
In the 1940s, the water was crystal-clear and teemed with salmon and striped bass. Stockton fishing guide Jay Sorensen can remember one angler, fishing from the bank opposite Rough and Ready Island, who pulled out a 44-pound salmon.
"It was gorgeous," he said of the river. "What a striper fishery we had there. You used to get just tremendous stripers. ... I'm talking about 30-,40-, even 50-pound class fish were taken out of there regularly."
It was a river of steamboats and barges, of huge runs of salmon, of spring floods that would spread for miles across the bottom of the San Joaquin Valley.
In the summer, it was a recreational mecca for families from Fresno to Stockton who would camp, swim, sunbathe and otherwise use the river to escape the Valley's heat in an era before air conditioning.
"Believe it or not, the San Joaquin River used to be the second-biggest river in the state," said Dennis Woolington, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is working to restore wetlands in Merced County. "Now, south of Los Banos, it's dry."
Spring snowmelt in the rivers watershed near the crest of the Sierra Nevada rejuvenated millions of acres of wetlands and riverside forests that provided habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that the San Joaquin River and its major tributaries -- the Merced, the Tuolumne and the Stanislaus -- supported several hundred thousand acres of permanent tule marshes and more than 1.5 million acres of seasonally flooded wetlands, as well as 2 million acres of riverside habitat.
Les Howard, a wildlife-habitat supervisor for the state Department of Fish and Game, said he's heard reports that during major floods, the river near Newman was seven miles wide.
"Well, that was an exceptional flood. But we did once have a river that was sufficient to run barges and paddle wheels on, at least during half the year or so when there was snowmelt coming out of the Sierra," he said.
Flood plains were fertile
Evolving over millions of years, the river changed its course again and again, depositing soil across a wide flood plain. Ironically, wrote a University of Pacific historian in the early 1960s, it created a valley so rich in soil that it helped destroy the river when the rivers waters were completely diverted to irrigate the soil.
To American Indians who occupied the San Joaquin Valley for an estimated 5,000 years, the river was a source of food and refreshment in a countryside that turned brown and barren during half the year, John Wynn Birtwhistle wrote in a 1962 paper on the river. The Spaniards and Mexicans who occupied early California used the river mainly as a highway to explore the Valley, and U.S. and Canadian hunters in the early 1800s trapped beaver in its sloughs.
Starting in the 1850s, steamers and barges plied the river as far upstream as Fresno, ferrying supplies to the gold fields of the Sierra and carrying wheat and other farm products out of the Valley. But the river became less and less navigable as hydraulic mining washed millions of tons of sediment out of the hills and as farmers diverted more of the rivers flow to irrigation.
The last commercial service -- to Firebaugh, in Fresno County -- was halted in 1906.
But even in the early decades of this century, the San Joaquin was a wild river.
Owen West, an 80-year-old farmer whose vineyards line the river west of Fresno, recalled a surging stream in the 1930s whose spring floods could span a half-mile, bank to bank between shallow bluffs.
"I've caught salmon here," he said at his farm, which is just downstream ofSkaggs Bridge Park in western Fresno County.
Fresno resident George Whitmore remembers seeing people fishing for salmon off the Highway 41 bridge in Fresno County in the early 1940s.
Dam hurt salmon fishing
In addition to striped bass, the San Joaquin supported steelhead and both fall- and spring-run salmon.
The most abundant were spring-run salmon, which numbered in the tens of thousands, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a 1994 report. The fish
would migrate from the Delta in the spring, summer and fall and hold in deep pools in the upper river for several months before spawning.
The salmon fishing in the San Joaquin River was out of this world. "It was one of the finest spawning rivers for salmon," the late Tony Imperatrice, a Fresno native, told writer Gene Rose in 1988.
But when the federal Bureau of Reclamation completed Friant Dam northeast of Fresno in the late 1940s, it diverted almost all the rivers Sierra Nevada flow to irrigate farms in the southern San Joaquin Valley. The dam and Millerton Lake also inundated the best spawning areas and pools.
"After they put that dam in there and after the ranchers took so much water out of it, it was no longer a spawning river," said Dave Selleck, a retired regional manager for the state Department of Fish and Game who lives in Fresno.
Except for flood releases in years of heavy runoff -- like this year -- 98 percent of the river's natural flow is diverted into the Friant-Kern Canal and the Madera Canal. The water irrigates more than — million acres of farmland on the east side of the Valley from Madera to Kern counties.
The dam was intended to give the southern Valley a more reliable water supply and correct a severe groundwater-overdraft problem.
"There was never a public-works project in the San Joaquin Valley more eagerly embraced or welcomed than was Friant Dam and these two canals," said
Randy McFarland, a spokesman for the Friant Water Users Authority. "There was probably very little thought given to the environment in those days."
Selleck agreed. "Ranchers and cities wanted to get the dam built," he said. "They weren't worried about the fish."
The State Water Resources Control Board, which regulates water rights in California, did not give the bureau a diversion permit for Friant until 1959 --
10 years after the dam was completed.
Unlike virtually every other major dam in the state, Friant was not required to maintain any minimum flows downstream for fisheries or other environmental
purposes. "Over the objections of the state Department of Fish and Game, which argued that fish populations would be devastated, the state water board decided there
was not enough water in the San Joaquin -- or storage space in Millerton Lake -- to supply both farmers and the lower river," said Jerry Johns, a water-rights official with the state board.
The board allowed the bureau to divert up to 2.2 million acre-feet of water a year from the San Joaquin -- more than the rivers average annual flow of 1.7 million acre-feet.
In effect, the state board allowed the bureau to drain the river dry.
"They blocked the second major river in California," Sorensen said.
Delta boating writer Hal Schell called Friant Dam a travesty. ... "It's justa dirty trick."
Ironically, even the bureau now concedes it probably built Friant in the wrong place, in a shallow bowl in the Sierra foothills, rather than in the canyon just upstream.
With a capacity of only 520,000 acre-feet, Millerton Lake is too small to handle the San Joaquin's wildly fluctuating flows, which can vary from flood one year to drought the next depending on the southern Sierra snowpack. It has
little room to store water for release in the dry months of summer and fall.
By comparison, New Melones Reservoir, on the smaller Stanislaus River, has a capacity of nearly 2.5 million acre-feet and can hold water for years.
If Friant had been built six miles upstream at a site known as Temperance Flat, the reservoir could have had a capacity of 1.8 million acre-feet, according to a 1952 University of Arizona study quoted in Roses 1992 book on the San Joaquin, A River Betrayed.
Little water reaches ocean
Over the years, the bureau has looked at the feasibility of raising Friant Dam several times but always concluded it would not be practical or economical, bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken said.
At the same time it completed Friant, the bureau began exporting water from the south Delta to irrigate 600,000 acres of former seabed on the Valley's west side -- using the river as a drain to carry away salty, selenium-laden
The State Water Project, with even more powerful pumps, began exporting water from the Delta in the 1960s. When the two projects are pumping at full capacity, the river near Stockton reverses direction.
In fact, little of the San Joaquin ever makes it to the ocean; instead, it's pumped south in the federal Delta-Mendota Canal and the state's California Aqueduct to irrigate the southern Valley and provide drinking water to
In south Stockton, the river is a mud soup -- a nearly stagnant body of water, which studies show is plagued by low dissolved- oxygen content and high levels of pesticides, salts, sediment and other pollution.
Numbers of adult striped bass in the Delta have declined from 1.7 million in the early 1970s to about 625,000 in 1992, the state Department of Fish and Game says. Populations of salmon, steelhead, Delta smelt and other fish have also declined.
"What strikes me is that the river is a pitiful remnant of what it once was," Whitmore said.
Sorensen said he hasn't seen striped bass spawning in the river near Stockton since 1970. He blames the fish's decline on low flows, pesticides and other pollution, and dredging that's damaged spawning habitat in the Stockton Deep Water Channel.
Friant was a disaster for chinook salmon, blocking the rivers flow and inundating its best spawning grounds, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in its 1994 report.
Water for salmon scarce
Even in the late 1940s, after Friant was completed but before it delivered full supplies to farmers, salmon were able to come up and spawn in the gravel beds below the dam, said the report, written by fisheries biologist Jeff
But when Friant went into full operation in the early 1950s, both spring- and fall-run salmon were wiped out, Thomas said. There simply was not enough flow to enable the fish to make the 200-mile trek upstream from the Delta.
In the intervening decades, the channel below Friant has been heavily dredged, and few spawning areas remain.
"All of that sand and gravel has gone for construction in this area," said George Nokes, regional manager for the state Department of Fish and Game in Fresno. How fast this community has grown is amazing.
Ninety percent of the wetlands and 95 percent of the riverside forests are gone. The remaining habitat is fragmented and hurt by the lack of good-quality water.
"In drought years, very little water is allowed to flow in the river," said Howard, who is working to restore the state's 3,400-acre China Island Wildlife Area, where the clear waters of the Merced River join the brown San Joaquin.
The San Joaquin Rivers high salt content stunts the growth of willows, cottonwoods and other trees.
"Leaves will turn brown on the edges, and they'll lose leaves earlier in the fall," he said.
During the dry months of summer and fall, the river near West's farm is sometimes barely a yard wide. It disappears about a mile downstream at Gravelly Ford, where legend has it explorer John C. Fremont crossed the river in the early 1800s.
In the absence of regular flows, the channel has become overgrown with creeping grapevines and willows.
Salmon haven't made an appearance in decades.
"It's a mess," West said.
A healthier river: Controversy surrounds plans for revitalization
By Jim Nickles
Special report: San Joaquin River
Third of three parts
Carla Bard says she can envision a revived San Joaquin River -- with clean water, healthy fish and a lush streamside parkway that attracts families looking for open space in an increasingly urbanized Central Valley.
One model could be the American River in Sacramento, where a 30-mile-long belt of hiking and biking trails between Folsom Lake and Discovery Park is a haven
for anglers, rafters and joggers.
"The San Joaquin River could be a similar resource," Bard said.
"This isn't a pipe dream," said Bard, a Southern California environmentalist and former chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board.
To Bard and other environmentalists, the solutions are obvious: Polluters should stop polluting, and those who divert the rivers flow should be required to leave enough water in the stream for fish.
"Everybody knows what needs to be done. The problem is nobody wants to do it," said Lydia Miller, who runs the San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center in Merced.
But nothing having to do with Californias second-longest river is simple, inexpensive or without controversy.
Almost every proposed remedy to the rivers myriad problems has its opponents -- those who stand to lose water or money or both, or environmentalists who say
the measures won't help the river and might even make it worse.
Among the ideas -- all of them controversial -- being kicked around to revive the San Joaquin:
· Making Friant Dam, which diverts most of the San Joaquin's flow, higher to provide more long-term storage. Friant Dam and its reservoir, Millerton Lake, are too small to support both farmers and fish, proponents of this idea say.
Sending more Delta water south via the state and federal export pumps to dilute, or sweeten, the salty lower river.
· Completing the San Luis Drain, which poisoned thousands of birds in the 1980s when it emptied into Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, to carry
polluted farm runoff out of the Valley to the Delta, San Francisco Bay or the ocean.
Even absent what environmentalists consider adequate flows, public and nonprofit agencies are restoring a few stretches of river in Fresno, Merced and Madera counties, purchasing open space and rebuilding wetlands and
Since 1988, the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust has purchased 850 acres along the river in the Fresno area. The group hopes to protect the
river corridor between Friant Dam and Highway 99 against urban encroachment in both Fresno and Madera counties, executive director Dave Koehler said.
The Grasslands Ecological Area in Merced County, a collection of federal, state and private wildlife refuges in the Los Banos area, comprises 160,000 acres and is the largest block of wetlands left in California.
At the same time, state and federal agencies are working to revive salmon and other fish in the lower San Joaquin and its three main tributaries, the Merced, the Tuolumne and the Stanislaus.
And the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board and chemical companies say they are working to develop a voluntary program for farmers to help them reduce the volume of diazinon and other pesticides flowing into the river and the Delta.
Pesticides in waterways
Robert Clark, a spokesman for North Carolina-based Ciba-Geigy Corp., which developed diazinon, called the pesticide levels in waterways minute.
But he added, There are efforts to reduce levels even below what they are now.
Several recent studies have said the pesticides, while not threatening human health most of the time, do reach levels that are toxic to fish and smaller organisms such as plankton.
"These things are highly toxic to aquatic life," said G. Fred Lee, an independent environmental scientist from Davis.
At least initially, the state wants to help farmers adopt best management practices, such as not spraying next to waterways or immediately before major rainstorms, which can wash the pesticides into ditches and sloughs.
"It is sort of a novel approach," said Paul Gosselin, assistant director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation. "But this train has left the station. If we don't see some measurable improvement there (in water quality, we will be looking at restrictions in the near future."
Bard and other environmentalists say the San Joaquin won't be truly restored until more water flows from its Sierra Nevada watershed and farmers on the west side of the Valley stop using the river to carry away salt- and
Both problems, they say, are attributable primarily to the federal Bureau of Reclamation and its giant Central Valley Project, the world's largest irrigation system.
For 50 years, the bureau has diverted 98 percent of the rivers natural flow at Friant Dam, about 15 miles north of Fresno. The diversion irrigates farmland along the eastern side of the southern Valley -- some of it more than
150 miles from the river -- but leaves more than 20 miles of the riverbed dry in summer and fall.
8,000 pounds of selenium
Meanwhile, the bureau's Delta-Mendota Canal delivers irrigation water to saline farmland along the west side of the Valley. Irrigation runoff from more than 100,000 acres in Merced and Fresno counties discharges up to 8,000 pounds of selenium and 600,000 tons of salts into the river every year.
Selenium, a mineral that occurs naturally in the soils of the west side, killed or deformed thousands of birds when it was delivered via the San Luis Drain to Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the 1980s.
In the past few months, Bard and other environmentalists have filed petitions asking the State Water Resources Control Board, which regulates water rights in California, to modify the Central Valley Project.
Their complaints, if acted upon by the state board, could ignite the mother of all water wars in California.
On one side are environmentalists who say the public, not just a few thousand farmers, have a right to enjoy and use the San Joaquin River.
"There's 35 million Californians and there's a few thousand farmers in this state. Their stranglehold on the water supply is out of all proportion to their actual numbers," said Fresno attorney Lloyd Carter, president of the California Save Our Streams Council.
Lining up on the other side are the bureau and the farmers who use Central Valley Project water, who say the water is critical to the economic health of the San Joaquin Valley.
"If those complaints are granted, You might as well write off the CVP," bureau attorney Jim Turner said.
One petition, filed by retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Felix Smith, calls on the board to declare the bureau's delivery of water to polluting lands on the west side an unreasonable use that should be
discontinued. The state's public trust doctrine allows farmers and others to use water, but not if they ruin rivers for everyone else, Smith argues.
Two other petitions, filed by Bard and Miller, ask the state board to require Friant Dam to set aside up to one-third of the San Joaquin's natural flow for downstream needs.
"It's just real simple. There needs to be water down the San Joaquin River," Miller said.
Compared to Mono Lake
Bard likened the issue to the Mono Lake case of the early 1980s. Under the public-trust doctrine, the state board ordered Los Angeles to give up part of its water supply to restore streams feeding into that eastern Sierra lake.
"It's very, very similar in that regard to Mono Lake," she said. "By removing all the fresh water from the river during the summer months, as Friant Dam does, they've doomed the river to just being ag drainage."
"The river is in bad shape, but the Bureau of Reclamation is not solely to blame," said Turner, an attorney for the Department of the Interior who is representing the bureau. "The river's fish populations, for instance, were already severely degraded by other irrigation and hydropower projects before Friant was built in the 1940s," he said.
The bureau does not feel that it is primarily responsible for the impacts that are being alleged by Mrs. Bard and Mr. Smith, Turner said.
"What's at stake is not just a river but whole communities and the economy of the San Joaquin Valley," said Dale Brogan, who manages the Delano-Earlimart
Irrigation District in Tulare and Kern counties. "Without water from the San Joaquin River, This whole area would simply dry up," he said.
If Friant Dam were forced to release one-third of the river's flow downstream, that would take water away from about 200,000 acres of farmland, officials of the Friant Water Users Authority say.
But Carter said farmers predictions of doom and gloom are exaggerated.
"The reality is of course they could give up some water," he said. "If the state water board said: Look, part of that river belongs to the general public. We can't have a dry riverbed. We're going to make agriculture give up 20 percent, the farmers would do it. They'd complain and moan, and theneverything would be fine."
Turner said its premature for the state board to consider such action. "Other measures are being undertaken by a variety of state and federal agencies that could go a long way toward improving the river," he said.
For instance, the CALFED Bay-Delta process, a joint effort of several agencies of the state and federal governments to revive the Delta, could end up requiring Friant or other dams to release water into the lower river. And the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board is imposing pollution limits, known as waste-discharge requirements, on farmers and irrigation
districts along the west side of the Valley.
The state board is not likely to take action on either petition soon. Bard said environmentalists expect a long fight that will likely end up in the courts.
State board officials declined comment on the complaints. A spokesman said the board is conducting a preliminary investigation, but it could be several months before the board decides whether or not to conduct hearings.
Manteca farmer Alex Hildebrand, who has been working to improve the river for four decades, said i'ts not feasible -- economically or otherwise -- to take water away from thousands of farmers or take large blocks of land out of
"That's a bum idea because were going to have 20 million more people to feed in California pretty soon, and there's no plan on how you're going to feed them," he said. "Society cannot afford to put a whole lot of agricultural
land out of production."
Instead, he advocates raising Friant Dam to provide a more-reliable water supply for both farmers and downstream needs, and recirculating more Delta
water into the lower river via the Delta-Mendota Canal to dilute the salts and other pollution.
The bureau, however, has been cool to both ideas.
Originating high in the southern Sierra Nevada, the San Joaquin can be hit with massive snow melt in the spring and almost dry up in the fall. Its average annual flow is 1.7 million acre-feet, but it varies wildly; sometimes
it's a lot more than that, and sometimes it's a lot less.
Millerton Lake holds only about 520,000 acre-feet -- one-fifth the capacity, for instance, of New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River.
Hildebrand and many experts believe the bureau should have built Friant in a canyon just upstream, where the reservoir could have been three times larger.
As it is, Friant has little excess capacity and has to make heavy flood-control releases into the lower river in years of heavy runoff. Not much water is left for fishery needs in summer and fall.
Raising Friant 60 feet would create an additional 340,000 acre-feet of storage, a 60 percent improvement, bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken said. But the cost would be prohibitive -- estimated at $400 million in 1982, the last
year the bureau reviewed the idea. And that doesn't include the cost of relocating a hydroelectric plant just upstream of Millerton.
"That's baloney that it's not feasible," said Hildebrand, who accuses the bureau of opposing the idea because Friant water users don't like it.
As far as Hildebrand's recirculation idea is concerned, bureau officials say they are reluctant to increase Delta pumping when concerns about winter-run salmon and other declining fish species are causing more and more restrictions on exports.
Hildebrand says the only long-term solution is for the bureau to finish the San Luis Drain, envisioned in the 1960s and 1970s to take salts and other pollution out of the southern Valley and dump it in the western Delta, San
Francisco Bay or even the ocean.
The drain was supposed to be finished before the west side of the Valley was supplied with irrigation water from the Delta. But work on the drain stopped in the 1970s when the state and federal governments couldn't agree on its termination point.
Instead, the bureau built the drain only to Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge south of Merced, where its water was used to supply wetlands and ponds.
In the early 1980s, the drain was shut down after the Fish and Wildlife services Smith and other scientists linked selenium to the deaths and deformities of waterfowl.
Now, in response to a lawsuit filed by farmers in the giant Westlands Water District south of Fresno, the bureau is investigating the feasibility and environmental impact of completing the drain.
But that investigation is in its earliest stages.
"Ultimately, the only viable solution is to have a drain that takes the salt to the ocean, which is nature`s salt sink,′" Hildebrand said.
Pricey problems for S.J. River: Salt, selenium creeping into waterway
By Jim Nickles
New state water-quality reports say tons of selenium and salts continue to enter the San Joaquin River long before it reaches San Joaquin County.
But the pollution is costing the county's communities, farmers and taxpayers millions of dollars, area officials charge.
It also may be hurting fish and other aquatic life in the lower river and the Delta, though biologists say they're not sure.
Irrigation drainage from the so-called Grasslands basin in Merced and Fresno counties dumped more than 14,000 pounds of selenium into the river last year, say just-released studies by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The river also was hit by nearly 1.2 million tons of salt and 2 million pounds of boron, much of which also comes from the Grasslands area on the San Joaquin Valleys west side.
The two reports -- one on Grasslands drainage, the other on the lower rivers overall quality -- said those are the highest pollution totals since the board began monitoring the river in 1986 after selenium poisoned waterfowl at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County.
The Sacramento-based board is in charge of water quality in streams and groundwater basins from Redding to Bakersfield.
Officials attributed the increase largely to 1995's heavy runoff, which washed away minerals and other pollutants that had built up during several dry years.
A third preliminary study shows that farmers in the southern Valley discharged another 10,000 pounds of selenium into the river in the 1996 water year that ended Sept. 31.
Except for selenium, the regional board sets no annual limits on the total amount of pollutants that can reach the river. Earlier this year, the board established an 8,000 pounds-a-year ceiling on selenium discharges, but that rule has yet to take effect.
Selenium is a trace element that leaches out of the saline soils of the Valley's west side during irrigation. It bioaccumulates in the food chain and can be toxic in high concentrations, causing birth defects and other reproductive problems in fish, birds and other wildlife.
The highest concentration of selenium was detected in westside tributaries that carry irrigation return flows. In 1995, average monthly selenium concentrations in Salt Slough in Merced County were as high as 32 micrograms per liter -- far higher than the 20 micrograms-per-liter maximum considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Salt and boron, another trace mineral, get into the river in two ways: first from the soils themselves, and also by being recirculated through the Tracy export pumps -- when farmland in the southern Valley is irrigated with Delta water that already has a high mineral content.
The salt gradually is decreasing yields of farmland in the Delta, said John Herrick, an attorney for the South Delta Water Agency.
Aside from salting up farms in the southern Valley, It is slowly salting up our ground, too, he said.
Manteca farmer Alex Hildebrand said the heavy runoff the past two years diluted the pollution. The total volumes of pollutants are not as important as their concentration in the water, and that was relatively low, he said.
It didnt really hurt anybody," he said.
But he agreed with environmentalists and San Joaquin County officials who say the regional board has not done enough to repair the San Joaquin, the second-longest river in California but among its most degraded.
"They have procrastinated for years about doing anything about the salt," he said.
"That board has done nothing," said Southern California environmentalist Carla Bard, who has petitioned the state to require more freshwater flows.
Karna Harrigfeld, a lawyer for Stockton East Water District, said the state Water Resources Control Board -- the regional board's parent -- ordered the regional board in early 1995 to take action to solve the salinity problem.
She called the new reports evidence supporting what Stockton East has been advocating for years -- that is, the state is not only ignoring the pollution problem in the San Joaquin River but is allowing it to get worse.
An official of the regional board denied that.
Rudy Schnagl, chief of the board's agricultural-drainage unit, said the agency is cracking down on the pollution but that the problem is complex and will take time to solve.
Both James Bennett, the board's interim executive officer, and board member Clifford Wisdom, a former San Joaquin County supervisor, declined comment.
The new reports are scheduled to be presented today to the board at its meeting in Sacramento. The panel is not being asked to take any action and may not even discuss the reports, Schnagl said.
The rule limiting selenium was supposed to go into effect Oct. — but still is being reviewed by the state Office of Administrative Law, which must approve new regulations.
Now the board has started to look at the San Joaquin River's persistent salt problem, but at this point, it's unknown what policies or regulations will be proposed, Schnagl said. "We are active on that now," he said.
A spokeswoman for the state board said that agency is satisfied with the work they (the regional board) are doing.
"This drainage water has always gone to the San Joaquin River," said Joe McGahan, a consulting engineer for the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which supplies water to farms where much of the drainage originates.
He also blamed the pollution increase on the end of the drought. But he said farmers intend to meet the regional boards new selenium limits, imposed as part of the Grasslands Bypass project that takes the drainage out of wildlife refuges in Merced County and puts it directly in the river.
To dilute the pollution just before the San Joaquin enters the Delta, the federal Bureau of Reclamation releases volumes of water from New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River. That enables the river to meet a salinity standard at Vernalis -- where the state measures water quality -- but it reduces the amount of water available from New Melones for other purposes.
For instance, Stockton East has obtained only a trickle of water for its $63 million Goodwin Tunnel conveyance system, designed to bring more surface-water supplies to San Joaquin County, said Morris Allen, Stocktons municipal-utilities director.
Moreover, he said, the lower river's poor quality has prompted the regional board to impose extreme waste-discharge requirements on Stockton's wastewater plant. City officials say meeting those standards could add $50 million to the cost of expanding the facility, next to the river on the city's south side.
It's kind of a double whammy -- it gets us at both ends, Allen said.
"Selenium's impact on the rivers aquatic life is still being studied," said Mike Saiki, a fishery biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He said selenium in the water is less harmful to fish than the selenium that builds up, or bioaccumulates, in their food supply.