Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Restoring an Ailing River in California

By Jeremy Miller

For the first time in 60 years, water will flow through two long stretches of the San Joaquin River in California, a waterway that has been transformed — and often run dry — by engineering and agricultural, industrial and urban development.

This month, water surges were released from Friant Dam, near Fresno, into the San Joaquin River’s main channel. The releases come after nearly two decades of negotiations between the Natural Resources Defense Council, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the Friant Water Users Authority, a group representing agricultural water users in the area.

Local farmers are troubled at the loss of water from the Friant-Kern and Madera canal systems, especially in light of a three-year drought that has ravaged the Central Valley’s croplands. But environmentalists say the releases are a vital first step in an immense restoration plan for the San Joaquin — one with the potential to stimulate the regional economy.

“The restoration effort will create construction-related jobs, help revive the commercial salmon fishing industry and bring a vital public resource back to life for future generations to enjoy,” said Monty Schmitt, a scientist for the council, in a statement.

In March, $400 million in funds for restoration and flood control work on the San Joaquin were made available with the passage by Congress of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, which also added 2 million acres of land in nine states to the nation’s wilderness areas.

The decline of the San Joaquin began in the late 1930s with the state’s huge Central Valley Project, which resulted in dozens of dams and hydroelectric plants, and hundreds of miles of aqueducts and canals on the valley’s two major watersheds –- the San Joaquin and the Sacramento.

According to Tina Swanson, the executive director of the Bay Institute, this will be the largest river restoration project in the country and will focus on a 150-mile stretch between Friant Dam and its former confluence with the Merced River.

In two reaches totaling 63 miles, the river runs completely dry; in sections where water remains, it is often badly polluted with pesticides and other agricultural chemicals (PDF).

“The project is unprecedented,” Ms. Swanson said. “In essence we are bringing a dead river back to life.”

Environmentalists say that restoring flow to the entire length of the San Joaquin will not only flush out polluted stretches and potentially rejuvenate the region’s historic salmon runs, but will also help stabilize water conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, the river’s natural endpoint and origin of the California Aqueduct, which brings drinking water 450 miles to 22 million residents in Southern California.

Chinook salmon, said Ms. Swanson, are planned for reintroduction to the river in 2013.

“The true measure of success will be the ecosystems,” she said. “If we can bring back a self-sustaining, spawning population of fish, we will have done our job.”

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