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Restoration of the San Joaquin River: Spawning Chinook Salmon Return but Federal Funds Are Drying Up

San Joaquin River near Firebaugh.

Big projects mean big money. Sometimes our end goals are in sight, but we lack the necessary funds to reach them.  Occasionally our not-so-expensive projects turn into very expensive projects as they develop and begin to face challenges.  One might think that the vital job of saving our natural resources wouldn’t have such issues, but the truth is conservation projects very often face the same dilemma.

The San Joaquin River Restoration program has recently been celebrating the return of spawning Chinook salmon to the river after 62 years of absence.  The project has been worked on for seven years and has cost $100 million. The time and money have so far been worth it, though: it is a huge success to see native Chinook salmon return. However, the project now faces tight deadlines, a serious lack of money, and sixty-four miles of dry riverbed. California has had its share of  battles between salmon fisheries and agriculture, and this one stretches back to the 1940s. Despite this, there is much hope that the river can be brought back to life and sustain a healthy population of Chinook salmon in the future, even with severe budget limits and an extremely ambitious restoration plan.  This is important not just from an ecological angle, but as a kind of test case to see if fisheries that were once thought destroyed could be brought back to life, with a positive impact on your business!

Native Chinook salmon have returned
Conservationists, biologists and fishermen have good cause to celebrate – spawning Chinook salmon have returned to the San Joaquin River, which, after the Sacramento, is the second longest river in California.  As part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, biologists with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife have been implementing a “bucket brigade”, capturing fish downstream and releasing them upstream to the outskirts of Fresno.  It is here, beyond the dry stretch of river, that the salmon will lay their eggs in a nest of gravel called a redd.

“It’s a historic moment,” said Monty Schmitt, a senior scientist at the NRDC, in an interview with SF Gate. “Restoring salmon to the San Joaquin is one of the primary goals of the restoration program. It is the accomplishment that really signifies success.”

Their presence proves that Chinook salmon will spawn in the upper reaches of the San Joaquin, even after an absence of six decades.  The fish have all been equipped with tags so that biologists can track their movements to determine whether the habitat is adequate for spawning.  But because the water is not flowing – there still lies a 64-mile stretch of dry riverbed – the hatching salmon have nowhere to go.  The juveniles will stay in the upper river until becoming a meal for other fish.  With the completion of the restoration project – most likely years away – baby Chinook salmon will be able to make the trek to the ocean.  In the meantime, many of the adults that are caught downstream are transported to hatcheries where their eggs will be fertilized artificially and the juveniles will be released downstream of the dried riverbed.

A dam dries up the river
The 319 foot tall Friant Dam was built in 1942.  It diverted the waters of the San Joaquin for 1 million acres of farmland, holding back nearly the entire flow of the river.  Agriculture flourished – but the installation of the dam had terrible consequences.  The diversion greatly damaged the river ecosystem.  A 64-mile stretch of the San Joaquin died, drying into sand and abolishing a vibrant salmon fishery.  The river once boasted thousands of native Chinook salmon, so plentiful that farmers used to scoop them out of the river to feed them to hogs.  The salmon vanished by the early 1950s.

In 1988 the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups sued the government and the Friant Water Users Authority.  The goal was to initiate a restoration project for the river, with the main purpose of bringing back the native salmon.  After nearly two decades of a long and bitter fight, they reached a settlement in 2006.  A restoration plan was put in place to put more water down the river and to restore salmon populations.

No easy task
The settlement was cause for jubilation for conservationists.  But the task at hand was not to be an easy one.  Stretches of the riverbed are choked with shrubs and trees.  The dried-out riverbed serves as a crop land for farmers.  When the first test flows were released a few years ago, water seeped through the flood plain and harmed crops, costing the project hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages for the farmers.  These problems have pushed back the restoration project by years.

“Restoration isn’t like a light switch, where you flick it on and flows are flowing and fish are coming back and birds are flying overhead and people are picnicking by the riverside,” said Schmitt in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.  “It is not something that happens all at once.”

On December 31st, 2013 the San Joaquin River Restoration Program faces an important deadline.  In the original settlement, 10 projects were outlined for Phase 1 and defined as essential to significant restoration and survival.  These included removal of barriers and diversion structures, habitat restoration, channel improvements, and flood protection.  All parties recognize these as “highest priority improvements” for the restoration.  Not one of the Phase 1 projects will be completed by the deadline.  The problem: money.

The NRDC’s original estimate for the entire restoration of the river was $250 million.  Now the cost of a completed project is estimated at more that $2.2 billion, with Phase 1 alone costing $600 million.  The funding available for 2014 is a woefully small $24 million.

To date, $100 million has been spent – mostly for salaries, meetings, biological surveys and the “bucket brigade” for spawning salmon.  Even though the river itself has seen little physical improvement, there are thankfully people who are looking out for the fish.

Dry season, dry river
California is facing on of the driest years on record.  After two dry years in a row, the lack of rain and snow is putting a tremendous strain on the state’s precious water resources and all major reservoirs are at historic lows.  In a dry year, the restoration program gets no water – just like the salmon.  There is little chance of federal dollars flowing into the river project, especially during a drought.

As in other areas of the state, the diversion of water for farmers takes precedence over salmon.  Flows cannot be returned to the San Joaquin River anytime soon –without the necessary Phase 1 improvements, the river would not even be able to hold the water and would most likely damage many more crops without measures in place.

A compromise must be met between agriculture, fisheries, and conservation.  If and when the river is running at it’s peak, the 15,000 farms in the region will receive 15-19% less water from the reserves store behind the dam.  Funds from the measure will help water districts offset that loss with new storage facilities and repairs to canals – if the funds are allotted.

Protect and conserve
It is imperative to protect and conserve the natural resources of our beautiful state.  Even with the budget restrictions, the San Joaquin River Restoration is a historic achievement in the light of fisheries conservation.

“It is important to understand that restoring salmon to the San Joaquin River is about more than just the joy of seeing wild salmon again,” Monty Schmitt wrote in a blog. “Salmon are part of the history and heritage of Native Americans and early settlers in San Joaquin Valley. And so is a free flowing San Joaquin River that once carried passengers and goods and now provides children a place to swim and anglers a place to fish.”

Restoring salmon runs in the San Joaquin River, or any river in the state, will help revive California’s commercial fishery.  It is projects like these that we have cause to champion, as they will restore and sustain the future of our local fisheries.

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