14 September, 2006

major river restoration accord - "salmon heard nightly splashing"

Streams and mountains never stay the same.

(Gary Snyder, from Mountains and Rivers Without End, 1996)


An historic agreement to restore water flows for salmon in the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam near Fresno while undertaking one of the West's largest river restoration efforts was announced today [Wed, Sept 13] by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Friant Water Users Authority (FWUA) and U.S. Departments of the Interior and Commerce.

The settlement, filed this morning in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, ends an 18-year legal dispute over the operation of Friant Dam and resolves longstanding legal claims brought by a coalition of conservation and fishing groups led by NRDC. It provides for substantial river channel improvements and sufficient water flow to sustain a salmon fishery upstream from the confluence of the Merced River tributary while providing water supply certainty to Friant Division water contractors.

Historically, Central California's San Joaquin River supported large salmon populations, including the southernmost Chinook salmon population in North America. Since Friant Dam became fully operational in the late 1940s, approximately 60 miles of the river have been dried up in most years, eliminating salmon above the river's confluence with the Merced River.

The Settlement Agreement is based on two goals and objectives:

1) A restored river with continuous flows to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and naturally reproducing populations of Chinook salmon.

2) A water management program to minimize water supply impacts to San Joaquin River water users.

The settling parties have carefully studied San Joaquin River restoration for many years, and as part of the settlement have identified the actions and highest priority projects necessary to achieve the restoration goal. These include expanding channel capacity, improving levees, and making modifications necessary to provide fish passage through or around certain structures in the river channel. The settlement identifies a number of funding sources to support implementation of these projects, including current environmental contributions from farmers and cities served by Friant Dam, state bond initiatives and authorization for federal contributions. NRDC link

Judge Karlton, who presided over the lengthy litigation, is a classic old school 'liberal' judge, not shy of controversial, bold rulings. Not too long ago, he infuriated the O'Reilly/FreeRepublic crowd by ruling that school district policies requiring kids to pledge allegiance under god violate the Establishment Clause separating church and state. A 2004 settlement allowed "over 150,000 undocumented immigrants to apply for legal resident status under a one-time amnesty program that became law in 1986" -- applicants the INS had turned away by invoking a "rule that disqualified those who had briefly traveled abroad during the period of required residence for the amnesty."

Karlton's ruling on the San Joaquin last August forced the government, valley agri-business (colloquially known as "farmers" in most reports), environmentalists, & fishermen to sit down together and hammer out a restoration plan for the river. "The judge said he had a meat cleaver to deal with the issue. He advised us to apply a scalpel -- a negotiated settlement. And we agreed with him." Kole Upton, "chairman of the Friant Water Users Authority and a San Joaquin Valley farmer."

Chinatown memorialized the death of the Owens River which remains a trickle of its old self; the San Joaquin is a waterway of much greater magnitude. It headwaters in some of the High Sierra's most spectacular terrain, runs 350 miles to the Golden Gate, and could once accomodate steam paddleboats. The proposed settlement agreement awaits the judge's approval, while "concurrently, the parties are seeking congressional approval of legislation authorizing the Secretaries of Interior and Commerce to implement the settlement. A draft of this authorizing legislation was negotiated by the parties and incorporated into the settlement." The 18 year old court battle started when the:

NRDC led a coalition of 13 conservation and fishing groups in suing the bureau over its operation of the federally-owned dam and the renewal of water supply contracts for the Friant Water Users Authority, which represents irrigation districts on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. The suit charged the bureau with violating Section 5937 of the California Fish and Game Code, which requires that "[t]he owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water to pass over, around or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam." The lawsuit was first filed in 1988, making it one of California's longest running water disputes. [snip]

In his 41-page decision, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton wrote that before the dam, "So many salmon migrated up the San Joaquin River during the spawning season that some people who lived near the present site of Friant Dam compared the noise to a waterfall. Some residents even said that they were kept awake nights by the myriad salmon heard nightly splashing over the sand bars in the River. A fisherman who lived downstream recalls that, in the 1940s, the salmon were still 'so thick that we could have pitch-forked them. One almost could have walked across the River on the backs of salmon when they were running.'"

Writing of the dam's damaging effects, the judge noted, "In the words of the Department of Interior, Friant Dam's operations have been a 'disaster' for Chinook salmon." Restoring the San Joaquin River could be one of the biggest, most important environmental restoration projects in California history. NRDC link

"'One reason that NRDC took on this case and focused so much time and energy on it over the years is because it was one of the most egregious examples of environmental harm caused by a federal water project." Hal Candee, co-director for the NRDC's Western Water Project

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