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Water: San Joaquin River Valley Restoration Begins

October 5, 2009

Last week, in the culmination of a landmark agreement between environmentalists, farmers, fisherman and the federal government, water began to flow from the Friant Dam near Fresno into dry stretches of the San Joaquin River. The release is the result of almost two decades of litigation by the National Resources Defense Council:

In 1988, the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with a coalition of environmental groups and commercial fishermen, sued the Bureau of Reclamation. NRDC and its allies said the bureau was violating California’s Fish and Game Code, which requires dam owners to “keep in good condition” the fish below their dam.

The San Joaquin River has to be one of the most ill-managed rivers in the nation (although there are probably many like it). None – that is, 0% – of the river reaches the ocean. As the second-largest river in California, its desiccation destroyed a vital breeding river for chinook salmon that once held runs of hundreds of thousands of the fish. According to the agreement, the river will be readied for the salmons’ return in 2012.

Agreements like this one, which use significant but reasonable concessions from farmers to maintain water levels sufficient for fish and a viable riparian ecosystems, will be vital to recreating a healthy water system that serves all the stakeholders – residential consumers, commercial agriculture, fisherman and California’s environment, including Chinook salmon and Delta smelt. The real problem is that California’s water resources are oversubscribed: in total, water users are promised eight times the average flow per year, according to the State Water Resources Control Board. Fortunately, there are many ways that Californians can reduce their water use: graywater systems and water-conscious gardens for households; smart water systems for farms. Unfortunately, some don’t seem ready to make the changes necessary. This is from Kelly Zito’s article in the Chronicle:

“This isn’t going to be catastrophic, but farmers are going to pump, pump, pump groundwater,” said Randy McFarland, spokesman for the Friant Water Users Authority, which represents the region’s farmers. “In a sense, that’s going to defeat the purpose of the project because the dam was built originally because farmers were depleting groundwater in the 1920s.”

Many of the farmers in California believe that water that was promised to them at the beginning of the last century should be theirs forever. In fact, California’s water is a resource that should be used in the best interest of all California citizens. Of course, a strong agricultural sector is in the interest of California but farmers haven’t done as much as they could to use the water they’re allocated efficiently. According to the Pacific Institute, the installation of water conservation technologies could save 17% of the water farmers use in California. Water-saving technologies are cheaper, easier to institute and more environmentally sound than large-scale solutions such as the proposed Peripheral Canal or any dams.They also would serve to change the mindset of water users in the state to a more sophisticated recognition of the value of water to our state.

  • Whatever happens in the wider California water debate and the Delta negations, the restoration of the San Joaquin River is a groundbreaking achievement for the environmental community. We should hope that it signals a shifting of the tides for California water policy.
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