OFF THE HOOK: San Joaquin River restoration program moves forward
The San Joaquin River below Friant Dam northeast of Fresno, a sparkling tail water fishery that winds its way through park and farm land before being diverted in the Gravelly Ford area, is one of the few waters in Central California that is planted by the Department of Fish and Game with catchable rainbow trout every week.
However, before the construction of Friant Dam, the river above and below where Millerton Lake sits now hosted a legendary spring run chinook salmon run. No provisions were made for fish ladders, a hatchery, minimum flows or other mitigation, as was done on the Sacramento, Feather, American, Trinity, Klamath and other major rivers where big storage dams were built.
Since construction was completed in 1949, the operation of the dam caused 60 miles of the San Joaquin River to run dry, extirpating the once robust spring chinook, along with other fish populations.
In coming years, chinook salmon will hopefully be once again able to spawn in the San Joaquin River as they did for thousands of years, thanks to the signing of a historic record of decision by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other state and federal officials this month.
For many years, the San Joaquin River Fish Hatchery in Friant has planted 300 to 500 pounds of rainbow trout weekly in the river near below the Friant Road Bridge and in the Lost Lakes County Park. The river below the dam has provided a unique cold water fishery for planted, holdover and wild trout on the upper stretch of a stream that didn't connect to the ocean for over six decades.
In 2006, a federal court approved a landmark settlement accord to restore flows and salmon populations to the San Joaquin. Central Valley farmers, the state and federal governments and environmental and fishing groups united to undertake one of the nation's most significant river restoration projects after 18 years of litigation.
The weekly plants of catchable rainbows, a total of around 20,000 pounds per year, will continue into the near future, but a trophy trout planting program started by the DFG in 2006 has been discontinued as the restoration program proceeds.
In the latest step in the restoration plan, the Bureau of Reclamation and California Department of Water Resources on Oct. 4 signed Decision documents selecting the "preferred alternative" from the "Final Program Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report" for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program (SJRRP) for implementation.
The SJRRP is a comprehensive, long-term effort to restore flows to the San Joaquin River from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River (153 miles), restoring a self-sustaining Chinook salmon fishery in the river while reducing or avoiding adverse water supply impacts from the release of restoration flows, according to Pete Lucero of the US Bureau of Reclamation.
The final environmental documents describe the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of implementing the settlement that established the restoration program.. Reclamation and DWR selected Alternative C1, the "Preferred Alternative," out of the seven alternatives studied in the Final PEIS/R.
"This alternative includes the use of the river channel and bypass system to convey restoration flows and allows for recapture of these flows at existing facilities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and in the San Joaquin River upstream of the Delta at existing facilities or at new facilities that may be constructed in the future," according to Lucero.
Monty Schmitt, Senior Scientist and San Joaquin River Project Manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council, lauded the signing of the ROD. "This significant move, after five years of planning and developing project designs, means the Restoration Program is ready to move into the long-awaited phase of constructing projects," said Schmitt.
"This is a critical step on the path towards salmon recovery and a healthy river, said Rene Henery, Ph.D., California science director at Trout Unlimited. "Along with the river, fishermen have been hit hard by the steady plummet of salmon populations over the last half-century. We're looking ahead to a brighter future where San Joaquin salmon are once again making their great migration upstream to spawn and tugging at fishing lines."
However, the restoration plan faces some obstacles in its implementation. After interim restoration flows were released in 2009 and 2010 and flood flows proceeded down the once dry river in 2011, San Joaquin Valley growers filed a lawsuit blocking the release of flows, claiming that the flows caused "seepage" that damaged their crops, according to Chris Acree, executive director of Revive the San Joaquin. This left the newly re-watered section of river dry this year.
During the time that this stretch flowed, the Hills Ferry fish barrier near the junction of the San Joaquin and Merced rivers was removed and salmon moved up the San Joaquin for the first time in decades. Acree said the DFG captured stranded salmon at Sack Dam and re-released them into Mendota Pool.