Don Curlee: Rebuilt San Joaquin River runs sideways
For much of each year since the 1940s, the once mighty San Joaquin River as it crosses the Fresno-Merced county line has given observers a choice of two stark descriptions: a mere trickle, or totally dry.
Now, after a preliminary infusion of additional water released from Millerton Lake behind Friant Dam, which blocks the river near Fresno-Clovis, it is reclaiming its original bed. Its sideways underground spread is undermining farmland, creating havoc and plant death as its moisture pushes years of salty deposits upward through plant root zones.
But life for migrating salmon, not death, was a primary objective of fish lovers and environmental protectionists who began promoting the river's restoration 20 years ago or more. They convinced like-minded legislators and officials of the federal Bureau of Reclamation that increased flows in the San Joaquin promised nirvana for the fish.
They dusted off long-neglected stories by Native Americans, farmers, boat captains and others about yard-long salmon being clubbed and gathered for food as they swam upstream to spawn in the coolest reaches of the San Joaquin as it tumbled out of the Sierra Nevada range.
Even some Central Valley farmers who benefitted from the damming of the river at Friant, diverting irrigation water to their fields by canals, acquiesced to the protectionists' campaign. They surmised that a spirit of sharing might enhance their relationships with folks downstream as it enhanced life for the fish. They were promised an equal amount of water to be supplied through structured canals from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
A few weeks ago, some adult salmon were transported to the foot of Friant Dam in tanker trucks. They are awaiting the coolest winter temperatures. Their protectors will observe to see if the water gets cool enough to encourage them to spawn.
Significant construction and renovation of the original river channel is planned as part of a $2 billion renovation being undertaken by the Bureau of Reclamation. Outdoor enthusiasts, birdwatchers, boaters and other recreationists, swimmers, homeowners overlooking the channel, and nature lovers join the protectionists and fish lovers in applauding the expansive 150-mile project.
Opposition by farmers, some of them occupants of acreage that was once in or near the original streambed, and dollar-conscious budget watchers join in opposing the project. They are supportive of a trickling or nonexistent flow in the summer and fall months that allows food-producing use of the riverside acreage.
The Merced River joins the San Joaquin near Newman, creating a measurable flow most of the year all the way to the Delta. Salmon using that channel in search of spawning grounds are diverted into the more robust Merced River by a manmade structure. Without that structure, some fish would follow the San Joaquin until it played out or is blocked by two or three small dams, leaving them high and dry, and eventually dead and rotting.
Two smaller dams upstream from the San Joaquin-Merced rivers confluence also stand between salmon and any likely spawning ground.
While the status of salmon has been forefront in the river restoration controversy, farmers cultivating thousands of acres are now directly involved. One has brought suit against the Bureau of Reclamation, claiming that the underground encroachment of his land amounts to an illegal "taking" of his property by a US government agency. He estimates his one-season crop damage at $200,000.
Some have poetically assumed that rivers can speak. If that's the case, the meandering San Joaquin might just be ready to utter: "Leave me alone!"
CONTACT Don Curlee at email@example.com