The Science of Sustainability

River, Interrupted

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Earlier this month, Congress held a hearing on a bill to implement the San Joaquin River restoration settlement. The legislation is one of the final hurdles on the long track to what arguably will be the longest river restoration in North America.

At one time the San Joaquin River– California’s 2nd longest — flowed more than 350 miles from its headwaters in the southern Sierra to the Delta and into San Francisco Bay. Paddlewheelers plied the river as far as Fresno. Each spring, some 300,000 Chinook salmon made the journey from the Pacific up the river to spawn– the state’s largest and southern-most spring Chinook salmon run. The fish, well-adapted to the snowmelt runoff system of the Sierra, were so plentiful they were harvested for hog feed, and the sound of their splashing was said to keep folks up at night.

Now you are lucky to hear even a trickle of water.

In the 1940s, Friant Dam was constructed near Fresno, redirecting the water to growers in the eastern and southern San Joaquin Valley. As operated, the dam diverted nearly every drop in the river in most years, reducing about 60 miles of it to dust and severing at the hip a large piece of the watershed that once drained to the Bay. For a time, state fish and game officials struggled to keep the salmon runs alive, even loading the fish into tanks to truck them around dry reaches. But by the 1950s, the fish were gone.

In 1988, a coalition of environmental organizations (including The Bay Institute) filed suit, arguing in part that the operation of the dam violated Section 5937 of the California Fish & Game Code. This law requires dam owners (in this case, the federal government) to release enough water to keep fish below the dam "in good condition." In 2006, after an eighteen-year legal battle, a federal court approved a settlement that will restore year-round flows to the river and reintroduce salmon before 2013.

It is not only the salmon who will benefit. Cut off from the river’s headwaters in the Sierra, today lower San Joaquin flows are limited to polluted agricultural runoff and the highly depleted contributions of its lower tributaries (the Merced, Tuolumne, and Stanislaus Rivers). Restoring freshwater flows will improve water quality in this part of the river, as well as in the Delta and the Bay. That’s good news not just for the salmon, but also for fish and wildlife in the Bay-Delta and for the millions of Californians whose drinking water comes out of the Delta.

A restored San Joaquin won't look like those historical accounts of a river bursting with salmon. But a living, functioning river will be resurrected from the dead, which is pretty miraculous stuff. When it happens, I think we should all take picnic and sit on the banks somewhere a bit northwest of Fresno and be among the first to hear a wondrous sound, a sound no one has heard along that stretch of river in more than half a century: the splash of spawning salmon.

Ann Dickinson is Communications Manager for The Bay Institute (www.bay.org), a nonprofit research, education, and advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and restoring San Francisco Bay and its watershed, “from the Sierra to the sea.”

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Category: Environment, Geology, Partners, Water

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Ann Dickinson

About the Author ()

Before moving to California almost five years ago, Ann served as Sally Brown Fellow in Environmental Literature at the University of Virginia, where she taught undergraduate seminars on literature and the environment and coordinated an ongoing reading series featuring nationally prominent nature writers. Prior to that, she spent a year as a research assistant at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's field station on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, studying how young leaves defend themselves against herbivores.