A few days before Christmas 1988, more than a dozen environmental and fishing groups sued federal leaders over the San Joaquin River, Friant Dam and the renewal of 40-year water contracts, mostly for farmers.
Nearly 25 years later, stories say the lawsuit was all about the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation violating California law when it dried up the river and ended two salmon runs.
That is true, and it’s appropriate to mention now as the river restoration hits obstacles, not the least of which is funding problems, downstream cropland damage and construction delays.
But in the late 1980s, the drama was not about restoring salmon runs. It was about contract renewals and environmental impact studies.
At the time federal leaders argued a legal position dating back decades. They said they didn’t need to study the environmental impacts to renew 40-year water contracts. Federal leaders tried to push the renewals forward, despite the lawsuit.
The legal and political battle over the issue continued for years.
Finally in October 1993, a U.S. District Court in Sacramento rejected the idea of simply dismissing the lawsuit and opened the door to considering the state law protecting fisheries downstream of dams. I wrote that story 20 years ago.
One other piece of San Joaquin River-Friant Dam trivia: Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown — Jerry’s father — in 1959 killed an environmental lawsuit over the damming of the river and salmon. The lawsuit was set to be filed by Brown’s own state Department of Fish and Game.
In 1989, the elder Brown said he was determined to have his administration, not the courts, decide the issue. That story was written by former Fresno Bee reporter Lloyd G. Carter, who was working for United Press International at the time.