Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

In 1980s, San Joaquin River fight hadn’t yet turned to fish

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.

San Joaquin River water releases will increase

This week, San Joaquin River water started pouring out of Friant Dam a little faster than it has been. It’s part of the experimental flows in the river restoration project.

For those who don’t follow the river closely, I’ll explain a little. Water releases from Friant have been going on for decades to supply land owners immediately downstream of the dam. It’s usually just a trickle.

This week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is ramping up to 1,050 cubic feet per second — about 2,000 acre-feet of water per day. Later this week, the release will be dropped to 700 cfs through Nov. 6. Then it will dip to 350 until the end of February.

The restoration project, which began four years ago, is supposed to reconnect the dried parts of the river with the Pacific Ocean. One goals in the project is to bring back runs of salmon that died off decades ago.

The releases over the next several days mimic nature by attracting migrating chinook salmon to move upstream for spawning, a bureau spokeswoman said. Biologists and other wildlife officials are studying the river’s reaction to the reintroduction of fish and flows.

Biologists have tagged and planted salmon in the river to follow their progress.

A big concern is seepage downstream beyond the Mendota Pool on the Valley’s west side. The flows have gotten into farm fields and caused damage, growers say.

Federal officials have installed underground water monitoring systems to detect when groundwater is rising in reaction to the extra flows.

Also local land owners have been alerted to call or email federal officials if they see seepage. Bureau leaders say they are prepared to reduce the flow if problems appear.

Letter seeking Delta-pumping bill support exposes sticky water politics

To Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, it was the easiest vote in the world.

He wanted his colleagues to approve sending a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, asking her support a House resolution that seeks more Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water for the Valley’s west side.

But, as with so much else in politics, the request turned out to be anything but simple.

Phil Larson

Larson’s initial motion passed 3-0 — but Supervisors Andreas Borgeas and Debbie Poochigian abstained. They wanted the mull it over and, for Borgeas, to check with other members of the Valley’s congressional delegation before backing the letter.

The bill has been introduced by Fresno Democrat Jim Costa. But Borgeas noted that in the past few years Tulare Republican Devin Nunes had also introduced legislation that would increase delta pumping — including one last year that passed the House but died in the Senate.

Larson was frustrated. How could politics seep into a request so simple?

The board, he felt, should support all efforts — be they Republican or Democrat — to bring more water to the Valley’s west side.

Still, he agreed to the delay — just a few hours until the afternoon.

At issue is Costa’s H.R. 1927, which would tweak existing management plans — known as biological opinions — covering threatening Delta smelt and endangered salmon to allow more pumping.

Andreas Borgeas

Johnny Amaral, Nunes’ chief-of-staff, says Nunes’ 2009 effort was almost identical to Costa’s, but Costa’s people say the current effort is more nuanced in that it wouldn’t eliminate the biological opinions.

Nunes’ 2009 effort would have suspended the biological opinions and set pumping levels at 100% of the contracted amounts annually. Democrats controlled the House at the time. The effort went nowhere.

But Nunes had better luck last year, with the Republicans in control. He succeeded in passing an ambitious, pro-agriculture water bill that would have significantly increased water deliveries to the Valley’s west side.

Both Feinstein and fellow California Sen. Barbara Boxer, however, were opposed to the legislation It died in the Senate.

“The fact of the matter is if Democrats in the House and Senate actually cared about a reliable water supply, they would have supported language to allow the pumps to run when the it was offered in 2009,” Amaral said.

Rep. Devin Nunes

“It’s all just a big game to them, playing to their radical environmentalist pals. To quote Yogi Berra, its ‘deja vu all over again.’ Except now, communities and families are being devastated for no good reason. It’s time for the Senate to follow the leadership displayed in the House and do something useful — for once.”

For starters, he said the Senate should pass its own legislation so both sides can have a starting position for negotiations. Costa’s bill messes that up, he said, because it changes the House’s already established position.

“It’s like we’re negotiating with ourselves right now,” he said.

Costa has a different outlook. His strategy is for the House to pass something that has a chance to get through the Senate. He believes his current bill does that.

Which brings it all back around to the Fresno County Supervisors.

Rep. Jim Costa

They reconvened Tuesday afternoon and debated just what the letter to Feinstein should say.

Borgeas’ suggestion was that it say the board supports not only Costa’s current bill, but recognize other efforts, too, including ones “approved by the House but that have not yet been approved by the Senate.”

It is important, Borgeas said, to give recognition to Nunes’ efforts.

Supervisor Henry R. Perea then chimed in, saying that language went too far and “starts making it partisan.”

So the specific reference to being “approved by the House” but “not yet approved by the Senate” was eliminated, and the final wording only referenced current and past efforts to increase westside water deliveries.

The letter was finally approved — 5-0.

Bay Delta Conservation Plan more than tunnels, state leader says

I listened to the state’s top water leader talk for an hour Thursday about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Then I tried to check some of his data online.

The download of so many documents crashed my computer. Let’s just go straight to the talk at The Fresno Bee editorial board meeting, which did not break any news.

Mark Cowin, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, said the controversial plan is more than tunnels and arguments. Nonetheless, he had to spend time explaining the two huge water tunnels being proposed at the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The tunnel idea is to move Sacramento River water south in tunnels so the water doesn’t pass through the delta. The idea is the epic issue for California natural resources these days, easily on a par with the Peripheral Canal fight I covered 30 years ago.

Some Northern Californians have told me it’s simply a water grab for Central Valley farmers and Southern California. The delta’s ecosystem and Northern California will suffer, they say.

Some farmers and Southern Californians argue it would give the state a more certain water supply. Plus, the delta would get the chance to heal, they say.

Cowin said he supports the $25 billion tunnels, but the plan is equally about restoring the faltering delta.

He and Karla Nemeth, outreach and communications manager, said saving the delta’s dying fish species and declining habitat is a linchpin of the plan. They mentioned such projects as rebuilding flood plains and fattening up migrating salmon.

We asked tunnel questions, such as: How much difference would the tunnels have made for west Valley farmers who lost water this year in environmental cutbacks for the threatened delta smelt?

Cowin and Nemeth said the tunnels probably would have resulted in about 700,000 acre-feet of additional water.

The draft of this plan should be available in the next few months, they said. I’m not sure that will give you enough time to read the 27,000 pages of documents related to it.

Media outnumbered salmon in this restoration tale

It was compelling to see adult salmon being put into the San Joaquin River on Wednesday to spawn near Fresno for the first time in six decades.

But I hardly noticed one detail until someone mentioned it: The media outnumbered the fish — probably three to one. I saw at the Associated Press, at least one television crew from San Francisco, local television stations and a host of other  photographers. I actually saw only three fish.

Was this event overplayed by environmentalists, river advocates and the media? I think not, but you can understand why some people might have seen it that way.

First the background. The river went dry around 1950 after Friant Dam was built to help the suffering east San Joaquin Valley farmers. It succeeded in saving farmers, but salmon runs died, nature suffered and the river shriveled.

After a long-running lawsuit was settled in 2006, federal and state wildlife agencies began one of the most unusual river and salmon restoration projects in the country. Nobody has brought back salmon to a 350-mile river that had been dry for 60 miles in the middle.

Since 2009, the restoration has been in an experimental phase. Scientists need to learn how the river and fish will react to a renewed flow of water. This event on Wednesday was publicity for one of those experiments.

The state wildlife crew trapped five fish in western Merced County, north of Los Banos, and hauled them all the way to Fresno at Camp Pashayan. One died along the way. Only two of the fish were placed in the river in front of the cameras.

The remaining fish were hauled farther upstream to be released.

So was that the beginning of salmon spawning near Fresno for the first time in more than a half century? Hardly. The state had been trapping and hauling adult salmon since mid-October. This was not a first.

It was, no doubt, an orchestrated media event. And the out-of-town media incorrectly shaded this story like these few fish signaled the start of the full restoration. This was an experiment, not the full restoration.

But it was a nice snapshot in a long-running story about an unusual event in California. This is the farthest south that salmon spawn in North America — an interesting note that I did not see in any stories about this, including my own.