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.

Fresno State study warns of climate effects on San Joaquin River

Two Fresno State professors say climate change will make the San Joaquin River’s annual runoff show up earlier — as much as six weeks earlier in the next century.

And one other thing:There will be a “significant decrease in annual stream flow,” said geology professor C. John Suen, who co-authored a study on the upper San Joaquin. Suen’s co-author was associate hydrology professor Zhi Wang.

The study, published in Hydrology Research, is more confirmation of findings in previous climate change studies, and it is not a pretty picture.

As water engineers and researchers have been saying for years, California’s reservoirs are built built to capture a gradual runoff from melting snow. More than half the state’s summer water supply is frozen in the snowpack each year.

If the state see more rainfall and earlier snow runoff, there could be big problems protecting communities and farms from floods.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the shift could be damaging for the multibillion-dollar economic base of agriculture.

This is about the place where the discussion turns to building larger reservoirs — such as Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin — or changing the way water and land are used. I’ll leave those issues to commenters here.

But Suen and Wang give us more reason to have the conversation.

Activists challenge new ag groundwater order

The tug of war over California’s groundwater continues over a 1 million-acre swath of the San Joaquin Valley, north of the Fresno area.

For the last decade, the state has studied and discussed ways to protect groundwater beneath farm fields. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board late last year issued hard-fought orders for several thousand farmers north of the San Joaquin River.

Activists in early January told the state the orders don’t do the job, and they need to be rewritten.

Activists say farm chemicals and pollution would continue to pollute the water, monitoring would be inadequate and people in small towns would have to continue living with poor drinking water quality.

They asked that authorities stop the new orders for the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition in Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties.

The petitioners are community groups, including Asociacion de Gente por El Agua (AGUA), Fairmead Community and Friends, and Planada en Accion.

These challenges take time. The state will have nine months to respond.

If the challenge is denied, the next stop is probably Superior Court in Sacramento. The lawyers who filed the petition with the state are Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center and Phoebe Seaton of California Rural Legal Assistance.

The petition notes that it has been 13 years since legislation was passed requiring farm groundwater regulation. The disputes over the program may take a few more years to resolve.

This is the first large coalition in the Valley to come under the groundwater program.


Time to regulate underground water quality on farms

A dreaded time has arrived for some farmers in the San Joaquin Valley — enforcement of the state’s new underground water quality regulations.

Thousands of farmers north of the San Joaquin River will be the first in the Valley to experience it. Farmers on 1.1 million acres in Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties are being told to sign up for it.

This campaign does not yet include farmers in Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties, but the enforcement will come to their land in the next year or so, according to the state.

The program is necessary, say environmentalists and activists for rural towns with drinking water wells in farm country. They say water needs to be protected fertilizers, pesticides and other possible threats.

Rural Valley towns have some of the most fouled water in the state.

Farmers fear extra costs of this new program. They’ve had a decade to worry about it as the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board prepared the rules and enforcement.

To help farmers, ease the cost and organize the regulation, state leaders have allowed coalitions to represent broad areas. The East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition will represent the Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties, according to the regional board.

The coalition has about 2,500 members, but there are several thousand more farmers who are not part of the group yet. If they sign up by May 14, their costs will be $50 for annual dues and a $4 per acre for water sampling and expertise in the paperwork the state requires.

The costs probably will be different for other coalitions in the Valley, depending on the need for monitoring, evaluation and cleanup.

But farmers who go it alone without coalitions will pay more, state leaders say. On their own, farmers will have to get individual permits from the state and pay for their own consultants to do the work.

For more information about the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, call (209) 522-7278 or go to www.esjcoalition.org.

 

Look for these stories in 2013

A year ago, the Sierra snowpack was an anemic 20% of normal. Now it’s a whopping 146%.

At this time last year, the San Joaquin Valley was gasping through a 44-day siege of federal air violations — dangerous soot and debris. This year, the Valley only had five violations in December.

California’s capricious weather makes all the difference.

At the same time, some things I cover in the Earth Log and in the news columns have not changed much. My beat has had a kidney stone of a year. Thankfully, it has passed. But 2013 might be more of the same.

— The complex San Joaquin River restoration continues to move forward. Experiments included trapping adult salmon and hauling them upstream near Fresno to spawn. The billion-dollar restoration still lags behind the initial and ambitious timetable. Many big projects, such as replacing Sack Dam, are expected to make progress this year.

— A dozen years after setting aside more than 300,000 acres for the Giant Sequoia National Monument, people are still arguing about how to manage it. The latest plan was released during 2012. The Sierra Club and others have appealed the plan.

— Yosemite National Park has an even longer-running discussion. A dozen years ago, I wrote a story about the park’s Merced River protection plan — which was already about a decade late. I lose track of how many times it has been rewritten by court order. By July 2013, the National Park Service is supposed to have another plan out. This might be the one that finally gets through.

— Dozens of cities are now lined up to sue Dow Chemical and Shell Oil, the manufacturers of a now-defunct farm fumigant. The fumigant contained a chemical called 1,2,3-trichloropropane or TCP, a powerful cancer-linked toxin. It’s in the drinking water across a wide swath of the Valley, including Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield and a host of other cities. It may take hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the public.

— Small towns throughout the Valley still wait for the California Department of Public Health for funding to clean up nitrates in their drinking water. Nitrates come from fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and rotting vegetation. A University of California study says the problem threatens drinking water for 250,000 people.

— Kettleman City, the Latino town in western Kings County, has its own special water problem. It needs the financial help of Chemical Waste, the owner of the hazardous waste landfill near town. The landfill needs to expand so it can offer the financial help. But plenty of Kettleman residents would rather see that landfill close.

— The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District approved a new plan to clear up tiny specks of pollution called PM-2.5. As they often do, environmentalists did not think the plan was tough enough. That’s often a prelude to a legal challenge — a very familiar scenario.

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.

Watching, waiting, hoping for pregnant storms

It’s nearly Thanksgiving. The weather has been delightful. And the California water world is watching, waiting and hoping for pregnant storms from the Pacific.

Rain and snow are expected this weekend, so farmers and water managers may breathe a little easier for the holiday.

They know it’s early in the season. But their anxiety level will climb in the next six weeks if they don’t see stormy weather.

Here’s what’s rolling through their minds:

– The snowpack is puny, even this early in the season.

– The snow and rain season last year was far below average in many places, especially in the southern Sierra. They don’t want to see back-to-back dry years.

– Reservoirs, which were at or above average earlier this year, are still looking pretty good, but they’re starting to slip.

– El Nino — warm water in the Pacific that sometimes is a sign of wet  times ahead in California – has fizzled. So the odds of  a wet season have become a coin flip again.

Long-time water experts say they’re not really sweating it yet. Water engineer Lance Johnson of Shaver Lake has spent decades watching the weather, working on east- and west-Valley farm water supply and analyzing trends.

His comment: “Precipitation in the San Joaquin River watershed is currently just 34% of normal and just barely greater than 1977, the direst year on record. But it is too early in the water year to get overly concerned as a few good storms can turn that around.”

River Center celebration will feature new trail walk to San Joaquin

The San Joaquin River Parkway and River Trust on Sunday is celebrating the 10th year of its Coke Hallowell Center for River Studies with a free event, featuring first-time access to a trail from the center to the river.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the event includes music,  food vendors, activities for children and tours of the historic ranch where the center is located, 11605 Old Friant Road.

For the first time, a two-mile guided tour will be available to the public, from the river center to Owl Hollow. Docents will talk about the river’s connection to the Valley. A special arrangement was made with neighboring land owner Vulcan Materials Co. to allow access to the trail.

The three-hour tour will be free on Sunday. But on weekends thereafter, it will cost $8 for parkway members and $10 for nonparkway members. Reservations are encouraged. Visit the parkway’s web site, www.riverparkway.org.

For more information, call 248-8480.