Restoring the San Joaquin River

San Joaquin River - Stockton, CA

by Staff

Following an 18-year legal battle, a great California river once given up for dead is on the verge of a comeback. The San Joaquin River's thriving salmon run was legendary, Pictured above.

The Friant Dam, Photo #1 built in the 1940's, has nearly killed the river.

Restoring the river can bring cleaner water to local farmers, Photo #2...

...and bring back the salmon and a healthy Bay-Delta,Photo #3.

For more than half a century, California's San Joaquin River -- with its bone-dry reaches, polluted runoff and decimated salmon runs -- has exemplified unbalanced water management policy in the West. Since the completion of Friant Dam in the 1940's, nearly 95 percent of this once-mighty river's flow has been diverted for irrigation, causing over 60 miles of the river to run dry, harming fish and wildlife and degrading water quality for nearly two-thirds of all Californians.

The San Joaquin is California's second longest river and one of the primary sources of flow to the San Francisco Bay-Delta. The largest estuary on the West Coast and the source of drinking water for more than 22 million Californians. From its headwaters in the high Sierra Nevada, southeast of Yosemite National Park, the San Joaquin travels some 350 miles. First flowing west past the Central Valley cities of Fresno and Mendota, then turning north past Stockton to its confluence with the Sacramento to form the Bay-Delta. Along its journey, it picks up flows from three major tributaries, the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers.

The San Joaquin once nourished one of the richest ecosystems in California. Native Americans and California's early explorers once canoed the length of the river through dense wetlands and forests that teemed with waterfowl and other wildlife. And, when California's population boomed and fanned out across the Sierra Nevada following the discovery of gold in 1849, steamboats appeared on the river, towing barges of supplies and transporting passengers upriver from Stockton for more than two hundred miles.

The river's native fish populations included one of the largest Chinook salmon runs on the Pacific Coast. People who lived along the river likened the noise of spawning salmon to a waterfall, noting the fish were so abundant you could practically cross the river on their backs. These magnificent salmon runs migrated upriver each year, supporting a vibrant commercial fishery in addition to plentiful recreational and subsistence fishing.

For more than fifty years, the federal Bureau of Reclamation has used Friant Dam to divert almost all the San Joaquin's natural flow for irrigation, eliminating these legendary salmon runs and decimating once-thriving commercial fishing fleets. Today, more than 60 miles of the San Joaquin's channel lie bone dry in all but the wettest years. The greatly reduced flows have also concentrated the polluted agricultural runoff from farms -- contaminated with pesticides, selenium and other toxic chemicals -- contributing to poor water quality in the Bay-Delta. The decline of the Bay-Delta ecosystem reduces drinking water quality for much of the state and taints irrigation water quality for Delta farmers.

Many people had written off the San Joaquin River and its salmon runs as lost forever. However, in 1988, NRDC and a broad coalition of fishermen and conservation groups brought suit in U.S. district court in an effort to bring the river and its native fisheries back to life. Sixteen years later, in August 2004, the coalition achieved a landmark victory when a judge ruled that the operation of Friant Dam violates one of California's most important fishery protection statutes, Section 5937 of the California Fish and Game Code, which states: "[t]he owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water to pass over, around or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam."

On September 13, 2006, NRDC announced the signing of a historic settlement agreement with Friant water users and the United States Department of Interior that will restore water flows and salmon to the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam while undertaking one of the West's largest river restoration efforts. The settlement resolves NRDC's 18-year legal battle over the operation of Friant Dam, heralding new life for the San Joaquin River and broad benefits for millions of Californians.

Photos: All photos from Tales of the San Joaquin, courtesy Christopher Beaver Films

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