Its restoration is still moving along, but with serious obstacles ahead.
Editorial: San Joaquin revival
River lawsuit ends; will restoration work?
- Published 12:00 am PDT Wednesday, September 27, 2006
For a good part of every year, the San Joaquin River, the state's second-longest waterway, isn't a river at all. For more than 60 miles upstream of its confluence with the Merced River, it is a lifeless dry channel.
Pumps and canals long ago sucked the life out of this river. The challenge has been to find a way to breathe life back into it -- with water, a restored channel and riparian habitat such as trees to keep the water cool. The goal has been to restore the river's salmon run without killing the livelihoods of thousands of San Joaquin Valley farmers who depend on those pumps and canals to irrigate their fields.
It took a lawsuit by environmental groups and a sympathetic federal judge in Sacramento named Lawrence Karlton to force a compromise. The farmers and environmentalists have agreed to a legal settlement. For the lawsuit, this is a historic moment. The question now is how will the salmon regard the settlement? They are the true judges here. And it will be a few more years before they begin to render their verdict by deciding whether to return to 150 miles of largely lifeless river.
The trick in settling this lawsuit was to provide enough water for the environmentalists to theoretically restore this river and to provide assurances to the farmers that they wouldn't be asked later to surrender more water. The settlement means that about 170,000 acre-feet of water that would have gone to the farmers each year will stay in the river. In return, the farmers are to get a price break on some water and the ability to withdraw some water downstream on the river if the pumping wouldn't harm the fish. And Congress is supposed to authorize projects to alter the channel to make it more inviting for the fish. Cost estimates range from $250 million to $800 million.
Is this 170,000 acre-feet of new water for the river enough? It represents about 10 percent of the entire natural flow of the river. More flows for the restoration will come through managing the releases of upstream dams on this river, but a lot is riding on the belief that the humans settling this lawsuit really know what the salmon need.