Salmon deadline for San Joaquin River faces delay

May 24, 2011 

Negotiations have begun to possibly push back the December 2012 deadline for re-establishing salmon in the San Joaquin River, federal officials said Tuesday in Fresno.

Major channel improvements – such as a bypass to get fish around Mendota Dam – are behind schedule. There may be funding problems as well because of the federal budget shortfalls.

The news emerged as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation presented the draft environmental blueprint for the vast restoration of the river, which began last year with water releases from Friant Dam.

The environmental document, called a draft Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Impact Report, is 8,000 pages long and took more than three years to assemble.

The restoration, which was required under a lawsuit settlement in 2006, is refilling the river for the first time in more than a half century. Last year, officials used experimental water releases from Friant Dam to reconnect the dried river with the Pacific Ocean.

Officials are holding public hearings this week. The next meeting will be at 6 p.m. today in Los Banos at the Merced County Fairgrounds.

Officials told about 60 people at the Piccadilly Inn University that they hoped to approve the final version of the draft study by early 2012. The comment period on the draft has been extended to July 21.

Federal officials have been following a strict schedule in the restoration settlement signed by environmentalists and farmers. The settlement may have to be altered if the schedule cannot be met.

"We have been talking with the parties in the settlement," said Alicia Forsythe, program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. "The process has been more complicated and time-consuming than anyone thought."

If the project was on schedule, the Mendota Dam bypass channel would be nearing the construction phase. It is many months from that phase, officials said.

Only one audience member, John Cameron of Selma, made a comment. Most people said they have not had time to digest the study, which was released last month. Cameron noted the draft environmental study calls for closure of the San Joaquin to trout fishing during key months of the year to protect salmon. Fishing would have to be shifted to the Kings River, according to the study.

Cameron said the move would cause overcrowding along the Kings, which he said already has too many fishermen. He said he suspected that game wardens along the Kings would be sent to the San Joaquin to prevent poaching. That, too, would be a problem, he said.

He suggested other alternatives, such as stocking trout at Avocado Lake near the Kings River and encouraging people to go there as well.

The reporter can be reached at mgrossi@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6316.

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