San Joaquin restoration: $70 million goes down river

River is far from ready for salmon.

The Fresno BeeMarch 5, 2012 

A new federal analysis reveals $70 million has been invested in the San Joaquin River restoration since 2007, but no major projects have been completed.

And as a Dec. 31 deadline nears to restart salmon runs on the previously dry river, riverside farmers say it's time to talk about a delay. They fear property damage from high flows, and they also worry about federal fines if protected fish stray into their irrigation canals.

"There's no shame in adjusting the timetable," said farmer Cannon Michael, who owns land near the river on the Valley's west side. "What's the point of starting if the river is not ready?"

Over the past four years, the money has gone in many directions, such as salaries, planning, extensive environmental studies and drilling monitoring wells near the river. There are dozens of details involved in preparing for projects across more than 150 miles of the river.

But major physical changes in the river, such as a bypass to route fish around the Mendota Dam, have not yet taken place.

The financial accounting adds another layer to the controversy already swirling around the river restoration.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, has stirred debate with ambitious water legislation that includes downsizing the restoration and focusing on warm-water fish, instead of salmon.

Warm-water fish would require less water, leaving more for farmers. The bill passed the House last week, but faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

Nunes weighed in on the restoration spending analysis by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, saying it is a good reason to stop sending money to the Interior Department for the current plan.

"I have news for them: They are cut off," he said. "Not a penny of additional federal dollars is going to this ill-conceived venture. They should spare the fish the suffering."

The restoration ranks among the largest in the country with a cost estimate ranging from $250 million to more than $1 billion over the next dozen years. The river has not flowed naturally since Friant Dam was finished in the late 1940s and salmon runs died off.

Federal officials plan to build one major project this year for the restoration. It's a fish screen to prevent salmon from swimming into Arroyo Canal, a major diversion for west-side irrigation water. The project will include a new fish ladder at Sack Dam to help salmon get beyond the dam.

But new salmon runs still will have to be guided around Mendota Dam with the bypass canal, which has not been built. Protective screens will have to be installed over other canals and sloughs to prevent fish from making the wrong turns. A new hatchery will be needed to raise salmon.

The course of the river also must be decided for the Valley's west side. The Bureau of Reclamation has not yet indicated whether it will retrench a largely unused section of the river or shunt the river flow into the East Side Bypass channel.

Study, design and engineering for these projects can take many months, even years, officials say.

Since fall 2009, the federal government has been learning how the river reacts when water fills previously dry sections. As part of the experimentation last year, a small number of salmon were released into the river.

"The river is substantially different than it was four years ago," said Alicia Forsythe, restoration program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.

But west-side farmers say the major hurdles remain.

Farmer Michael said he and other west-side farmers fear the restoration will be underfunded. They say a half-completed project would expose them to too much risk for property damage.

"I think we should have an honest dialogue," he said. "Maybe the schedule is a little too aggressive."

The Bureau of Reclamation is discussing the Dec. 31 salmon deadline with environmentalists and east-side farmers, who signed the 2006 restoration agreement.

The west-siders were not involved in the 18-year lawsuit over the river, so they are not included in the settlement.

Forsythe said tough questions are being asked among the stakeholders about the upcoming deadline. Is the timing right? Can a self-sustaining salmon run really be restarted at this point?

She said young salmon will continue to be released into the river for study, but nothing beyond that has been decided.

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

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