San Joaquin River could spawn jobs, but how many?

The Fresno BeeSeptember 30, 2012 

The $2 billion price of creating a living San Joaquin River will buy more than a beautiful view -- it will boost the economy of places like Fresno, the second-poorest metropolitan area in the country.

That's one message expected at the annual San Joaquin River Conference, a three-day gathering this week in Fresno to talk about the ongoing restoration of the state's second-longest river.

But the uplifting message might be weighed down by sticker shock over the cost of restoration, says Michael Sutton, executive director of Audubon California, one of the scheduled keynote speakers at the conference.

There is far more detail about restoration costs than there is about future jobs, new businesses and a higher quality of life, which are difficult to predict, he said.

"It's frustrating," Sutton said. "But remember, the river is being brought back from the dead. It will have significant benefits in recreation and tourism."

Another keynote speaker will be Rebecca Wodder, senior adviser to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who is recognizing areas nationwide for river restorations and recreation efforts.

The San Joaquin, now entering its fourth year of restoration efforts, is one of 20 high-priority sites in the federal government's campaign -- which clearly links healthy ecosystems with prosperity.

"We see that happening across the country," Wodder said. "Restoring a river and reconnecting to it means great things for communities.

For instance, University of Oregon researchers found that about $169 million of restoration investments in Oregon have resulted in nearly 2,700 jobs and $400 million in economic activity.

The San Joaquin restoration is expected to generate 11,000 temporary jobs -- mostly in construction -- over the next dozen years, according to a study released this month by economist Shawn Kantor of the University of California at Merced. He says about 475 more permanent jobs would emerge in the recreation industry, related to fishing, boating, tourism and other activities.

The restoration began three years ago after the settlement of a long-running environmental lawsuit. The river and its salmon runs dried up when Friant Dam was built in the 1940s.

Experimental water releases from the dam have kept the river wet most of the time since 2009. Some salmon have been released and tracked to help scientists understand how the fish will react in the river.

Major projects -- bypasses around dams and channel changes to help fish -- have not been built yet. Planners also must decide the course of the river through one section where the old channel has not been used in decades.

Federal agencies estimate the core projects of restoring the San Joaquin will cost $892 million, but the many secondary projects would raise the price to $2 billion or more.

The money is coming from federal and state sources as well as fees from east Valley farmers, though critics say they doubt there will be enough money to complete the restoration.

At the river conference this week, there will be a 1 p.m. Thursday session featuring Kantor, who will talk about economic benefits from the restoration.

When the study was released, Kantor said: "In a region suffering from chronic unemployment, the San Joaquin Valley is desperate for a jolt to its economy."

More jobs would be good news in the Fresno metropolitan area, where one in four people live at or below the poverty line. Around the nation, only the U.S.-Mexico border region of McAllen, Texas, is poorer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But a farm-water education group said Kantor's study did not account for a possible economic blow from the loss of irrigation water.

Production will stop on some farmland, and jobs will be lost, said Mike Wade, executive director of the nonprofit California Farm Water Coalition, based in Sacramento.

"We need to know what we will lose when we make changes like the river restoration," he said.

A University of Oregon researcher who has studied restoration benefits says it's important to understand that a restoration probably won't generate as much money as the industry previously using the resources.

Researcher Cassandra Moseley said restoring rivers, wetlands and forests in Oregon is not the money-maker that the timber industry was.

After studying Oregon's investments in restoration, she says the work creates a short-term stimulus. But industries adjusted and created long-term benefits.

"You see construction businesses, for instance, that have transitioned to build driveways and make in-stream improvements in rivers," she said. "You see commercial logging companies that are contracting to do forest thinning."


If you go

What: San Joaquin River Conference

When: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

Where: River Center, 11605 Old Friant Road; Warnors Theatre, 1400 Fulton St.

Registration/information: fblinks.com/riverco

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

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