About 350 people gathered at Lost Lake for Saturday's SalmonFest and witnessed the release of three adult Chinook salmon into the San Joaquin River — another big moment in the multiyear, $1 billion river restoration project.
Weighing roughly 30 to 40 pounds each, the brightly colored fish are the latest participants in a drive to reintroduce the species into an ecosystem it had not known for 70 years.
The festival also featured a fly-fishing clinic, casting instruction and competition, canoeing and kayaking, and plenty of outreach from resource agencies and conservation groups in an attempt to show the community what's still to come.
"This is just the beginning," said Steve Thao of Trout Unlimited, a partner in the restoration project.
"Our estimate is 8 to 10 years that we can have a thriving, sustainable salmon population," said Thao, who organized SalmonFest and is the outreach coordinator for the restoration effort.
"Restoring a big river like the San Joaquin is a long-term proposition, and we expect some setbacks and unforeseen challenges as we move forward."
The ongoing restoration is designed to repair damage done to the river ecosystem after the completion of Friant Dam in 1942.
Water was diverted to the east side of the central San Joaquin Valley to benefit agriculture, but the salmon runs died as about 60 miles of the river dried up. A 2006 settlement between environmentalists and farmers laid the groundwork for the restoration project.
Last year marked the first return of Chinook salmon near the dam, but Saturday's event was a new chance for the public to see the benefits. According to Thao, the San Joaquin had the state's second-largest run of spring-run salmon before the dam's construction.
"It can be a great part of the community. It hasn't happened yet because of access. It is a really beautiful waterway, especially right now in the fall. It's gorgeous.
"Our goal is that the Fresno community embraces the San Joaquin River, to say that 'this is our river.' "
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