After missing ambitious deadlines to restore the San Joaquin River, federal leaders this week extended deadlines to 2030 and beyond while holding down federal appropriations funding to less than $50 million annually.
The new plan has a bigger federal price tag, growing from about $900 million to more than $1.2 billion, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is leading the sometimes controversial project.
There are several money sources for the restoration, but the federal appropriations process draws debate most years. This year, legislation has passed the House to scale back the restoration, but it is expected to face opposition in the Senate.
A 60-mile section of the San Joaquin has been mostly dry for more than a half century. Federal officials, farmers and conservationists in 2006 ended an 18-year lawsuit with a settlement to reconnect the river with the ocean and revive long-dead salmon runs. Experimental flows began in 2009.
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East San Joaquin Valley farmers lost irrigation water in the deal, but the agreement commits to replacing as much water as possible with projects such as recirculating restoration water to farmers.
For the past few years, federal officials have known they could not complete bypass and channel restoration projects fast enough to meet deadlines set in the 2006 settlement. The Mendota Pool bypass, for instance, was supposed to be finished in 2013.
But water releases from Friant Dam began on time several years ago, though no releases have been made in more than a year because of the drought. Salmon experiments continue and riverside landowners are getting help from federal officials to control seepage along the river downstream.
Now, officials are poised to begin the first major project, the Mendota Pool bypass.
“We are on the verge of major construction projects that have significant benefits to water supply, flood control, the agricultural community, wildlife habitat and recreation,” said David Murillo, bureau director in this region.
The updated schedule represents months of discussions among federal agencies, farmers, conservationists and downstream landowners. Projects are planned in five-year increments.