San Joaquin River salmon fishery flows will increase to 350 cubic feet per second

By CECILIA PARSONS

Capital Press

After years of wrangling and worry, the first water aimed at restoring the San Joaquin River salmon fishery will flow on Oct. 1.

The 2006 settlement reached by Friant Water Users Authority and Natural Resources Defense Council calls for 225,000 acres feet of water per year to be released from Millerton Lake behind Friant Dam to re-establish a salmon run in the San Joaquin River. Legislation to implement the project was passed earlier this year as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.

The interim flows beginning Oct. 1 will show Friant and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation how much water the river channel can handle. Full restoration is called for in 2014.

The San Joaquin River Restoration Program is authorized under the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. Federal legislation provides $88 million, far short of the $250 million that was originally slated. Funding by the state will also support the settlement as voters passed $200 million in state bonds for projects that will contribute to the restoration efforts.

Ron Jacobsma, general manager of FWUA, said initial flows might not even be noticeable for the first 30 miles of the river below the dam.

Flows there will increase from about 220 cubic feet per second to about 350 cubic feet per second, he said. Later they may try to increase it to 700 cubic feet per second, but he expects much of the water will sink at the wider and much shallower channel farther down the river at Gravelly Ford.

He expects about 24,000 acre feet of water will be released over a six-week period. Jacobsma said he doubted the water would reach the Merced River confluence this fall. It may in the spring, he said, depending on rainfall.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, total releases from Friant Dam for the interim flows project will vary from 42,000 acre feet to 384,000 acre feet. Flows will also depend on rainfall over the winter and spring.

The releases will reduce the amount of water delivered to the Friant-Kern and Madera canals which supply irrigation and domestic water for farms and communities on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. That is why growers have been concerned.

Kole Upton, former chair of FWUA, said in a phone interview Sept. 22, more farmland would have to be fallowed because less surface water would be available. He predicted 10,000 to 15,000 acres in the Chowchilla district alone would go dry.

He also questioned the outcome of the interim release. The water will be in excess of river channel capacity, he said and it would have to be routed away from the river.

"A total waste of water," he said.

Monte Schmitt, a spokesman for NRDC, said the fall interim flows would yield some important data for the restoration program. Water temperatures and depth at stages of the river will be recorded and the information can be useful because the hoped for salmon run will occur at that time of year.

Jacobsma and USBR will be looking at the recovery possibilities, which FWUA has insisted are a major part of the settlement.

According to USBR information, there are opportunities for flows to be recirculated back to growers as the river flows are restored. However, the amount depends on a number of factors. Groundwater infiltration, seepage along the river and capacity of river improvements are listed, as well as rainfall amounts and Delta pumping restrictions.

The settlement and restoration have been topics of heated debate in the San Joaquin Valley.

Most Friant water districts have held the settlement ensures them a reliable supply of water. Opponents of the settlement include Upton and a number of growers along the east side of the valley.

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