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San Joaquin River Restoration Brings Spawning Salmon Back to Fresno

California is on course for what could be its driest year on record. Those were the sobering words from scientists with the National Weather Service in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle. And after two dry years, the relative lack of rain and snow is putting a great strain on the state's precious water resources. 

But there's another big water story in our backyard - the restoration of the San Joaquin River. 

That's the sound of a nearly three foot long Chinook salmon being released into the San Joaquin River, at Fresno's Lost Lake Park, just below Friant Dam. It was the centerpiece of an event held last Saturday called  Salmonfest, which brought together fishermen and conservationists to celebrate the effort to bring salmon back to the river after nearly 70 years. 

As Gerald Hatler, program manager with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife explains, it's kind of like a salmon bucket brigade.

"We're releasing salmon directly in the San Joaquin River [near Friant] that we've trapped further downstream in the San Joaquin," says Hatler.

All to help repopulate a species decimated by a river that goes dry for about 60 miles. 

"Nothing like this had been done before." - Monty Schmitt, NRDC

  "There's some physical barriers to fish getting upstream. So what we've done is we're going downstream on a regular basis, picking up fish downstream, and putting them in the river up here below the dam and giving them an opportunity to spawn. And if we get enough flows in the springtime, and there's enough rainfall, some of those juveniles can actually make it out. We know they can make it all the way to the Merced River if there's enough water for them," says Hatler.

Monty Schmitt with the Natural Resources Defense Council says that biologists have learned a lot since last year, when a smaller salmon program was underway.

"Nothing like this had been done before. We found that salmon,  we could move them up and they were released and they were successful in spawning, and we found juveniles in the river, which was really exciting," says Schmitt.

On this day, only 3 salmon were released. But so far this season a total of about 60 have made the trip. The hope is to bring that number to as high as 200 by December. If all goes well, they'll spawn and lay their eggs here. And then, as all adult Chinook salmon do after spawning, they'll die.

But Schmitt hopes that this year their offspring will make the 150 mile trek to where the San Joaquin meets the Merced on their own.

"We're actually hoping that this year we'll be able to get water all the way downstream, and that these juveniles that are produced from these adults we released today, will be able to make it all the way downstream and hopefully out to the ocean and grow and come back three years later as some of the first adult Chinook salmon to come back to the San Joaquin on their own," says Schmitt.

It's all part of an over $1 billion restoration project which aims to repair some of the damage done to the river ecosystem after the federal government built Friant Dam in the 1940's. The dam diverted the waters of the mighty San Joaquin to make the east side of the valley bloom. But it also dried up portion of the river, and killed what was once a vibrant salmon fishery. The entire project is currently estimated to cost over $1 billion.*

In 1988 NRDC and other environmental groups sued the government and the Friant Water Users Authority. The parties reached a settlement in 2006, and the restoration, which not only involves the salmon, but also putting more water down the river, and restoring the channel is now underway. 

So what happens in a dry year? Schmitt:

"The restoration of the river and salmon sort of shares the bounty and the poverty of our rainfall." - Monty Schmitt, NRDC

"In the driest of years, like we say in 1977 the restoration program actually gets no water. So in a way the restoration of the river and salmon sort of shares the bounty and the poverty of our rainfall."

Schmitt also says the restoration effort makes an attempt to reuse some of the water after it flows downstream. 

"Hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water have actually been captured downstream once it's moved downstream and it's provided the biological benefit that it can provide, then it's taken off the river and it's brought back into the water supply system, and it's brought back to the farmers who would have used it otherwise," says Schmitt.

Still not everyone is sold on the idea. Friant resident Shawn Neal says he likes the salmon restoration but: 

"I think the farmers are more important than anything, but I think they can make a happy compromise, and I'm hoping that logic happens. 'Because farmers need the water," says Neal. 

And that compromise is something that all parties seem to endorse, for now. 

"There's a lot of historic uses that we're now trying to wave the restoration program together with, so that agricultural uses and flood protection continue, but we can integrate a living river around it. And that's the part that takes a little more time, but we're making progress," says Schmidt. 

And for now that progress is in the form of three more salmon, hoping to spawn in the San Joaquin River just a short drive from Fresno.

Correction: an earlier version of this story indicated the cost of the restoration effort was $380 million. This was incorrect. In 2009, Congress and Friant water users set aside $380-$390 million to fund the restoration effort, but that does not accurately represent the entire project cost. In a 2012 report, the restoration program was estimated to cost $892 million, with an additional $188 million in levee improvements.  Source: http://www.restoresjr.net/program_library/02-Program_Docs/20120619_SJRRP_Framework_for_ImplDRAFT.pdf

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of Valley Public Radio. During his tenure, he's helped lead the station through major programming changes and the COVID-19 pandemic, while maintaining the station's financial health. From 2010-2018 he served as the station's Director of Program Content. In that role, he also served as the host of Valley Edition, and helped launch and grow the station's award-winning local news department. He is a Fresno native and a graduate of California State University, Fresno.
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