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Could Climate Change Halt Salmon Restoration On The San Joaquin River? Farmers Say Yes

Jim Milbury
NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region
A baby Chinook Salmon released into the San Joaquin River earlier this year.

Before Friant Dam was built in the 1940s to store water for farms and cities across Central California, Chinook Salmon called the San Joaquin River home. The infrastructure project severely slowed flows on the river and the salmon went extinct. Now more than sixty years later salmon are slowly being reintroduced into the river, but some people say it’s just too late for the fish to thrive again here. Their reasoning?  Climate change.

Fish Biologist Don Portz and his team are on a mission to catch young salmon. But this U.S. Bureau of Reclamation team isn’t using bait, rods and reels. They’ve built a 15 foot wide fencelike funnel in the middle of the San Joaquin River less than a thousand feet from the mansions that line the bluffs in North Fresno.  

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
This weir tricks fish into a chamber where biologists eventually measure and weigh them.

“These fish weirs are designed to capture the fish," Portz says. "So the fish moving downstream in this direction thinking they’re going to go out to San Francisco, out to the ocean, are collected here.”

Today they’ve caught around 30 fish – bass, bluegill and salmon. Every day Portz’s crew of fish biologists checks the traps for fish, scans them for tags, weighs and measures them.  The bass and bluegill are released after they’re measured, but the Salmon have a different fate. They’re driven north and released into the Merced River where they’ll swim out to sea.

"The importance of the project primarily is to determine best practices in low flow years," says Portz. "Drought has become an issue, so we’re not going to have huge flows every year for these fish. Figuring this out is really important to the program.”

You see not too far from where we’re at in Fresno, the river dries up completely. There’s just not enough water let down the river out of Friant Dam to keep it flowing. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation wants to change that. In the fall they hope to send enough water down the river to connect the waterway all the way to the ocean. 

"Typically the temperatures aren't very bad especially here below the dam they're actually pretty decent for Chinook Salmon. The conditions are much more challenging downstream." - Gerald Hatler

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Biologists weigh and measure the fish as well as scan them for tags.

“It’s going to look like a small stream, a couple of inches, maybe a foot or more in some deeper pools," says Alicia Forsythe with the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.

This is all part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program that has a court settled mandate of restoring a salmon run on the river while at the same time providing water to those with water rights. The ambitious salmon-river restoration project sounds like a noble idea, restore habitat so an extinct fish can come back to life. But changes in climate – like warmer winters and less rain and snow – have some questioning whether it’s still feasible to restore this salmon run.

"Everybody wants a live river, but it's going to be maybe for bass. Not going to be salmon. It's just too hot." - Kole Upton

About 50 miles north of the San Joaquin River in Fresno, Kole Upton and I are walking through a field of corn he grows on the southern edge of Merced County.  His crop is used for the snack Corn Nuts. “Growing [the corn] is the same,” Upton adds. “It’s just the kernels they want bigger.”

Upton –who was one of the farmers who helped negotiate the river settlement over a decade ago – irrigates his crops with water from the San Joaquin River. At one time he thought the salmon run could really happen, but after experiencing four years of drought and a few years of zero water allocations he’s second guessing the program.

“It gets to the point where it’s almost laughable on what we’re trying to do,” Upton says. “But it’s not humorous, because it’s costing an immense amount of money and it’s causing farmers and communities to really hurt.”

Upton thinks that some of the estimated $1 billion in funds for salmon restoration on the San Joaquin instead should be focused on colder rivers in Northern California. He says the focus here should shift from salmon to species that thrive in warm water.

Credit Jim Milbury / Jim Milbury
Jim Milbury
Chinook Salmon

“Everybody wants a live river, but it’s going to be maybe for bass,” says Upton. “Not going to be salmon. It’s just too hot. So if you commit to that gives you a much better opportunity to mitigate the losses so that you don’t have communities like Porterville running out of water."

Other growers like Los Banos tomato farmer Cannon Michael think the project should be reevaluated. He’d like the bureau to do a study around water temperature and fish mortality before construction projects begin.

“You’re going to look at expenditures of billions of dollars to try to do this project, I think you probably need to try do that evaluation to really see in light of change what’s this going to look like,” Michael says.

Michael’s not against the river restoration, he just wants to make sure the salmon run doesn’t fail. He says water flowing down the river channel would benefit farmers in the long term when it comes to groundwater recharge.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Chinook Fish Hatchery, Friant, CA

Back in Fresno County near Friant Dam another group of scientists is also working to restore salmon on the river. They’re breeding Chinook salmon in green 500 gallon plastic tubs. They’ve also had water temperature problems.  Gerald Hatler runs the hatchery.

“Beginning in 2013 we started to have temperatures above 70 degrees,” says Hatler. “As late as last year we had temperatures as high as 78 degrees, well above the optimal range for Chinook Salmon.”

But even with warmer water temperatures Hatler thinks the salmon run has a chance of success.

“Typically the temperatures aren’t very bad especially here below the dam they’re actually pretty decent for Chinook Salmon,” Hatler says. “The conditions are much more challenging downstream which is why the settlement focused on restoring flows as well.”

Hatler’s team has temporarily remedied those problems with a machine that chills the water in the tanks. But once fish are ready to hit the water they’ll be at the mercy of the river. And hopefully the water is cool enough for them to survive.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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