The San Joaquin River is the second largest in California. Last year, it was listed by an environmental group as the second most endangered river in America. Recent years of drought haven’t taken their toll, but an exceptionally wet 2017 spelled optimism for many involved in the San Joaquin River Restoration Program. While significant obstacles to bring back the river’s salmon remain, there’s also progress swimming right below the surface.
Nearly 40 years ago, back when Peter Moyle was a professor at Fresno State, the San Joaquin River was different.
“My early memories of the river, when I first started working on it, was of a place that you wanted to avoid,” recounts Moyle.
Today he’s a professor emeritus of fish biology at UC Davis, but back in 1972, Moyle co-wrote a paper about a common pollutant in the water.
“There were so many beer cans lying in the river, scattered across the floor of the river, that it was habitat for some kinds of fish.”
Since then, he has seen the river change dramatically, in ways he says are for the better.
The improvements are not just good luck. Better conditions on the river have to be implemented due to a settlement between the National Resources Defense Council, the Friant Water Users Authority, and the federal government.
The San Joaquin River Restoration Program was created to implement that settlement, and has done so since 2009. Their goals are to restore and maintain fish populations, and manage water by releasing flows from Friant Dam.
Alicia Forsythe is the program manager of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, and since it began, she says they’ve accomplished a lot.
“We’ve re-wetted the San Joaquin River all the way from Friant to the Merced River confluence,” Forsythe explains. “So we have a flowing river now all the way down to the Merced. We no longer have those dry sections anymore. We’ve actually put fall-run Chinook salmon back in the San Joaquin River along with spring-run Chinook salmon.”
Having a particularly rainy year was also beneficial.
“The wet year was good for the program, especially after a number of years of drought,” says Forsythe. “It provided a lot of water back into the San Joaquin River which really helps us from a re-wetting the river channel, and re-invigorating the riparian vegetation.”
All that re-wetting and re-invigorating built up the river habitat, which benefited the river itself, and the salmon they’ve been releasing. When construction of Friant Dam dried up parts of the San Joaquin River, the salmon that lived there couldn’t get from their spawning grounds near the dam to the ocean, and they died.
So far, the program has reintroduced fall-run Chinook salmon with success, and is now trying to do the same with spring-run Chinook salmon.
“This wasn't a predominantly fall run fishery,” says Don Portz, the lead fish biologist with the program. “This was probably the best habitat in the state once upon a time for spring run.”
The kind of spring-run Chinook salmon that lived in the San Joaquin River 60 years ago doesn’t exist now, but by breeding that type of salmon from other rivers, the program is working to create a successful run of salmon that can adapt to the San Joaquin.
This year the restoration program released 115 spring-run Chinook salmon into the river to spawn.
Out on the river, just below the Friant Dam, we’ve suited up in waders, boots, and life jackets.
Biologists from the Restoration Program are collecting data on the fry, the baby salmon that were born in the river. Earlier this month they set up rotary screw traps to help them monitor the fish.
The mesh, aluminum cones are floating in the river, tethered to the bank. Fish that swim into the cone get collected in a box at the back of the trap.
Restoration biologists check the trap daily to measure fish and ultimately determine how successful the fry are at surviving.
Most of the fry are about the size of safety pin, but some of the salmon they catch are a year old, and quite a bit bigger.
In the long run, there’s a lot working against them. Portz lists their concerns, including blocked passage for the fish, and keeping a cool river environment.
“That's probably the greatest concern for the river restoration, is how to have adequate temperatures for fish to hold, to rear, and most importantly, to move in and out of the system,” Portz says. “With climate change, this is a challenge, but one that we can be successful with.”
Despite all of this optimism, some are skeptical about the program’s feasibility.
Cannon Michael is the president of Bowles Farming Company. His farm is on a section of the river that hasn’t seen water in years, since the 1960s.
At some point, the settlement requires that the river pass through his farm, where it used to flow, and that could be a problem.
“For us the worry has always been, if the program tries to come through this area it would be very disruptive in terms of taking a lot of land out of production,” says Michael.
Not only would this be disruptive to his farm down the line, but Michael is also worried about the cost.
Initially the program was projected to cost between $250 million and $800 million. When the full project was planned out, it added up to a realistic cost of a billion and a half dollars.
"There’s not a clear path way for them to get that kind of money,” says Michael. “Because it's going through our area here potentially, we're of course concerned if there's not going to be the funding to do the project adequately.”
He’s not the only one concerned. Hanford Congressman David Valadao proposed House Resolution 23 this year. The bill has passed in the House and would scale back funding from the federal government for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.
But this isn’t the first time House bills have threatened the program’s funding.
Forsythe with the Restoration Program says that this is common: House bills remove the funding, while senate bills leave it, and in the end, the program usually gets its money.
Even still, she’s aware the work is expensive, so they’re calculating what she calls a “funding constrained framework.”
“That's looking at what are the activities we should be doing within our available funding sources,” Forsythe explains. “Right now that document is not done yet, but we're looking at a program that costs around $650 million.”
While the full implementation of the program may cost a lot, the settlement requires that restoration happens.
And slowly but surely, the river is being restored.
Looking ahead, the program has broken ground on a state of the art hatchery next to their old one to diversify their fish population, and they’re planning construction on their Mendota Pool and Bypass project to start next year.
“It’s never going to be a big powerful salmon stream like it once was,” says Peter Moyle with UC Davis. “You know, the San Joaquin River, at the time when they built Friant Dam, was one of the major salmon rivers in California. It's never going to return to that because of the dam.”
For Dr. Moyle, who once wrote about how fish were using beer cans as habitat, the investment is still worth it.