Watch the river flow

by Allison Gerfin

After 18 years of wallowing in court, farmers and conservationists have reached a settlement that allows water to run again in California’s second-longest river.

The Friant Dam, built in the 1940s, irrigates 1 million acres of rich agricultural land in the Central Valley. It also has dried up sections of the San Joaquin River for a half-century, killing chinook and plaguing downriver users with polluted and salty water. The river was once the southernmost habitat for salmon in the United States.

In 1988, 14 conservation and fishing groups sued the federal government and an irrigation company over the destruction of wildlife and habitat. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton agreed state law had been broken, but postponed the trial several times to allow the sides to work on a settlement instead of a court-imposed solution.

The renewed flow promised under the new agreement will boost groundwater levels, help provide clean water for 20 million downriver users, and allow transplantation of genetically similar chinook, says Jared Huffman, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the plaintiffs. Restoring the 150 miles of river from the dam near Fresno to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta could cost the state and federal governments up to $1 billion.

Details of the agreement are under wraps until final approval by all parties, which could take until mid-August. "We think it’s a very workable compromise," says Ron Jacobsma, general manager of defendant Friant Water Authority. "It provides some certainty for water supplies and is also a good opportunity to recreate a viable salmon fishery."

 

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