"In this case," says Upton, "we were willing to say the enviros were right — as long as we’re not held accountable if they’re wrong."

On Sept. 13, the two sides finalized the 19 percent settlement. Longtime water observer Dan Beard, who headed the Bureau of Reclamation from 1993 to 1995 and is now a private consultant, says the pact is especially important because the federal government "gave away all the water in the river and were unwilling to take the political heat to take the water back." The NRDC intervention and the resulting settlement agreement, he says, show that "when the federal government and the state government won’t do their job, you can solve these problems."

The salmon restoration program — which includes a raft of measures to return the long-dry river channel to its historic shape, to re-establish native vegetation, to protect surrounding land with levees and to provide fish passage around obstructions below Friant Dam — could cost as much as $800 million. Much of that will come from redirecting payments that the farmers currently make — which go into a general environmental protection pool and to pay off the cost of the dam itself — into the more specific San Joaquin restoration program. The rest will come from state and federal funding. This November, California approved Proposition 84, a ballot initiative that could provide up to $200 million for the effort. The state’s congressional delegation is also seeking some $250 million in federal funding.

Participants in the settlement say that the commitment of the state and federal governments is critical to the 20-year restoration program. Federal funding for another ambitious program, the effort to restore the San Francisco Bay-Delta, has essentially evaporated in recent years.

Under the plan, salmon will be reintroduced to the San Joaquin in 2012. "You’re talking about a relatively small amount of salmon," says Peter Moyle, a professor of fish biology at the University of California, Davis who serves as a consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council. "In a way, it’s almost a symbolic run. But you get a river out of it, and that’s what’s really important."

As tenacious as the San Joaquin salmon were, the Friant Dam did wipe them out, and finding a 21st century replacement required some 21st century thinking. Earlier this year, Moyle recommended that the San Joaquin reintroduction program use a strain of chinook salmon from Butte Creek, near Chico. Moyle’s recommendation came largely because the Butte Creek strain is very plentiful. But, he says, those fish may also prove especially resilient in the face of global warming.

"There is an advantage to fish that can exist in warmer water, surviving at temperatures, it seems, that should be lethal," he says. "That’s always a plus, because you never know what’s going to happen."


Matt Jenkins is West Coast correspondent for High Country News.

This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.