Oct. 18, 2012 San Joaquin River Restoration Program Moves Forward
The San Joaquin River below Friant Dam, a beautiful, sparkling tail water fishery that winds its way through park and farmland before vanishing in the sands in the Gravelly Ford area, is one of the few waters in central California that is planted by the Department of Fish and Game with catchable rainbows every week.
However, before the construction of Friant Dam, the river above and below where Millerton Lake sits now hosted a legendary spring run chinook salmon run featured great fishing for local anglers. No provisions were made for fish ladders, hatchery, minimum flows or other mitigation, as was done on the Sacramento, Feather, American, Trinity, Klamath and other major rivers where big storage dams were built.
Since construction was completed in 1949, the operation of Friant Dam caused 60 miles of the San Joaquin River to run dry, eliminating many miles of natural habitat and extirpating the once robust spring chinook, along with other fish populations.
In coming years, chinook salmon will hopefully be once again able to spawn in the San Joaquin River as they did for thousands of years, thanks to the signing of a historic Record of Decision (ROD) by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other state and federal officials this month.
For many years, the San Joaquin River Fish Hatchery in Friant has planted 300 to 500 pounds of rainbow trout weekly in the river near below the Friant Road Bridge and in the Lost Lakes County Park. The river below the dam has provided a unique cold water tail water fishery for planted, holdover and wild trout on a river that didn’t connect to the ocean for six decades after Friant Dam was built.
On October 4, I stopped by the San Joaquin River below Friant on the way to a Restore the Delta film screening. About a dozen anglers in the Lost Lake and Broken Bridges area were fishing for trout with spinners, Power Bait and nightcrawlers. In the short time I was there, I saw three fish hooked, including a 14 inch rainbow.
In fall 2006, Joaquin River Fish Hatchery staff released 200 rainbow trout in the 6-8 pound range into the river at Lost Lake Park as the kick off for a trophy trout planting program. The fish were the first plant of 700 trophy rainbows released that year– and big numbers of trophy trout were released through September 2009, according to Greg Paape, hatchery manager.
The same year, a federal court approved the landmark settlement accord to restore flows and salmon populations to the San Joaquin. Central Valley farmers, the state and federal governments and environmental and fishing groups united to undertake one of the nation’s most significant river restoration projects after 18 years of litigation.
The weekly plants of catchable rainbows, a total of around 20,000 pounds per year, will continue into the near future, but the trophy trout program has been discontinued as the river restoration program moves forward.
In the latest step in the plan to restore the river, the Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources on October 4 signed Decision documents selecting the "preferred alternative" from the Final Program Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program (SJRRP) for implementation.
The SJRRP is a comprehensive, long-term effort to restore flows to the San Joaquin River from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River (153 miles), restoring a self-sustaining Chinook salmon fishery in the river while reducing or avoiding adverse water supply impacts from the release of restoration flows, according to Pete Lucero of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Reclamation, DWR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Game are the agencies charged with implementing the ambitious program.
The final environmental documents describe the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of implementing the settlement in the landmark court case that resolved more than 18 years of litigation related to Reclamation’s operation of Friant Dam and established the program. Reclamation and DWR selected Alternative C1, the “Preferred Alternative, out of the seven alternatives studied in the Final PEIS/R.
"This alternative includes the use of the river channel and bypass system to convey restoration flows and allows for recapture of these flows at existing facilities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and in the San Joaquin River upstream of the Delta at existing facilities or at new facilities that may be constructed in the future," according to Lucero. "Alternative C1 provides the greatest flexibility in implementing the Settlement and the greatest opportunity to fulfill the purpose and need of the SJRRP."
Monty Schmitt, Senior Scientist and San Joaquin River Project Manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), lauded the signing of the ROD and release of the documents. (http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/mschmitt/new_era_for_the_san_joaquin_ri.html)
“The signing of the ROD formally approves the San Joaquin River Restoration Program’s programmatic environmental impact statement, completed in July 2012, and selects preferred alternatives for habitat restoration, water supply and flood management projects,” said Schmitt.
“This significant move, after five years of planning and developing project designs, means the Restoration Program is ready to move into the long-awaited phase of constructing projects. For wildlife, landowners and communities along its course, the river will be transformed over the next few years and the tangible benefits of the Restoration Program will begin to materialize," said Schmitt.
These benefits included creating jobs, improving water supply and flood management, creating a "living river and a more vibrant San Joaquin Valley," and restoring a river of national importance, noted Schmitt.
“This is a critical step on the path towards salmon recovery and a healthy river, said Rene Henery, Ph.D., California science director at Trout Unlimited. “Along with the river, fishermen have been hit hard by the steady plummet of salmon populations over the last half-century. We're looking ahead to a brighter future where San Joaquin salmon are once again making their great migration upstream to spawn and tugging at fishing lines.”
However, the restoration plan faces some obstacles in its implementation. After interim restoration flows were released in 2009 and 2010 and flood flows proceeded down the once dry river in 2011, San Joaquin Valley farmers filed a lawsuit blocking the release of flows, claiming that the flows caused "seepage" that damaged their crops, according to Chris Acree, executive director of Revive the San Joaquin. (http://www.revivethesanjoaquin.org). This left the newly re-watered section of river dry this year.
During the time that this stretch was flowing, the Hills Ferry fish barrier near the junction of the San Joaquin and Merced rivers was removed and salmon moved up the San Joaquin for the first time in decades. Acree also said the DFG captured stranded salmon at Sack Dam and re-released them into Mendota Pool.
Hopefully, the program will overcome the obstacles and king salmon again will ascend the San Joaquin in large, fishable numbers below Friant Dam as the river flows year round to the sea.
Both the ROD and NOD are available on the SJRRP website at http://www.restoresjr.net.Back To Reports