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Money Flow Is Concern for California’s San Joaquin River Restoration

July 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In 2006, environmentalists and farmers signed an agreement to share water from the San Joaquin River, as federal government planned to refill the waterway and restore the salmon population. But with the recession and $100 million already spent, Spencer Michels reports both sides worry there won't be enough money to finish.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, the long battle over one of the largest river restoration projects in the country, an effort that’s facing new troubles over funding.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our story from California.

SPENCER MICHELS: This is the once-mighty San Joaquin River, and much of it has been like this, dry as toast, since the 1940s.

That’s when the federal government constructed Friant Dam near Fresno, California, which impounded the San Joaquin’s water in a large reservoir, so it could diverted through a vast network of canals to farms and ranches in the San Joaquin Valley, leaving some sections of the river wet, some dry.

Today, the San Joaquin Valley is one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world. But the fish are gone, and the river is a ghost of its former self.

Now there is a controversial move afoot to cover this sand with water to restore this river. Before the dam, the water began high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and flowed west, through the Central Valley, and eventually out through San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.

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The survival of salmon that used to come up the river from the Pacific Ocean is a crucial reason for restoring the river.

Gerald Hatler works for California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

GERALD HATLER, California Department of Fish and Wildlife: Before significant development, we probably had runs on the San Joaquin in excess of half-a-million fish.

SPENCER MICHELS: Half-a-million salmon?

GERALD HATLER: Yes.

SPENCER MICHELS: And what is it now?

GERALD HATLER: That population is what we call extirpated, which basically means the population is extinct.

SPENCER MICHELS: Hatler and fish biologists are trying to figure out how to bring the salmon back to the river, which means bringing back the river itself.

GERALD HATLER: I have never worked on anything that’s had the magnitude of this project. In fact, it’s certainly the largest river restoration in California, and perhaps the United States. We’re looking at restoring a 153-mile stretch of river that dries up periodically.

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s the second longest river in California. And, in the late 1800s, it became a river of legend, a major highway and fishery. Steamboats used to race in its deep channels. Ferry boats brought people and crops across its fast-moving water.

But all that changed with the dam. Twenty years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, claiming fish populations downstream from Friant must be protected under law.

Monty Schmitt is a senior scientist with NRDC.

MONTY SCHMITT, Natural Resources Defense Council: The San Joaquin River is a really important resource for the entire state of California. It will improve water quality downstream, and it restores a living river that future generations will get to enjoy.

SPENCER MICHELS: But ranchers throughout the valley had come to depend on the water diverted from the river.

Gary Bursey farms almonds and wine grapes. He feared a reduction in his water supply could hurt his production. And for what?

GARY BURSEY, California farmer: We in ag, we always had our suspicions. Do you put 400 or 500 salmon in front of the food and fiber for our country?

SPENCER MICHELS: Nevertheless, Bursey and other farmers, concerned they would lose the lawsuit and be ordered to give up even more water, finally, in 2006, signed an historic settlement with the NRDC and the Bureau of Reclamation. It was hailed as a unique agreement that brought together environmentalists and farmers.

Alicia Forsythe manages river restoration for the Bureau of Reclamation.

ALICIA FORSYTHE, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation: We are taking away approximately 17 percent of the water for the — that would have otherwise gone to the farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.

So, we’re looking at a series of actions to try to reduce or avoid that water supply impact.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was a compromise, says Ronald Jacobsma, who runs the Friant Water Users Authority, representing 15,000 farmers.

RONALD JACOBSMA, Friant Water Users Authority: Our concern was if we left this in the hands of a federal judge, this could be far worse. The uncertainty, the risk became a bill too much for our folks. We couldn’t afford to lose half of our water supply.

Our experts also said, if you made some improvements along the river, you could probably get by with less water.

SPENCER MICHELS: Jacobsma and the NRDC’s Schmitt, antagonists in court, today are trying make the settlement work. But progress has been slow.

This spring, the first actual moves toward restoring the river began, when more water was released from the dam, and scientists experimentally put some salmon into the river for the first time, to watch how they behave and where they go.

Those are small steps. Most of the money spent thus far, seven years after the agreement, has been on plans and research, which doesn’t impress Cannon Michael, who farms a variety of crops near the river.

CANNON MICHAEL, California farmer: To date, not one shovel of dirt has been turned. There’s been over $100 million of money that’s been spent, and I know there has to be a lot of studies. But $100 million is a lot of money, and not to show really one physical result for it is a big challenge.

SPENCER MICHELS: The settlement acknowledges that fixing the river will take much more money than that. The river channel needs improving, so the water can flow without flooding or seeping through its banks onto farmland.

Some farmers who have planted near the riverbed and have gotten used to the dry river contend that increased flows are drowning the roots of their crops and need to be pumped off at government expense.

A small dam that diverts water into irrigation canals needs replacing; fish screens and ladders need to be designed and tested; bypasses must be constructed; and some water may be pumped upstream for reuse, projects that could cost $2 billion, mostly federal money.

Both sides worry that Congress won’t appropriate enough money for future work, although it has authorized the restoration.

MONTY SCHMITT: When we signed the settlement agreement in 2006, we didn’t envision that the country would go through a recession, and it did have somewhat of an impact on the restoration program.

The problem with federal appropriations is you can’t predict what the federal government will appropriate next year or the year after.

CANNON MICHAEL: And without the funding to do the large-scale projects, the river isn’t going to function the way that the settlement envisioned it.

SPENCER MICHELS: One local Republican congressman has tried to stop funding for the restoration. And rancher Bursey thinks that’s not a bad idea.

GARY BURSEY: Is this the right way to spend a billion-and-a-half dollars or a billion — or whatever number we want to put on this project. Is 500 fish, is that a viable — is it a viable trade-off?

SPENCER MICHELS: His numbers may be off — no one is sure — but his concerns continue to divide the parties, despite the settlement.

RONALD JACOBSMA: Our 20-member districts have supported the settlement and continue to support it, but there are pockets of landowners who have resisted s and don’t like this idea at all. And they’re very concerned about their livelihoods.

SPENCER MICHELS: Overall, reclamation’s Forsythe says the settlement is succeeding through collaboration between farmers and environmentalists. And she sees the changes in attitude as paralleling the changes in the bureau and the nation.

ALICIA FORSYTHE: Our attitudes have changed. Our perception of the environment, our values as a nation have changed. And that’s why we can look at Friant Dam today and say, maybe we never should have done that. But in the context of the ’30s, it was the right thing to do.

SPENCER MICHELS: For now, it remains impossible for salmon to swim the length of the river and spawn. But a few fish are living in the river and are reproducing. Still, it may take another 20 years before the restoration of the San Joaquin can be judged a success or a failure.