Restoring the San Joaquin

BILL STALL is a contributing editor to Opinion.

FEW RIVERS have as glorious a beginning as the San Joaquin. The headwaters are on the flanks of the Ritter Range a few miles from Mammoth Mountain in the Sierra Nevada. Anyone who has taken an upper-mountain chairlift at Mammoth instantly recognizes the jagged Minarets and the hulks of Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak on the skyline.

Water from melting snow collects in Ediza, Garnet and Thousand Island lakes and others. The new river gathers quickly, rushing past Devils Postpile National Monument and Red’s Meadow before plunging over Rainbow Falls and tumbling down one of the most contorted and isolated canyons in the range to the western foothills.

And then the river dies. Except in the wettest years, the San Joaquin dries up for long stretches. It gathers new waters further downstream (down being north) before mingling with the flows of the Sacramento River in forming the delta that ultimately feeds San Francisco Bay. But much of the water in the lower river, including that of its tributaries, is irrigation runoff, contaminated by salts and other minerals, and the outflow from municipal treatment plants. Effectively, it’s a sewer .

But now, more than 60 years after the federal government plugged the San Joaquin with Friant Dam northeast of Fresno, the river may come alive again. After all the California water wars, legal battles and reengineering of the state’s plumbing system, here is a good-news water story of tremendous proportions. As it evolves, the deal could be good for Southern California by providing water imported from the north that is of a higher quality.


A general settlement was reached June 30 in an 18-year legal battle over whether some of the water used to irrigate farms on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley should remain in the natural channel to make the San Joaquin a real river again. The pact would provide enough water, in fact, to restore the long-destroyed spring and fall salmon runs on the San Joaquin.

The deal, coming after nine months of negotiations, won’t be final, lawyers say, until all the parties -- the farmers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, officials of the state’s Fish and Game and Water Resources departments and environmentalists -- agree to the details of the restoration. The settlement process, which involves confidential briefings, could take weeks. Many a California water deal has fallen apart in the process of nailing down the details. But this one is so promising that the parties cannot allow that to happen.

A bonus is that a revived San Joaquin flowing into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta would mean cleaner water for Southern California. Much of the south’s water supply is provided by the State Water Project, which draws its water from the delta.

The river died on or about Feb. 21, 1944, when the Bureau of Reclamation began filling Millerton Lake behind Friant Dam, a key part of the federal Central Valley Project. From then on, more than 90% of the San Joaquin’s water was divided at the base of the dam: Most of it went south through the Friant Kern Canal to farms in Kern County; the rest went northward to farms in Madera County. The bureau estimated in 1990 -- the latest records available -- that the project irrigated 837,000 acres on the east side of the valley with a value of about $2 billion.


When Friant was launched, the Sacramento Bee gushed: “A new era of prosperity dawns for the San Joaquin Valley.... The fondest dreams of man will be realized.” Never mind the loss of the natural river and the salmon.

But there was another problem: finding a way to compensate farmers who previously relied on downriver flows of the San Joaquin -- flows that no longer existed. To make up for that, the federal water masters sent water from the delta southward via its 117-mile-long Delta Mendota Canal, opened in 1951. So for a brief stretch, a phantom San Joaquin lived again before it was sucked dry for more irrigation.

The diversion of the San Joaquin and the decimation of the salmon run has been a legal issue for half a century. The current case began when the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the federal government, claiming that it violated state Fish and Game laws by illegally shutting off the river’s flow and killing the salmon runs.

In 2004, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento, a key figure in other California water epics as well, ordered the parties involved to agree on a way to put water back in the river. If they did not, he said, he would impose his own solution. That was plenty of incentive for the concerned parties to sit down at the table.


Working out a final formula will take time, and the farmers know they will have to give up some of their water. The public cost could run $100 million or more. That’s a small price for the rebirth of one of California’s major rivers.