Swimming Upstream: Soon Possible for San Joaquin River Salmon?

A restoration project currently underway may once again have the river teeming with fish.

salmon swimming upstream to spawn
Salmon swimming upstream to spawn. (National Geographic/Getty)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

"You could run across their backs and not touch the water," Central Valley farmer Walt Shubin told Merced, California’s ABC30 Action News. The water he’s talking about was the San Joaquin River and 70 years ago hundreds of thousands of salmon would swim from the ocean through San Francisco Bay and the Delta and then up the San Joaquin to spawn just north of Fresno.

So a lot of what we’re doing with fish right now is evaluating that: Is there enough water for them? Are the temperatures cool enough for fish? Are the flows sufficient? And is there sufficient habitat for them?

But that all changed when the Friant Dam was constructed in 1942 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which still owns and operates the dam.

Margaret Gidding, who works for the Bureau and is the Project Coordination Specialist for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, told TakePart that Friant Dam “was part of the Central Valley Project, first started by the state and then completed by the federal government. It was a way to develop California's water resources and provide more water for agriculture—key focuses for the state at that point in time. Friant Dam also helped with flooding that occurred in that area.”

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She goes on to explain that when the dam was built, “It dried up portions of the San Joaquin River and eventually farming operations shifted right up to the old river bed. Farmers in that area were not expecting to ever see the river restored and water back in dry river channels.” But in 1988, the Natural Resources Defense Council led a coalition of environmentalists and fishermen in a lawsuit against the government-run dam and the water district. A settlement was finally reached in 2006.

“The settlement that came out of that and was accepted by the Court tried to strike a balance—the water contractors would have to give up some of their water for the restoration of the river and salmon runs, and the restoration program would try to recapture some of the water and recirculate it back to those farmers,” said Gidding.

As you can imagine, this is a pretty complicated endeavor.

“With the restoration program, there are several things that need to be implemented before the river can function as a natural stream where fish could make it all the way up as far as the dam and back out to ocean unimpeded,” Gerald Hatler, who is a Program Manager for the California Department of Fish and Game, told TakePart. “The settlement identified several barriers to fish passage and movement through the system and those things have not taken place yet.”

“What we’re doing right now is we’re basically moving adults—114 salmon have been trapped and relocated as of December 9—from below those barriers and putting them up in an area which is directly below the dam,” he said. “These are all largely experimental activities and we’re doing them to evaluate how fish respond to the conditions that are currently present. We’re also looking at how they will respond in the future as changes and improvements are made in the river and hopefully the information we gather will help guide and direct future restoration actions.”

Hatler pointed out that sometimes when you use the term restoration it can be a little bit misleading. When people think of restoring something they might think that you’re taking it and making it the way it was before.

“The reality, and this is true for just about any river restoration project, is that it’s very difficult to restore the streams to what they once were,” he said. “For example, in the case of the San Joaquin, restoring it to what it was like before the dam was built is not an option for us. But what the settlement intended was to create a flow regime that was agreed upon by the water managers on the San Joaquin—one that would significantly improve the aquatic environment for salmon and make it certainly more favorable to them.”

“So a lot of what we’re doing with fish right now is evaluating that: Is there enough water for them? Are the temperatures cool enough for fish? Are the flows sufficient? And is there sufficient habitat for them? Those are a lot of questions that we need to answer because, right now, salmon have been extirpated—that is to say extinct—in a portion of the historic geographic range for over 60 years.”

He added that, “In that period a lot of changes have happened on the San Joaquin. Because of the reduced flows, it reduced the active portions of the river, at least seasonally. And it encouraged people to encroach and build the levees closer together and to take up what was historically a lot of flood plain habitat, remove vegetation and develop the land adjacent to the river. So now we have a situation where we want to increase flows to the benefit of salmon and there’s some competition between the historic development that’s taken place over the last 60 years and what we need to accomplish to restore the river.”

But looking at the positive side of things, Hatler said that, “When they did the settlement, I think the settling parties were encouraged because it has two basically coequal goals. One is to restore the river and reintroduce salmon and the other is to avoid or minimize impacts to water supplies.”

“So I think that was something that was necessary to make this project work, and I think it encouraged a lot of people to feel like being able to restore the San Joaquin was something that we could actually do.”

Do you think it will be possible to successfully restore the salmon’s habitat?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com

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