Parties agree to restore California’s San Joaquin River

The U.S. Departments of Interior and Commerce, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Friant Water Users Authority have agreed to restore water flows for salmon in the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam near Fresno, Calif.

The parties’ settlement agreement calls for one of the largest river restoration efforts in the western United States. The agreement provides for substantial river channel improvements and sufficient water flow to sustain a salmon fishery upstream from the confluence of the Merced River tributary while providing water supply certainty to Friant Division water contractors, the parties said.

Filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento Sept. 13, the settlement ends an 18-year legal dispute over operation of Friant Dam, a 319-foot-tall, 3,488-foot-long concrete gravity structure. It resolves legal claims brought by a coalition of conservation and fishing groups led by NRDC.

Friant Dam is a main feature of the 1,844-MW Central Valley Project’s Friant Division, which transports surplus water from northern California through the southern part of the Central Valley. The dam, 25 miles northeast of Fresno, forms a reservoir, Millerton Lake.

The structure does not include a powerhouse but it does control San Joaquin River flows, provides downstream releases, flood control, conservation storage, diversion into the Madera and Friant-Kern canals, and prevents salt water from destroying thousands of acres in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It also delivers water to a million acres of agricultural land.

Legislation sought to implement agreement

In addition to seeking U.S. District Court approval of the settlement, the parties are seeking congressional approval of legislation authorizing the secretaries of Interior and Commerce to implement the settlement. A draft of the authorizing legislation negotiated by the parties is incorporated into the settlement.

Historically, central California’s San Joaquin River supported large salmon populations, including the southernmost chinook salmon population in North America. Since Friant Dam became fully operational in the 1940s, about 60 miles of the river have dried up in most years, eliminating salmon above the river’s confluence with the Merced River, the parties said.

Settling parties said they will work together on projects to improve the river channel to restore and maintain healthy salmon populations. Spring and fall run chinook salmon populations are to be reintroduced in about six years.

The settlement limits the effect on water supply to Friant Division long-term water contractors by providing for new water management measures by the Bureau of Reclamation, an Interior Department agency that administers the 11-powerhouse Central Valley Project.

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