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House Votes to Undo Part of Settlement to Restore the San Joaquin River

Doug Obegi

Posted May 11, 2012

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Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed Congressman Denham’s amendment to undo part of the court approved settlement to restore the San Joaquin River and its historic salmon runs.  The amendment, which was attached to the appropriations bill for the National Marine Fisheries Service, would prohibit the agency from spending any money to reintroduce spring run Chinook salmon to the San Joaquin River.  The settlement requires the federal government to begin reintroduction of salmon to the San Joaquin River in 2012. Congressman Denham’s amendment attempts to prohibit the federal government from fulfilling its obligations under the Settlement.

In 2006, the Bush Administration approved a historic settlement agreement between farmers, fishermen, conservation groups and the United States to restore the San Joaquin River.  Just three years ago, a bipartisan majority in Congress approved the Settlement Act, authorizing implementation of the settlement, as part of P.L. 111-11.  The Settlement Act was supported by the State of California, all of the parties to the settlement, and was supported by downstream landowners and water districts (including the Exchange Contractors and San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority).  This settlement agreement between farmers, fishermen, and the state and federal governments resolved a long-running water conflict, and offers great benefits to the public: it brings California’s second-longest river back to life, providing opportunities for fishing, boating, swimming and recreating; it funds water supply and other projects that benefits local farmers; and it restores the river’s historic salmon runs. 

The Settlement Act contained numerous legal protections for downstream landowners and water districts, including the Exchange Contractors, and the Exchange Contractors and other so called “third parties” agreed these protections were sufficient in 2009 when they supported the Settlement Act.  What’s more, much of the cost associated with restoring the river will be spent on projects that benefit these parties, including flood control, groundwater monitoring and seepage projects (addressing problems caused by inadequately maintained levees, shallow groundwater and natural seepage), fish screens and other infrastructure projects, and a fish bypass around Mendota Dam. 

Sadly, the Exchange Contractors now seem to be reneging on their support for the Settlement, and trying to delay implementation of the Settlement or entirely undo it (as H.R. 1837 would do).  Congressman Denham specifically cited the opinions of the Exchange Contractors and the San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority on the House Floor as a reason why the amendment was needed.  None of the parties to the settlement supported the Denham amendment, yet the House voted to overrule the parties to the Settlement and substitute its judgment for that of the agencies. 

None of the purported reasons for the Denham Amendment hold water:

  • The downstream landowners already have legal protections from any liability for killing spring run Chinook salmon in their water diversions and other infrastructure, so the amendment is unnecessary to protect their interests.
  • The agencies plan to begin the reintroduction of spring run salmon with excess hatchery fish from the Feather River hatchery, so the reintroduction will not impact on threatened and endangered salmon populations in the Sacramento River and its tributaries.
  • Prohibiting funding for salmon reintroduction may mean eliminating funding for studies, permitting, and other projects to help prepare for full reintroduction of salmon.  These studies and projects are sound investments in the long term success of the program.
  • Salmon reintroduction can begin this year, as called for under the Settlement (as my colleague explained in more detail earlier this year).  The Settlement planned that fish reintroduction would begin before construction projects were completed, recognizing that juvenile fish that are released this year won’t swim back upstream for several years.  Waiting to begin reintroduction until all of these projects are completed was not required by the Settlement, and instead improving conditions in the river over time while beginning to reintroduce salmon by the end of 2012.

It’s very disappointing to see the Exchange Contractors renege on their promise to support the settlement and to oppose amendments to the Settlement Act, particularly in light of all of the benefits and legal protections they receive under the Settlement Act. While Congressman Denham and others in the House continue to attempt to unravel the settlement to restore the San Joaquin River, we hope and expect that the Senate will kill this amendment and keep the Settlement on track. 

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Comments

Cannon MichaelMay 11 2012 10:48 AM

Doug,

Is the goal of this post to portray the “Third Parties” as dishonest obstructionists? Don’t you think it would help your readers understand the issue better if you outlined some of the “Third Party” concerns? Or do you have so little regard for their issues with the Restoration Program as it stands today?

How about a post on the current funding situation of the Program? I think that could shed some light on the issue and help create a dialog instead of just finger pointing. Why don’t you outline the current funding stream related to the costs of restoring the river? Maybe you can explain how NRDC’s original estimates of $250,000,000 for the entire project were so far below the numbers the Bureau has now released. Didn’t the “Third Parties” pay for CH2M Hill to analyze the program costs and those estimates came out at over $1 billion dollars? Do you agree that the Program will most likely cost over $1 billion?

Maybe you can talk about the $100,000,000 that has already been spent on the Program. Since nothing has been done to physically improve the river with that money, I would assume that some of it went to the studies you mention in your post. A discussion about the Phase 1 projects that the Bureau has estimated at $500,000,000 might be helpful as well. A clear outline of the funding stream to pay for those projects might shed some light on the concerns of the “Third Parties”.

Writing a post with a one sided view is pretty easy, but looking at the entire issue is much more meaningful and constructive. I didn’t see where in the Congressional Record it said that the Exchange Contractors or the SLDMWA wanted the program to be stopped or dismantled. I think there are some legitimate concerns that everyone involved should be worried about. I look forward to your next post and hope it is a bit more fair and balanced.

Deirdre Des Jardins May 11 2012 01:48 PM

It costs the Bureau of Reclamation about $200 million a year to operate the Central Valley Project in California. These are costs for mitigation of the project's impacts, as well as cost shares for dams that supply water to agricultural contractors.

The actual cost of running the project includes running Nimbus and Coleman hatcheries, that allow the West Coast salmon fishing industry to continue. This has been picked up by the taxpayers. The government is also picking up the cost of interest on the debt for building the CVP. The contracts also provide that electricity from the dams is sold at the decades-old estimated costs of Operation & Maintenance on the dams. So the 2,000 kwh it takes to ship water to Westlands is provided at $3, or 15/100's of a cent per kWh. There is a special exemption so that this cost is never reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget.

As these contracts are up for renewal, we really need to look at asking the beneficiaries of the project to pay the actual costs.

MikeMay 11 2012 02:53 PM

This blogger's criticism of Rep. Denham's amendment and claiming the SJR Exchange Contractors are reneging on the river restoration settlement are efforts to mislead public opinion without providing all of the facts. The restoration agreement provided protection for third-parties along the river, including farmers within the Exchange Contractors' region. Past efforts have already seen these farmers suffer from undue seepage problems caused by high water releases into the river. The agreement also called for multiple construction projects and it was acknowledged that early introduction of salmon a year or two before the completion of the projects might take place; but none of the necessary construction projects needed for a successful fish passage have begun. It could be 5-10 years or more to reach completion of the Phase 1 projects once construction begins, depending on funding. Why introduce salmon that are listed as endangered that stand no chance of reaching the ocean?

There is not much to be shown for the $100 million already expended for the restoration. Those groups pushing for the salmon introduction insisted that the restoration effort could be accomplished for $250 million. It is readily recognized that this number will fall far short of the amount required. Now is not the time to compound this oversight with efforts such as early introduction of salmon that serve no purpose.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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