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A Historic Day: Salmon Return to the San Joaquin River After 62 Years

Monty Schmitt

Posted November 15, 2012

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San Joaquin River Landscape.jpgStanding on the banks of the San Joaquin River earlier this week, I saw something I’ve waited over a decade to witness - a Chinook salmon gliding through the river’s clear water. For the first time in over 62 years, the San Joaquin River once again has salmon swimming through its flows, searching for a place to spawn and continue the cycle of life. As part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, fisheries biologists have begun moving adult fall run Chinook salmon upstream and releasing them into the river below Friant dam. This is a historic moment not only for all those who have worked to restore the river and its salmon runs, but also for San Joaquin Valley communities.

It was a crisp and clear fall morning last Tuesday along the San Joaquin near its confluence with the Merced River. Restoration Program fish biologists were out checking fish traps, which are being used to catch fish for the translocation effort. At last count, nearly 70 fish had been moved into the upper river, providing invaluable information about fish migration and habitat use. With a little luck and support, these fish will spawn and contribute to future generations of returning salmon.

As the biologists checked the trap, I was excited at the prospect of seeing my first salmon on the San Joaquin. Having personally worked on the project since 2000, I have thought about and worked towards this moment for most of my career. As luck would have it, there were six salmon in the trap - three males and three females. As I watched the biologists move the salmon to a temporary holding pen to await transport I was struck by the similarity of this moment to one 60 years ago when the California Department of Fish and Game biologist George Warner held one of the last salmon in the San Joaquin River. 

Comparative San Joaquin River Fish Releases.png

In the late 1940’s, Friant Dam near Fresno was completed as part of the Central Valley Project. Within a few years, the operation of the dam began drying up the San Joaquin River, to the great concern of local landowners and fishermen. Downstream land owners sued to maintain flows in the river, and the Department of Fish and Game began a heroic effort to try to save the Chinook salmon run before it was lost. George Warner, a Department’s fisheries biologist at the time, later recounted how in 1950 they tried in vain to save the last 36 San Joaquin River salmon whose population he had watched plummet from  56,000 just four years before. Sadly, despite the efforts of the local landowners, fishermen, and the Department, the river dried up and the salmon run was soon declared extinct…..until now.

In 1988, NRDC filed a lawsuit against the federal government, who owns Friant Dam,  for dewatering the river and violating state laws protecting fish. After years of litigation, a 2006 settlement agreement between farmers, environmentalists and the federal government resulted in the creation of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program to restore flows and healthy runs of spring and fall run Chinook salmon while also providing opportunities to improve water supply management. Now in its sixth year, the Restoration Program has come a long way, but there is much work to be done. 

The fish releases are just the beginning of a process of reintroducing fall and spring run salmon. To achieve the long term goal of 40,000 spring and fall run Chinook salmon will require time to rebuild the populations. It will require the modification of existing water supply dams and diversion structures that make it difficult for fish to reach their historic spawning grounds. Channel improvements are needed that will restore habitat that has been lost over the decades. This habitat restoration will also improve flood protection to neighboring lands. The steps ahead are significant in size and scope; however, these improvements are already in motion and will be completed in the years to come for the benefit of fish and farmers alike.

While seeing wild salmon in the river can cause even an ardent skeptic to smile, it is important to understand that restoring salmon to the San Joaquin River is about more than just the joy of seeing wild salmon again. Salmon are part of the history and heritage of Native Americans and early settlers in San Joaquin Valley. And so is a free flowing San Joaquin River that once carried passengers and goods and now provides children a place to swim and anglers a place to fish. The San Joaquin is one of California’s great rivers and is important to the entire state. Its waters flow to the San Francisco Bay Delta which is a source of drinking water for 25 million Californians – some as far away as Los Angeles. Its restored salmon runs will help California achieve its goals and commitments to restore its beleaguered salmon runs and help revive the state’s commercial salmon fishery.

I had the pleasure of meeting George Warner in 2003 shortly before he passed away. Though it had been many years, he still spoke passionately about the San Joaquin River and its salmon. I am sorry that he did not get to see this day but I bet he’d be happy to see the work that is being done to make sure that future generations will know a living San Joaquin River full of wild salmon.


To Learn More:

NRDC: Restoring the San Joaquin River

San Joaquin River Partnership

I’m For the River Campaign

San Joaquin River Restoration Program


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MikeNov 16 2012 01:50 PM

A fact that the author conveniently omits is that salmon return to the San Joaquin River every year, thanks to the work done on the tributary waterways. The salmon he references near the confluence of the Merced River is likely a part of this every-year occurrence.

The restoration effort comes with a price tag of approximately $1 billion. Thus far about a $100 million has been spent and not one construction project has been completed. Also, claiming that farmers will benefit from the restoration effort is premature, at best. Farmers in the Friant Division gave up a portion of their water supply for the restoration on the assurance that part of the water would be returned to them. We are still awaiting those plans that will return the water.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

Ann JohnsonNov 18 2012 07:38 PM

I agree that $1 Billion seems like a big pricetag, and there are many worthy projects that could use that kind of mony, but we spent $8 billion on Halloween in 2012! Salmon return will aid many small communities and states as it brings in tourists to see this wonderful land. Water use is a bigger problem and we all need to work on and conseve and share this resource.

Gary BobkerNov 19 2012 11:54 AM

As usual, Mike Wade misrepresents the facts. First, he confuses the salmon returning to the tributaries - in declining numbers, by the way - with the purposeful reintroduction of salmon to the mainstem San Joaquin River where they were extirpated over half a century ago. Second, if the interests he speaks for would stop fighting implementation of the restoration agreement maybe those projects would proceed a little faster. Finally, it's telling that he expects farmers to receive substitute supplies - an aspiration, by the way, not a guarantee - before the restoration agreement has been fully implemented. But spring and fall run Chinook will no doubt be thriving on the river long before Mike ever commits an act of truth.

Matt RichardsonNov 19 2012 07:45 PM

Monty - thank you for the article and update.

Mike - the river doesn't belong just to the Farmers, that was the problem in the beginning when the dam cut off the river for ALL Californian downstream users and visitors. We have all waited 19 + years for his, and as you know these things move slowly. If the the economic impact for loss of fish for tourists, local dollars spent on travel and vacation and produce lost - for 19 + years it would surely be more than $1B. and, you can't put a price tag on kids swimming in the favorite summer time hole.

Ann - Thank you for your neutral tone and neighborly comments. We do need to work on this together, to share, and come at it as equal users and benefactors of the river water.

Matt Richardson
California Native
Grandson of 3 Farming grandparents, 2 of which fished.

Jim AtherstoneNov 20 2012 05:58 PM

After 65 years of absence, we do not have the right to replace Mother Nature and the natural Order of Things Wild and natural. Planted fish will not implant on the river they are planted in for the most part, less than 10% would be able to make it back to their drop off spots, but their offspring whould also end up with mized up compasses because their parents would be harvested and taken to a fish farm to be bred and continue with this cycle.
The natural habitat of the river has changed and will not provide the food from year to year, the choice of Spring Run or Fall Rin or even the Winter Run salmon? Which one would be the best one to start with.
The real answer is none of the above. It is a shame that priorities are governed by the populus who do not have the wisdom to make the right decisions, acting on false information, non-scientific reasoning and emotions does not make if right with "Mother Nature". and she will just ignore your wants and wishes while you spend billions of dollars on this project while we could be spending that same money figuring out how to get people back to work, provide housing for the homeless and creating jobs to help those people get back on their feet. If you want to be an activist for an endangered species, start down town.

Brian McManusNov 21 2012 12:48 AM

Jim Atherstone.
Ian Anderson of the old rock band, Jethro Tull", reintroduced the Atlantic Salmon to parts of the Isle of Skye, Scotland. If a flutist in a rock band can do it then maybe the powers to be can investigate how he done it (or I can tell them). and now you can go on and correct the rest of the world, he he.

Brian KrebNov 21 2012 06:11 PM

Nice to see, these rivers have been slave to big agriculture for too many years. Good to see this happening, good luck in the future years.

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