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Monty Schmitt’s Blog

The Signing of the Omnibus Lands Bill and the Restoration of the San Joaquin River

Monty Schmitt

Posted March 31, 2009 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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When President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Lands Bill yesterday many wonderful things happened, not the least of which was legislation completing a settlement that ended one of the West's longest water battles. The San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act gave federal agencies the authority and funding to carry out one of the largest salmon and river restoration programs in the history of the United States.  After 18 years in court and two years of planning and preparation, the first natural flows in over a half century will once again create a living river sustaining fish and wildlife.  Under the Settlement, salmon will be reintroduced in 2012 - nearly sixty two years since the last fish died out in the face of a dry river bed - with the goal of nearly 30,000 spring run Chinook returning to spawn each year. Once again, the San Joaquin River will earn the distinction of being the second longest living river in California. 

But the Settlement is about much more than just fish and wildlife. Future generations will be able to swim in cool clean waters fresh from the Sierra and fishermen will be able to cast their lines along its bank. And the Settlement is also about protecting agriculture. While some water (around 18% on average) will now remain in the river instead of being diverted for agricultural uses, the Settlement provides certainty for farmers about what their future water supplies will be, as well as provisions to help mitigate water supply and other impacts. 

The restoration of the San Joaquin River has been made possible by many. From George Warner, an early fish and game employee who in 1950 held in his hands one of the last salmon he tried for years to save, to Hal Candee, who filed the original suit in 1988 and worked for 21 years to restore flows and fish.  There are legislators, particularly Senator Feinstein and their staff as well as staff from over a dozen fishing and conservation groups that have worked hard for many years in the belief that the river would be restored.  And there are representatives of the Friant farmers who in the end saw what needed to be done and worked to find a path forward -outside the court room.  It was not easy and surely not popular with everyone, but they had the strength and wisdom to seek to gain a better outcome by working together rather than sustaining an unmitigated court ordered judgment.

But here is not where the story ends, but rather begins.  Hard work lies ahead for all of us who now must implement the Settlement and legislation to create a living river. There will undoubtedly be many challenges ahead, as we try to modify a landscape that has grown up around a dry river bed and will now have to adjust to the river being wet once again.  There will be a need to look at ways to offset water supply impacts without harming the environment.  But just as with the settlement, only by working together can the best possible outcome be achieved and benefits realized by everyone.  Restoring the San Joaquin to its once massive flows and wide-spread floodplains is not possible - and it's not the goal of the Settlement.  Instead, the goal will have to be a river, scaled down in size but living none the less, so salmon and other native fish will have sufficient water and habitat to be self sustaining without the need for permanent hatcheries.  Restored flows will create riffles for salmon spawning and sand bars to support willow and cottonwood trees that will benefit migratory birds and other wildlife.  And all Californians, now and for generations to come, will once again have a living river to enjoy.

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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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