The Fresno Bee
By Mark Grossi
June 30, 2012
On the flat west-Valley prairie, the San Joaquin River looks like any other irrigation ditch amid tomato, garlic and onion fields — except that this ditch has a $900 million future.
The federal government has finally attached that price tag to the historic remake of this river, aimed at reconnecting it to the Pacific Ocean and restarting long-dead salmon runs.
And the schedule for fully restoring those salmon runs has been pushed back about three years from the Dec. 31 deadline this year.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last week released the estimate and the schedule as part of a draft project plan that is already getting heat from farmers and environmentalists. The plan will remain in draft form the rest of the year while the bureau takes comments and makes revisions.
The draft answers old questions about the price range of the 150-mile restoration. In 2006 when the restoration agreement was signed among farmers, environmentalists and the federal government, the price was estimated between $250,000 and $1 billion.
Now, after years of study, the core projects are estimated at $892 million, and the price could range up to more than $2 billion with the inclusion of lower-priority projects.
But the core projects should be enough to achieve liftoff with the restoration, said Alicia Forsythe, bureau program manager.
“Some costs will come in under, some over,” she said. “We feel we can do this for the cost we have set out.”
There is no salmon restoration in the United States like this one. The 150 miles of restoration — in the middle of a 350-mile river — includes dozens of miles along the Valley’s west side where the river has been mostly dry for six decades.
The restoration is the result of a settlement to an 18-year lawsuit brought by environmentalists.
Riverside farmers on the west side still fear the new estimate is far too low, perhaps resulting in a half-built effort that might expose their operations to water damage or liability for endangered species. Among the back-burner projects are riverside vegetation, which salmon will need to remain cool in the water.
Another farmer complaint: Much of the $892 million for core projects hangs on politics. About two-thirds of it must come through the federal government and congressional appropriations each year, meaning it is not a sure thing.
Farmer Cannon Michael called the draft “a lot of propaganda and a project that has no money and very little chance of success.”
Environmentalists support the restoration, but they also have disagreements with the Bureau of Reclamation over the draft plan. Like the farmers, they say some important projects should have a higher priority.
One such project would eliminate huge ponds resulting from gravel mining along the river, they say. Predatory fish in the ponds could eat young salmon as they migrate to the ocean.
Still, the draft is progress toward a fully restored river that will benefit everyone in California, said senior scientist Monty Schmitt of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“While there are aspects of the restoration program’s draft (plan) we disagree with, it is useful,” he said.
East-side farmers have different concerns that also revolve around funding. East-siders worry they might not get enough money for projects that would bring back some of the water they are losing to the restoration.
East-siders are directly involved in the restoration, having signed the 2006 agreement and giving an average of 19% of their river irrigation water for the restoration. The agreement calls for efforts to capture the restoration water downstream and return it to farmers.
The agreement also will help them renovate major irrigation canals, such as the Friant-Kern Canal, which have deteriorated over time and carry less water now.
But until specifics are decided on these projects, it’s hard to know whether there is enough money, says Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority, representing 15,000 east-side farmers. Only about 10% of the funding available is set aside for their projects, he said.
“We’re feeling like we’re not necessarily getting a fair proportional share of the funding,” Jacobsma said. “We need to know more.”
The river revival started with experimental flows in 2009 and faced the Dec. 31 deadline this year for full restoration of salmon runs, as required by the lawsuit settlement. But work on major bottlenecks is behind schedule, bureau program manager Forsythe said.
The biggest of these projects will re-establish the river along the heavily engineered and widely farmed west side, where the river has not run naturally since Friant Dam was built in the late 1940s.
To bring back salmon, authorities must get the fish around Mendota Dam and Sack Dam with bypass channels. Farther downstream, the old river channel must be reconstructed or the river must be funneled into an altered flood channel called the Eastside Bypass.
Some projects are projected to be finished in 2016, others 2020.
“Overall, we view this as a process,” said Forsythe. “We were off schedule with projects. We think we have scheduled the right activities.”