Restoration Program Provides Multiple Benefits During Drought

Peter Vorster, Hydrogeographer
Extremely dry conditions this year and the previous two years have made times tough for farmers, fish, and wildlife in California. This is particularly true in the San Joaquin River Valley that forms the southern part of California’s Great Central Valley.  Thus, it is surprising to some that the San Joaquin River Restoration Program (Restoration Program) has been able to help the region weather the drought and help the fish at the same time.
The Restoration Program is the result of a 2006 landmark settlement (the Friant Settlement) between 14 fishing and conservation groups (led by The Bay Institute and NRDC), the federal government, and the 18 of the water districts (Friant Water Districts) supplied by Friant Dam. All parties agreed to (1) increase releases of water from Friant Dam to restore and maintain fish populations in good condition including two populations of Chinook salmon that had been eliminated from the river 65 years ago by the Dam’s operation (the Restoration Goal), and (2) reduce or avoid adverse water supply impacts that may result from the increased releases (the Water Management Goal).
In addition to re-introducing Chinook salmon, the Restoration Program has minimized water supply impacts to the Friant Water Districts resulting from increased releases of water to the river (restoration releases) and provided water supply benefits to other parts of the San Joaquin Valley. Using Restoration Program numbers, I have calculated that less water has flowed out of the San Joaquin Valley since October 2009 -- when restoration releases began -- than would have without the Restoration Program; this is because most of the water provided in restoration releases was retained in groundwater or used elsewhere in the San Joaquin Valley and because the Restoration Program reoperated Friant Dam in a way that retained more water in the Valley during the wet years.  
Admittedly, during these 4½ years less water has flowed downstream than required under the Settlement, and in the future, more of it will flow downstream to benefit the Bay-Delta Estuary.  But, currently the Restoration Program’s beneficial effect on regional water supplies should be welcome news in the San Joaquin Valley, particularly in a drought year like this. Instead, local members of Congress are trying to overturn State law and dismantle the Congressionally authorized Restoration Program, claiming they want to keep more water in the Valley; ironically, that is exactly what the Restoration Program has accomplished during the past 4½ years.
Also absent from discussions of the Restoration Program’s benefits is the large portion of its funding that will be expended on projects to improve water supply management in the San Joaquin Valley and to fix existing flood management and seepage problems; some of these projects will likely improve regional farming conditions and property values.

How did the seemingly contradictory benefits of restoring fish and retaining water in the San Joaquin Valley co-occur? Simply follow the water, the fish, and the money -- not the misinformation.  
The Water
In the 4½ years since restoration releases began, approximately 700 thousand acre-feet (TAF) of additional water has been released into the river, but only about 100 TAF of that water flowed out of the San Joaquin Valley into the Delta. The 600 TAF difference between the additional amount of water released for restoration and the amount that reached the Delta provided water supply benefits to the region as a whole when it:
  • infiltrated into local groundwater aquifers,
  • was recaptured and returned to Friant Water Districts, or
  • was sold by Friant Water Districts to other farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. 
In addition to those 600 TAF, more water was retained in the San Joaquin Valley in the wetter years–2010 and 2011–because Friant Dam was managed so that water that previously would have been released for flood control purposes was repurposed as water supply for the Friant Water Districts and thus reduced the impact of the restoration releases. The Friant Settlement also includes provisions to provide inexpensive water to the Friant Water Districts in wet years to help mitigate water supply impacts in drier years. Nearly 500 TAF of water was delivered under this provision in 2010 and 2011 and it was primarily stored in groundwater aquifers; this helped lessen the impact of reduced deliveries from the San Joaquin River in the past two dry years.
Many of the water supply benefits of the Restoration Program accrued to other water users in the San Joaquin Valley. And, to be clear, the supply of water provided directly from the San Joaquin River to the Friant Water Districts was reduced as the flows to the river were restored – this was a result agreed to by all parties in the Friant Settlement. Without the Restoration Program, the Friant Water Districts would have received an additional 500 TAF directly from the San Joaquin River, but more than half of that 500 TAF was later returned to them or sold by them to farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. And water users in other parts of the San Joaquin Valley gained significantly from additional groundwater recharge, higher quality surface and ground water along the river, and increased deliveries, particularly to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
Less water has been released in the first years of the Restoration Program than originally anticipated because (1) riverside levees are inadequate, and (2) additional water in the river can raise local groundwater levels, which can impact the productivity of crops that have been planted in the river’s historic floodplain. Many miles of the river remain bone dry because of these problems. Prior to restoring flows in these dry reaches, the Restoration Program is helping to address these pre-existing conditions; these improvements will benefit local landowners.
The Fish
The Restoration Program has begun the re-introduction of both fall-run and spring-run Chinook salmon, recognizing that only modest steps can be taken because of the existing flow constraints. Last fall, over 360 adult fall-run Chinook salmon squeezed through a barrier erected to prevent their upstream migration. These fish would have died without reproducing because the river between the barrier and their spawning ground was dry; instead they were caught and trucked up to spawning grounds below Friant Dam. This past February, the Restoration Program determined that the offspring of these fall-run salmon would need to be moved downstream manually (through a “trap and haul” program) because migration would not be possible during this critically dry winter and spring. To facilitate the translocation effort, the Restoration Program reduced the scheduled releases of water to the river and instead made 12.5 TAF of water available for Friant Water Districts and towns in the Valley. About 2 TAF will be used as an emergency supply for local towns and the remainder will be supplied to farmers. 
Recently, 54,000 juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon were released at the confluence of the San Joaquin and the Merced River after they were acclimatized (imprinted) to San Joaquin River water just below Friant Dam; federal biologists estimate that 50 to 800 salmon from this release will return as adults. The reintroduction of juvenile spring-run Chinook has been in the works for eight years and the dry conditions this year were not a reason to halt this important step. In fact, the reintroduction of spring-run Chinook this year enabled the Restoration Program to learn lessons that will be important to achieve the Restoration Program goals of sustaining fish and minimizing water supply impacts when it is extremely dry. Because all of the settling parties agreed that in the driest of years there would be no releases of water, the Restoration Program will need to transport the fish around dry stretches of the river again. Studying this year’s release of spring-run Chinook salmon juveniles will provide scientific information essential for the efficient implementation of the larger introductions that will occur in years to come.

The San Joaquin Restoration Program is restoring Chinook salmon to places where they have been absent for more than 60 years.

The Money
Those politicians and editorials that complain about the high cost of the San Joaquin Restoration Program ignore the fact that the majority of the money for the Restoration Program will be spent on projects that improve water supply and improve flood management in the San Joaquin River Valley. For example:
  • The Restoration Program is paying to increase the capacity of the Friant-Kern and Madera canals and projects that increase groundwater banking, which will allow the Valley to retain more water during wet years for use in drier years.
  • The Restoration Program is also making significant contributions to repair an inadequately maintained flood protection system and protect farmland in the river’s historic floodplain and wetlands from the impacts of high groundwater – impacts landowners experienced prior to the Friant Settlement during flood years. 
The Restoration Program is making these improvements, which will benefit local landowners and the river, so that both fish and farms can thrive with a restored river.
When these infrastructure improvements are completed and the Friant Settlement is fully implemented, the Restoration Program will reduce the direct San Joaquin River supply to Friant Water Districts over the long term, by an average of about 14%, which translates into a reduction of about 6% of their total surface and groundwater supplies, although once again the Settlement’s multiple water management programs (Recovered Water Account, recirculation, groundwater expansion) will mitigate these effects. Water released under the Restoration Program in the future will still recharge aquifers along the river and some of this water will be delivered back (recirculated) to the Friant Water Districts. In return, the Restoration Program will restore healthy salmon runs, rejuvenate a living river for people to enjoy, continue to recharge local aquifers, improve productivity for riverside farms, enhance regional flood protection, and improve water quality for the San Joaquin Valley and the 25 million Californians who obtain drinking water from the San Joaquin River in the Delta.
The water supply challenges that many farmers are facing in this third consecutive dry year are very real but using the drought as an excuse to scale back the Restoration Program would reduce the water supply and flood protection benefits the Restoration Program can provide to Friant Water Districts and the larger San Joaquin Valley. Calls to further delay the restoration of fish to the river will only put off gathering the information we need to make the Restoration Program’s dual goals of restoring the river and minimizing water supply impacts a success. Let us continue the hard work that all parties to the Friant Settlement (farmers, conservationists, and government agencies) have put in over the past 4½ years. The people and farms in the San Joaquin Valley and all Californians deserve nothing less.