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Federal Judge Says: Let The San Joaquin Flow!
by Dan Bacher
September 4, 2004

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After 15 years of litigation, fish advocates and environmental groups won a huge legal victory on August 27 when a federal court judge ruled that the Bureau of Reclamation illegally dried up the San Joaquin River when Friant Dam was built in the 1940’s.

The ruling means that the bureau will have to release water from Friant Dam near Fresno for the first time in 55 years, according to the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), the lead plaintiff in a broad coalition of fishing and environmental groups.

“There can be no genuine dispute that many miles of the San Joaquin River are now entirely dry, except during extremely wet periods, and that the historic fish populations have been destroyed,” said Judge Lawrence Karlton of the Eastern Federal District Court in his opinion.

Writing of the dam’s damaging effects, the judge noted, “In the words of the Department of Interior, Friant Dam’s operations have been a ‘disaster’ for Chinook salmon.”

“This is a tremendous victory for the people of California,” said Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst of NRDC. “The Bureau operated the Friant Project in violation of California law for 55 years. The court says that the solution is to restore the historical salmon fishery of the San Joaquin. It is a very, very strong ruling.”

The 13 other plaintiffs in the suit are Trout Unlimited, California Striped Bass Association, National Audubon Society, Stanislaus Audubon Society, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, United Anglers of California, CalTrout, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Sierra Club, Bay Institute, San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center, Friends of the River, and Nor-Cal Fishing Guides and Sportsmen’s Association.

Jim Crenshaw, President of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said that this decision may well be one of the greatest victories for fish in the state's history.

“For more than a decade, our coalition has fought the federal government over the destruction of San Joaquin River due to the way the Bureau of Reclamation operated Friant Dam,” he stated. “The federal bureaucracy destroyed one of the greatest rivers in the state and one of the state’s most important salmon fisheries. This historic decision vindicates our efforts and sends a long overdue message to our government that destroying rivers and fisheries is not legal, is not in the best public interest and will not be condoned.”

Commercial fishing groups were also jubilant about the decision. ““This has been a long time coming, but Judge Karlton has finally righted this wrong,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

The Bureau of Reclamation was not able to comment on the decision at press time. “The Department of Justice is in the process of reviewing the decision and deciding whether or not to appeal the case,” said Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau.

The 41-page ruling is extremely well written, documenting the vibrant spring and fall salmon runs that ascended the San Joaquin before the dam was built. The Friant Project was constructed in a time of manic dam building throughout the state when environmental awareness was very low. Only a local sportsmen’s club and a brave Unitarian minister publicly opposed the project for its absolute disregard for the river's fish.

The river’s spring run, estimated at several hundred thousand fish, was one of the largest chinook runs anywhere on the Pacific Coast. The historical fall run is conservatively estimated to have numbered 50,000 to 100,000 fish, according to Karlton.

“So many salmon migrated up the San Joaquin River during the spawning season that some people who lived near the present site of Friant Dam compared the noise to a waterfall,” said Karlton. “Some residents even said that they were kept awake nights by the myriad salmon heard nightly splashing over the sand bars in the River.”

The San Joaquin River is the second longest river in the state. It is the southernmost chinook salmon fishery on the Pacific coast and historically sustained a significant percentage of the ocean salmon fishery. Steelhead also ascended the San Joaquin River and its tributaries to spawn before Friant and other dams were built.

NRDC led the coalition of 13 conservation and fishing groups in suing the bureau over its operation of the dam and the renewal of water supply contracts for the Friant Water Users Authority, which represents irrigation districts on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The suit charged the bureau with violating Section 5937 of the California Fish and Game Code, which requires that “the owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water to pass over, around or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.” The lawsuit was first filed in 1988, making it one of California’s longest running water disputes.

“Restoring the river will benefit everyone,” said NRDC senior attorney Hal Candee. “It will benefit downstream farmers who will get cleaner, more reliable irrigation water. It will benefit the 20 million people in the Bay Area and Southern California who rely on the delta for clean drinking water. And restoring the river’s once thriving salmon fishery will help bring back more fishing jobs to our state.”

Restoring the San Joaquin could be one of the largest environmental restoration projects in California history. The plaintiffs say it can be done without harming valley farmers. In fact, restoring the river will benefit downstream farmers in the Delta near Stockton who have suffered from low flows and poor water quality.

“The plight of the San Joaquin River is a national disgrace that must be remedied,” said Dante Nomellini of the Central Delta Water Agency, an irrigation district that supported the suit with an amicus brief. “This decision is a good first step.”

This legal victory promises to bring a long-dead river back to life. The coalition that formed to achieve this victory shows the crucial need for environmental groups and fishing organizations to work together on fishery restoration efforts. Hopefully, the Bureau will not appeal this decision and will finally obey the law and let the river flow!

Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical songwriter from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email:

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