Salmon released as first step to restore San Joaquin

MERCED, Calif.

70 years ago, hundreds of thousands of salmon swam from the ocean through San Francisco Bay and the Delta and then up the San Joaquin River to spawn just north of Fresno.

However, for the past 60 years, the stretch of river from near Merced upstream to Friant Dam near Fresno has been impassable. Not a single salmon could make the trip, until now.

Scientists with the California Department of Fish and Game are on a rescue mission. They are trapping Chinook salmon in this part of the San Joaquin River near Merced, in an effort to restore these fish to a river that's being brought back to life.

"This is an important milestone in the San Joaquin restoration programs," said Dave Koehler, Executive Director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust.

Koehler explains this is part of a decades-long effort to restore the San Joaquin River, which used to be the home waters for Chinook salmon. Old timers who grew up on the river say the spring salmon runs were something to see.

"You could run across their backs and not touch the water," said Central Valley farmer Walt Shubin.

Shubin is talking about Gravelly Ford, a part of the San Joaquin that's been dried up for most of the past 60 years, ever since the Friant Dam was built in the 1940's to block up the San Joaquin and to divert the river water into channels to irrigate Central Valley farms from Bakersfield to Chowchilla.

The fish just weren't that big a consideration. But in 1988 the salmon caught a break.

The Natural Resources Defense Council led a coalition of environmentalists and fishermen in a lawsuit against the government run dam and the water district. In 2006 a settlement was reached and now these first salmon are being trucked around the dry beds and other obstacles 160 miles upstream to be reintroduced into the river below Friant Dam. By next spring, the NRDC scientists believe the last of the details will be sorted out.

"Once we have these easements in place, we'll have the river all year round in perpetuity and that's really exciting," said Monty Schmitt with the NRDC.

California Fish and Game hopes these fall run salmon will spawn and produce offspring. But just to make sure, they are scooping eggs from some females and artificially spawning them. The young will be raised in protected pens below the dam and then released.

"And hopefully get out to the ocean mature and come back and spawn in approximately three years," said Gerald Hatler with California Fish and Game.

By then the San Joaquin River should be restored all the way from Fresno to San Francisco Bay. It's safe to say that growers who've relied on the river water to irrigate their crops are not happy about the fish.

Walt Shubin has heard plenty from his neighbors, "They're telling me to go back to San Francisco and I'm a farmer born and raised here in the valley."

Shubin supports the restoration of the river. He believes it will recharge underground aquifer and bring back California's salmon fishery, "There's ocean farmers and there's land farmers and we can coexist, there is enough water for everybody but not enough for everybody's greed," Shubin said. "That's the problem -- greed."

Shubin talks of compromise, and that's what we're seeing on the San Joaquin. But even as that long battle comes to an end, another water war is heating up -- this one over the governor's plan to build a delta tunnel to send Northern California water south.

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