The Friant Dam on California’s San Joaquin River, built in the 1940’s, is slated for removal as part of today’s Congressional designation of wilderness status and federal protection to 2 million acres across nine states.
Included in Congress’ largest expansion of the wilderness system in 15 years is an ambitious river restoration effort on the San Joaquin River. The legislation authorizes the federal government to carry out an $88 million settlement won by environmentalists in 2006 after a court battle that spanned two decades.
“It’s going to initiate one of the largest river restoration projects in the nation. It’s a great day,” said Monty Schmitt of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Friant Dam was built to divert most of the San Joaquin River’s flow into two large irrigation canals to be used for agriculture. A Chinook salmon run cited as one of the most bountiful on the West Coast was devastated by the construction of the dam over 60 years ago.
Schmitt said the goal now is to have spring chinook salmon swimming up the San Joaquin by 2012.
The river has been a major agricultural irrigation source for the San Joaquin River Valley, but with significant environmental cost. The end of the San Joaquin River has been nicknamed, “the lower colon of California” after decades of low flow and runoff and agricultural drainage. Some stretches currently have no water at all.
While there was anger about the legislation from some California Republicans and business development groups, the legislation itself was a bipartisan effort both in Washington D.C. and in California. The resolution of a decades-long battle between farmers and environmentalists gives both sides something to celebrate, initiating river restoration as well as putting funds toward making up for farmers’ irrigation losses.
The settlement “gives the agricultural community some control over their water future,” said Rep. George Radanovich, a Central Valley Republican.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Sam Goldman, California wilderness coordinator at the Wilderness Society.
As are the salmon who will be swimming there in the coming years.
Image Credit: Paradigm via Flickr under Creative Commons License