Bringing the San Joaquin River back to life will create more than 11,000 jobs -- the kind of economic "jolt" that the valley desperately needs, according to a new study.
Most would be short-term construction jobs as the river is rebuilt in coming years to accommodate fish and flows.
And the study by Shawn Kantor, an economist at UC Merced, reports that new recreational opportunities on the San Joaquin will result in 475 new jobs annually by 2025.
The $892 million plan to restore the often-dry stream has been weighed down by concerns about the cost and the impact on south valley growers who must give up some of their water to satisfy a legal settlement.
The debate, however, is more nuanced, Kantor says in his report.
"Critics of the settlement only see the (cost) of diverting water from agricultural to environmental purposes, but the economics of river restoration must also consider the benefits," he said. "The San Joaquin River restoration not only provides critical environmental benefits, but it also offers a significant boost to an economy that is already struggling."
Kantor's study, commissioned by the Fresno Regional Foundation, is not a full analysis of all the project's costs and benefits. It does not examine how many jobs might be lost by sending flows downstream.
Most of the new jobs would be in Merced, Madera and Fresno counties. Kantor said in an interview that downstream areas such as San Joaquin County might benefit from improved water quality, better flood control and improved property values.
A restored river could attract new and more diverse types of businesses, leading to more jobs and economic opportunity, he found. And it could provide new research and educational opportunities for universities in the region.
To some supporters, his report is evidence that the river restoration program can accomplish more than simply bringing back fish.
"This is actually going to start opening up a lot of minds and a lot of eyes," said Virginia Madueno, Riverbank's mayor and a public relations specialist working to distribute Kantor's report. "I don't think people understand the positive economic impacts."