San Joaquin to flow year-round

The San Joaquin River will finally flow year-round as a long-awaited restoration begins in October. And officials finally have figured out what to do with a 20-mile stretch of the river that has been choked with brush and unused for decades.

A new environmental document answers years of questions about the bottleneck northeast of Los Banos.

It simply will be bypassed for now using a flood-control channel, but the stretch later may be restored as a functioning part of the river at a multimillion-dollar cost yet to be determined.

That challenge is on hold for further study. But after decades of rancorous debate and legal action, the biggest river restoration effort in the West will wait no more.

An agreement among government officials, environmentalists and farmers compels officials to fill the river with water starting Oct. 1. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this month set forth an environmental document with plans for the first flows.

The state's second-longest river, the San Joaquin was crippled six decades ago after Friant Dam was built. The dam created Millerton Lake, which was used to save a dying east valley farm industry. But Chinook salmon runs and a long stretch of the river were sacrificed.

Environmentalists filed a lawsuit 21 years ago to restore the river.

The legal action was settled in 2006 with an agreement to begin filling the river with water this year. Fish will be reintroduced in 2013.

The deadline is July 6 for public comment on the government's plan for the first flows, which will be smaller than the full restoration flows in 2014. For the next five years, officials will gather information and rebuild a river that has not functioned since the late 1940s.

"We will need at least five years to make channel improvements and learn all we can about the river," said Jason Phillips, the bureau's river restoration program manager.

Scientists must learn, for instance, whether the water will remain cold enough for a salmon fishery. They also need to know how much water will seep into the ground as it moves 150 miles from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River.

In addition to preparing for salmon runs, the interim flows will give scientists an idea of how much restoration water can be recaptured for use on farms. Growers will give up, on average, 170,000 acre-feet of water each year for river restoration, according to the settlement.

An acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons, or a 12- to 18-month supply for an average family.

The water would be captured downstream at places such as Mendota Pool, a natural wide spot in the river, then pumped back to farm fields in the vast irrigation plumbing of the valley.

But experts say a lot of these first flows of water could disappear into depleted underground aquifers around Gravelly Ford, which is 38 miles downstream of the dam.

Aside from water, officials will be pouring money into the restoration. The most expensive restoration fixes are channel expansions in two stretches of the river.

Cutting the channel deeper and wider to hold more water could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Phillips said.

One expansion could be the 20-mile section northeast of Los Banos. Nothing is decided yet on that one. But officials said there will be an expansion on an 11-mile stretch near Mendota Pool, which would be designed to bypass the pool.

The restored river will not look like the widespread streams that historically have swept through the valley, officials say. The section near Los Banos once was widespread marsh braided with multiple branches of San Joaquin, not a single stream.

"We're never going back to what the San Joaquin River was historically," said Monty Schmidt, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental watchdog that filed the lawsuit in 1988. "But we can still have a natural river and a functioning ecosystem."