San Joaquin River restoration flowing

FRESNO -- Swept along by a drought-busting winter, the San Joaquin River restoration is getting good reviews at the end of its first year -- even from one vocal farm critic.

The stormy season helped officials reconnect the long-dry river with the Pacific Ocean and ease fears of farmers who lost irrigation water for the restoration.

Some of the restoration water was sent back to farms. Plus, farmers bought a bounty of cheap river water from excess snowmelt.

But challenges await in the second year, which started Friday.

Federal officials must deal with a farm family's lawsuit alleging damage from the revived river's seepage. And the global weather-changer La Niña may bring a dry winter.

Officials must now keep the river running to prepare for restoring salmon runs in late 2012, avoid seepage damage and somehow return water to farmers -- even if the next winter is dry.

Restoration critic Kole Upton, a farmer and water official, was impressed with this year's effort -- though he's still skeptical of the project.

"It was refreshing to see the government put some effort into farmers getting their water back," Upton said.

Environmentalists applauded the first year, said Monty Schmidtt, senior water resources scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to restore the river.

"For decades, there have been people saying it would never happen -- but it did, and that's significant," he said. "We have a tremendous amount of detail now about this river, and we'll have much more in the next year."

The restoration -- which could cost up to $1.2 billion over several years -- began last October after nearly two decades of legal wrangling.

Environmentalists were winning the lawsuit, which contended that the government violated state law by wiping out two salmon runs after building Friant Dam in the 1940s. The legal action ended in 2006 with a settlement among farmers, environmentalists and the federal government.

The settlement's goals: refill 60 dried miles of the state's second-longest river, reintroduce the two salmon runs and return some restoration water to farmers.

The restoration started Oct. 1, 2009, with release of extra water from Friant Dam.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation kept flows moving slowly forward in the dry parts of the river on the valley's west side through winter. The main fear was that surrounding farms would be damaged either by flooding or seepage.

Seepage, but no flooding

Flooding did not seem to be a problem, but sporadic seepage was reported.

A network of monitoring wells helped officials keep track of the water table, which typically rises next to rivers and can seep into the adjacent land.

In late August, the west side's Wolfsen family filed a suit in federal court, claiming seepage damage to about 13,000 acres of crops. A family spokesman said the lawsuit seeks to preserve their rights, not to stop restoration.

Federal officials, who don't comment on pending litigation, said their plan is to continue releases, expand the network of monitoring wells and figure out where they need to improve the channel to support higher water flows.

In the next few years, officials must decide if the water will flow through the river's original bed or through a massive flood-control bypass channel nearby.

This year, officials will double the water release from Friant for 10 days in November to simulate the greater flows of water salmon need to swim upstream for spawning.

This winter might be much drier than last year, according to predictions from federal forecasters. La Niña has formed in the Pacific, so parts of California may be unusually dry.

If it's a dry winter, less water will be required for the restoration flows, according to the legal settlement.

During the wet first year, officials used about 260,000 acre-feet of water.

Federal officials returned about 42,000 acre-feet of water to farmers, who also bought about 80,000 acre-feet of extra water at a discount, in accordance with the settlement.

The 42,000 acre-feet returned to farmers was captured at Mendota Pool, 62 river miles from Friant Dam, near Mendota.

But officials won't be capturing much water at the pool in a few years. Instead, they will send the majority of it 80 miles to the confluence of the Merced River and on to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In the future, officials will have to recapture and send the water back from the delta, which may prove challenging because of environmental restrictions.

Ideas include new canals and a pumping system to intercept the water before it reaches the delta.

For now, farmers are concerned about the coming year.

Stephen Ottemoeller, water resources manager for Friant Water Authority, representing east side farmers, said there is no way of knowing how much water will be returned. But the first year was a good start.

"People were pretty pleased," he said.