Court OK's settlement over water management in San Joaquin River

A landmark settlement concluding long-standing San Joaquin River litigation has been approved by U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton. During a brief hearing in U.S. District Court in Sacramento recently, Karlton granted the motion for approval and called the settlement, which details a host of historic San Joaquin River restoration and water management activities as well as third party protections and needed federal legislation, “a remarkable success.”

On Sept. 13, the Friant Water Users Authority and its member districts joined the Natural Resources Defense Council and its fellow plaintiffs, and the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Commerce in announcing they had filed an agreement settling litigation initiated by the NRDC coalition in 1988. In recent years, the litigation had focused on San Joaquin River and salmon fishery restoration issues between Friant Dam and the Merced River. Judge Karlton's actions today are a major step toward restoring and maintaining healthy salmon populations in the San Joaquin River and water supply assurances to all of the Friant Division long-term water contractors along the southern San Joaquin Valley's East Side.

“It was quite clear the case should be settled,” Judge Karlton said. The court's order accepts the settlement fully and orders all obligations set forth in the stipulation of settlement be performed.

Judge Karlton characterized objections made by two downstream third parties as objections to compliance with the law and made clear he did not agree with those arguments. He also stated, “My hat is off to all the lawyers that you could settle this case.”

“The judge has done his job,” said Friant Water Users Authority Chairman Kole M. Upton. “Now it is time for Congress to do its job and approve the legislation needed to give the Interior Department and Bureau of Reclamation the authorization needed to move ahead with the primary goals of settlement — restoration and water management. And it is time for all of us do our job in implementing this settlement in the interests of our southern San Joaquin Valley constituents.”

Ronald D. Jacobsma, Friant Water Users Authority Consulting General Manager, said Judge Karton's approval “is one of the final critical steps needed for implementation. We believe Congress will understand that this is a fully approved settlement that now needs congressional action to provide authorization and funding to support the implementation process.” The legislation will be put before Congress for action in November following agreement Sept. 27 on legislative provisions that will further protect downstream third parties and address most of their concerns.

Two third-party groups declined to support the revised legislation. They include landowners opposing restoration of a 22-mile reach of old San Joaquin River channel northeast of Los Banos (known as Reach 4B) that has not carried flows since about 1958 and the Lower San Joaquin Levee District, which opposed use of the East Side Bypass flood channel for fish flows. Only the levee district opposed the approval of the settlement.

Jacobsma noted that the state of California has pledged to provide funding, support and other resources as part of its strong support for the settlement. Possible funding vehicles include Propositions 84 and 1-E on the Nov. 7 ballot.

The settlement resolves the dispute over operation of Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River northeast of Fresno and resolves longstanding legal claims brought by a coalition of conservation and fishing groups led by NRDC. It provides for substantial river channel improvements and sufficient water flow to sustain a salmon fishery upstream from the confluence of the Merced River tributary while providing water supply certainty to Friant Division water contractors.

In the 1800s, Central California's San Joaquin River supported large salmon populations, including the southernmost Chinook salmon population in North America. Since then, water diversions for agricultural development in the San Joaquin Valley, including Friant Dam and other projects, have resulted in the drying up of the San Joaquin River between Friant and the mouth of the Merced River.

Approximately 60 miles of the river have been dried up in most years, eliminating salmon above the river's confluence with the Merced River. Friant Dam became fully operational in the late 1940s. Under the settlement, a series of projects will be undertaken to improve the river channel in order to restore and maintain healthy salmon populations. Flow restoration is to be coordinated with these channel improvements, with spring and fall run Chinook salmon populations reintroduced in approximately six years. At the same time, the Settlement limits water supply impacts to Friant Division long-term water contractors by providing for new water management measures that are to be undertaken by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior Department agency that administers the Central Valley Project.

The Settling Parties believe that commitments under the agreement and the cooperative approach toward restoration provide an historic opportunity to restore the San Joaquin River in a manner broadly acceptable to water contractors who have been operating under a cloud of uncertainty regarding their water supply due to pending litigation for the past 18 years.

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