A new dam for salmon: a tragedy for society?

Salmon on the San Joaquin. Why would valley negotiators agree to something costing this area so much water and society so much money? Having had the dubious privilege of being one of the negotiators, allow me to explain what was on the table, what was not, and the decisions facing us in the near future.

We were faced with two options. One, a Federal Judge was ready to render an adverse judgment settling the 18 year old case. Our experts expected this judgment would cost this area approximately 500,000 acre-feet of water per year. The second option was offered by Senator Feinstein and Congressman Radanovich and involved us going back to the negotiating table with NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council) and the environmental coalition who sued us.

This second option involved ‘capping’ the water and financial costs to the users of Friant water. The end result was an average loss of approximately 180,000 acre-feet of water per year. With a gun to our head, the second option was obviously the choice.

But, why were these the only two options? Would it not make more sense to just extend the current ‘warm water’ fishery below Friant Dam to the Delta? Would not this require much less water and cost?

This option was summarily rejected by the environmental coalition in the previous negotiations. The Judge agreed with the coalition and opined that resolution of the case required the re-establishment of a fishery resembling the historical fishery. In other words, a self-sustaining salmon fishery.

This type of fishery is the Cadillac of fisheries. It requires the most water, and the coldest water. However, it is the best indicator of a healthy river. The legislators were attempting to set up a scenario in which the Judge could be appeased, and the San Joaquin Valley would end up with a live salmon river at a cost that would not decimate the area.

Has that been achieved? Time will tell. We were able to negotiate a Water Management Goal that is supposed to be equal with the Restoration Goal. If it works, we can mitigate some of our losses.

What was not on the table was consideration of a lesser type fishery. In the previous negotiations, our contention was that the extension of the current fishery would require far less water and money, significantly less infringement upon the lives and property of downstream landowners, and very little restructuring of the River. Further, we suggested that a fraction of the money saved could be used to enhance other existing salmon fisheries. The end result would be a live river and more salmon (albeit not on the same stretch of river). That option was rejected.

The second item not on the table was a new dam at Temperance Flat. Upon the initiation of the talks suggested by the legislators, the environmental coalition said a new dam was unacceptable and they would ‘walk’ if we insisted on it. However, it was agreed we could both pursue our own agendas on a new dam (or lack thereof) outside the parameters of the settlement discussions.

With help of the Governor and bi-partisan Valley legislators, we at least have chance of a new dam. Ironically, a new dam would provide more cold water for longer durations that would be of great environmental benefit in restoring salmon to the River. In addition, a new dam would provide drought protection for subsequent year salmon runs. This is not possible with the current small capacity of Friant Dam. Last but not least, a new dam would provide flood protection for the immense investment society is being called upon to make to restructure the River for salmon restoration. It makes no sense to spend all that money and have the first flood event wash it away.

Currently, Congress is considering the bill to implement the negotiated Settlement, and the State has scheduled a hearing on a new dam. The Settlement represents the good faith effort by a lot of folks to resolve a long and bitter court case. It will be a tragedy for society to invest so much in this landmark experiment without the companion investment to protect it, enhance its success, and provide the essential new storage to sustain this Valley.
Kole Upton
Chowchilla, Calif.
Chairman, Friant Water Users Authority
Director, Chowchilla Water District

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