What a difference a year makes in San Joaquin restoration vision

The latest federal government cost estimate to put salmon back into the San Joaquin River is $500 million. Add in state costs and estimates put the price tag as high as $1.2 billion.

Not surprisingly, Congressman Devin Nunes of Visalia says proponents of the river “restoration” will have a hard time getting the cash from the feds. Those who support bringing fish back to the river say the latest cost figure is not unexpected, and they can handle it.

This river restoration deal was announced last year with the backdrop of water cascading over the spillway at Friant Dam. Today you can almost skip a rock across Millerton Lake. Last year water officials were worried about downstream flooding and bridges washing out. This year they are wondering if California is on the brink of a global-warming drought.

To think about spending $1.2 billion to restore salmon to the San Joaquin River in 2007 borders on absurd. Last year it was a wonderful idea. If the river restoration plan was in place today, Millerton could basically be drained dry for the benefit of fish.

The river restoration pact calls for the release of from 247,000 to 555,000 acre feet of water annually from Friant Dam/Millerton Lake to maintain a constant river flow to the San Francisco Bay so fish can swim in it. Farmers are entitled to about 117,000 acres feet annually from Millerton.

There is only 287,000 acre feet of water behind Friant Dam now. Millerton is half full. This is an oversimplification. Water management is much more complicated than that. However, numbers can be telling when you are talking about basically taking as much as a full reservoir of water to support fish.

Last year water was flowing over the spillway. Granted, the '07 snow melt is far from finished. However, the snow pack is only about 50 percent of normal. It ranks among the bottom 25 percent since surveys began in 1930. It is highly unlikely Millerton will fill this year.

Farmers are already out buying water from Northern California and elsewhere. They are constantly calculating how much surface water they will receive and the cost of pumping from wells. Many San Joaquin Valley producers are calculating how much water their trees and vines will need and what will be left over for row crops. Permanent crops cannot be short-watered. Trees and vines will die without water.

In the midst of all this, Congress is being asked to shell out $500 million to restore sport fishing to the San Joaquin River.

I have no idea if a deal has been cut with environmentalists to support Temperance Flat or other dams in return for farmer support to San Joaquin River restoration. If it was, I'd make sure I to get it in writing.

The river restoration will happen. However, it will be another patchwork “solution” to a problem California leaders refuse to realistically face.

If and when the day comes when California must fund the construction of Temperance Flat at a price tag of $1.2 billion, we can all look wistfully at the $1.2 billion salmon swimming in the San Joaquin River.

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