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U.S. Illegally Dried River, Judge Rules

For more than 50 years, jurist finds, federal agency violated laws protecting fisheries by diverting most of the San Joaquin waterway's flow to farming.

August 28, 2004|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — In a major decision that could affect farming and development in the state's vast middle, a federal judge ruled Friday that the U.S. government has illegally dried up California's second-biggest river, the San Joaquin, by diverting most of its flow to agriculture.

Siding with environmentalists in a 16-year-old lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled that for more than 50 years the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has violated state and federal laws protecting fisheries by operating the river as an irrigation canal for farming.

The violations occurred after the bureau dammed the San Joaquin River in the 1940s and shunted the flow to area farms, effectively destroying a historic salmon run and despoiling 80 miles of river from Friant Dam above Fresno to San Francisco Bay.

"This means we can look forward to bringing a dead river back to life," said Michael Wall, a senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, which brought the lawsuit in 1988. "It's a tremendous victory for all Californians who deserve a healthy, living river."

In a state that has long been a battleground for water wars, the dispute pitting farmers against Bay Area environmentalists ranks among the longest and nastiest.

Kole Upton, a Chowchilla cotton and nut farmer who heads the Friant Water Users Authority, called the judge's decision a "big blow to the San Joaquin Valley."

"This is going to drive farmland out of production," he said. "This valley is going to look like it did in the 1920s and '30s."

He said the river irrigates more than a million acres of farmland between Merced and Kern counties, a swath of state where the desert has been made to bloom into the world's most productive farming region. Because farmers along the river are also seeking to convert their water for use by suburbs, Upton said, the decision could affect the pace of development in the state's Central Valley.

"It's been 60 years since there was a Chinook salmon run on the San Joaquin River. The river is no longer in shape to sustain that old run," Upton said. "They're trying to turn back the clock. It's not unlike saying we need to go back to the way the Indians ran things."

In his 41-page decision, Karlton wrote that before Friant Dam's construction, the salmon migrating up river made so much noise that they kept residents awake at night. He found that the Bureau of Reclamation's operation of the dam, which diverts more than 95% of the river's flow to farming, violated state fish and game laws.

One statue, he said, provides that "the owner of a dam shall allow sufficient water at all times to pass through a fishway ... to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam."

The San Joaquin River, in contrast, has two long stretches that are bone dry for much of the year.

Karlton left open the question on a remedy. He could make a subsequent ruling or hand off to state officials or a state judge the question concerning how much water agriculture needs to give up to restore a healthy flow.

"How to make the dry parts of the river flow again has yet to be determined," said Barry Nelson, a senior policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council. "But this is a real solid ruling, and we're confident that it will stand and the river will come back."

Upton said water users are weighing whether to appeal the ruling.

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