San Joaquin River at Highway 99
San Joaquin River

Environmental laws delay San Joaquin River Restoration

San Joaquin River at Highway 99
San Joaquin River near the Fresno Aquarium property

It is time-consuming and expensive to build anything in the U.S., and especially in California, due to the many environmental studies required by law. It is ironic that the laws put in place to mitigate environmental impacts are actually slowing down the river restoration process for the very environmental groups that support these laws. Perhaps they would prefer, in this case, that these laws were a little less stringent.

There are three distinct projects that must be completed in order for anadromous fish to be able to swim up and down our part of the San Joaquin River as required for their life cycle.

In their 2011 Annual Report, the San Joaquin River Restoration Program makes the estimates that the Mendota Pool Bypass and Reach 2B Channel Improvements Projects proposed alternatives will be available in summer 2012 with a release of a draft EIS/R in late 2013. No estimates are included for when construction might begin on this project that would include a bypass around the Mendota Pool and re-connect with the San Joaquin River downstream of Mendota Dam.

As for the Reach 4B, Eastside Bypass and Mariposa Bypass Channel and Structural Improvements Project, the Annual Report states “preparations will continue toward developing the draft EIS/R” with an estimate of an early 2014 release for the draft and fall 2014 for the final. Again, there is no construction date estimate for this range of improvements located north of Highway 152 and east of Los Banos (see below).

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, modifications in Reach 4B may consist of removing in-channel vegetation, removing excess silt and sediment, and improving road crossings; modifications to the Eastside and Mariposa Bypasses to establish a low flow channel and modifications to structures in the Eastside and Mariposa Bypasses to provide for fish passage.  Modifications, such as channel widening, narrowing, or reshaping, may be needed to allow for fish passage under low flows in the Eastside and Mariposa Bypasses. Both the Mariposa Bypass Bifurcation Structure at the head of the Mariposa Bypass and the Mariposa Bypass Drop Structure at the downstream end of the Mariposa Bypass may need to be modified to provide for fish passage under a range of flows.  Modifications could include modifications to the existing structures, construction of fish ladders, or replacement of the existing structures with new structures.

Finally, there’s a breath of fresh air with the Arroyo Canal Fish Screen and Sack Dam Fish Passage Project completing its draft ES/IS in summer 2012 and Final EA/IS by the end of 2012, which “will allow construction to start in 2013.” See my previous 12/30/2010 blog post about this little dam.

The completion of all three of these projects is critical in order to permit Chinook salmon and other fish to traverse the river upstream from the confluence with the Merced River all the way to Friant Dam. The “restoration” will not truly have begun until these projects have been accomplished.

There are many more possible projects for our section of the river after these, such as the creation of suitable gravel spawning beds in Reach 1 below Friant Dam so the salmon may spawn naturally instead of being spawned exclusively in a hatchery. But these are still many years away and will require more time-consuming and expensive studies due to current environmental laws.

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