For the last 62 years, Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) have not been able to swim from the Pacific Ocean up the San Joaquin River to their historic spawning beds near Fresno. The construction of Friant Dam put an end to the runs in 1948.
Now, in the winter of 2010, water has flowed continuously down the long-dry sections of the riverbed for nearly a year thanks to the San Joaquin River Restoration Program and a particularly strong fall-run of Chinook salmon has produced a number (this number has not been publicized by our local Fish and Game officials) of “strays” that have made it all the way to Sack Dam (left), a small dam constructed to feed the Arroyo Canal of the San Luis Canal Company located just 21 miles from Firebaugh in Fresno County and about 50 river miles from the City of Fresno. (see map)
This is not only an event of historic significance, but it also may indicate that restoring a robust salmon run in the southernmost parts of the San Joaquin may not require all that much “re-evolution” as some have implied. If we furnish an adequate water flow to achieve temperature control, screen side channels and gravel pits and educate our population that these fish need to be protected for the health of both our riparian and marine aquatic ecosystems, then we may well succeed at the largest river restoration ever attempted in the United States and achieve an unprecedented re-creation of a local place of recreation, relaxation and beauty.
Sack Dam (so-named because it historically was created using sacks of sand) is today a concrete structure that includes a fish ladder (right) and represents only a small barrier to migrating anadromous fish furiously determined to reach their spawning beds. It is conceivable that some salmon may well have made it up the simple 3-step ladder and are swimming in the river in the Firebaugh area even as you read this.
This year, we have plenty of water for San Joaquin Valley cities, farms and even fish. As long as we citizens realize we can have it all with reasonable compromise and conservation, (80%+ of the river’s water may still be diverted for uses other than restoration) then we can all be justifiably proud of the new life we have been able to return to the mighty river for which our Valley is named.