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San Joaquin River Legislation Passes Congress: The River and Its Salmon Are To Be Restored

March 26, 2009 -- The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday.  The bill will now go to President Obama for his consideration in the near future.  Included in the act are mandates to restore the San Joaquin River and funding to begin restoration of the legendary Spring-run of salmon that were completely destroyed after Friant Dam was built by the federal government some fifty-five years ago.
California Sportfishing Protection Alliance’s Executive Director Bill Jennings and Conservation Director John Beuttler, observed that the bill completes one of the most significant victories for rivers and fish in the state’s history. 
“For over two decades our coalition of fishing and environmental groups has fought to reverse the destruction of the state’s second largest river and its historic salmon fishery,” said Beuttler. “This settlement vindicates decades of effort and sends a long overdue message that dewatering rivers and destroying fisheries is unacceptable will not be condoned,” he added.
“This is a historic step in righting one of the great environmental blunders of the 20th Century,” proclaimed Jennings, “the prodigious salmon fisheries of the San Joaquin were a national treasure belonging to all of the people and their restoration is cause for great celebration.”
The story behind this legislation begin in 1988 when the National Resources Defense Council and a coalition of groups, one of them CSPA, agreed to sue the federal government over illegal renewed water contracts and the dewatering of the lower San Joaquin River.  Violations of the California Fish and Game Code and public trust were added to the complaint.
Following victories in district and appellate courts, the parties, including agricultural water contractors who receive San Joaquin water, conducted years of settlement discussions.  “After years arduous negotiations, an agreement was reached.
Given the many millions of dollars that it will take to restore the river and its salmon runs, it was imperative that both the State and Federal governments agreed to support and fund the restoration effort. Getting the federal authorization and funding took several years of congressional discussion and debate.
Not only will the federal Bureau of Reclamation have to release water from Friant Dam near Fresno for the first time in 55 years to restore the river and its fisheries but the federal government must put up the lion’s share of the many millions of dollars it will take to restore the habitat necessary for self sustaining fisheries.
Hal Candee of Altshuler Berzon LLP, who has represented NRDC and 13 other conservation and fishing groups in the litigation and the settlement effort commented on the broad based support that helped to pass this historic legislation.
"This legislation received broad bipartisan support from Republican and Democratic Members of Congress, the affected irrigation districts, the State of California, conservation and fishing groups, and urban water agencies," he said, "It's gratifying to see Congress provide its final approval to this historic settlement that will restore one of California’s major rivers.”
The litigation and congressional effort was led by Nation Resources Defense Council and included the following plaintiffs: the Bay Institute, California Striped Bass Assoc., California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Trout, Friends of the River, National Audubon Society, Nor-Cal Fishing Guides and Sportsmen's Assoc., Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center, Sierra Club, and the Stanislaus Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited, and United Anglers of California.