By Hannah Brandt
On a sunny spring day in March, the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust played host to this journalist and a few dozen sixth graders from Madera Unified. The schools are part of a pilot education program with the San Joaquin River Parkway. The Parkway is a 23-mile land trust, nonprofit organization stretching from Friant Dam to Highway 99 focused on conservation, recreation and education.
“The Parkway works with other land trusts and nonprofit organizations to preserve the area around the river, provide opportunities for people to enjoy its environment, increase public engagement with the river through public outreach and maintain ongoing stewardship,” says San Joaquin River Parkway Executive Director David Koehler. A Parkway Ambassador Plan was established with the surrounding communities, incorporating 6,000 acres of public land along the river to protect the flood plan and implement a recreational trail on it. So far, the Parkway has acquired 4,000 acres of public land toward that end.
The Restoration Program
The San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust is active in the San Joaquin River Restoration Program (www.restoresjr. net). The program engages in strategies to restore water flows to the San Joaquin River from the Friant Dam to the Merced River to regenerate the Chinook salmon fishery in the river and reconstruct the San Joaquin River’s historically robust salmon runs, while working to prevent negative impacts on the state’s total water supply. The release of water from Friant Dam is reliant on the level of mountain runoff and river conditions. Snowpack measurements are used to determine future runoff and therefore allocation of water for restoration.
Interim flows started in October 2009 and restoration flows were introduced in January 2014, however, the federal government halted these flows in February 2014. Due to the drought, small communities such as Orange Cove in eastern Fresno County have been buying water from the Central Valley Project at Millerton Lake, which connects to the Friant Dam, for more than 50 years. To ensure these 30,000 people would not be without drinking water, their contract for water from the San Joaquin River was prioritized over the restoration project.
The Friant Dam
“The drought is straining the use of water throughout California, impacting municipal, agricultural and environmental use. It really stresses that whole interrelationship,” says Koehler. To understand the way the drought is affecting the San Joaquin River, one needs to go back to the building of Friant Dam when the Bureau of Reclamation made contracts with landowners along the river north of Fresno, between Firebaugh and Los Banos. These landowners, a collaborative called the Friant Exchange contractors, forfeited their rights to San Joaquin River water in exchange for water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. However, if for any reason the government cannot provide water from the Delta, these landowners retain the ability to call on water from the river by way of Friant Dam.
In normal years, the majority of water stored at Friant Dam is diverted to the Friant-Kern Canal down to the South Valley for agricultural projects there. Last year, the Friant Exchange contractors in the North Valley were not able to get the water from the Delta. Therefore, they called on their right to have water from the San Joaquin River. This meant the river was actually three to four times higher than normal in order to deliver the water to the Friant Exchange contractors. It was counterintuitive to see such high water during the drought, as rivers and lakes throughout the state became dry, cracked caverns.
Agricultural versus Environmental Use
The agricultural lobby has been disputing the official rates of water usage in California, which lists the farming industry at 80% and residential use at 20%. Vocal critics claim that agricultural use is only 40% and “environmental” use is 50%. The issue is the government contracts, like those of the Friant Exchange. Instead of use for restoration, most of that “environmental” water is diverted to landowners, who are mostly farmers. Therefore, much of that 50% is in fact agricultural.
Many are concerned that the drought is eroding the river restoration program at the San Joaquin River. In extreme drought years like this one, the program has not received any water flows. Historically, however, the river has received flows in other drought years. While the San Joaquin River received flows diverted for individual and agricultural use, the parkway did not for ecosystem restoration. For the first time in 50 years, neither did the Delta.
Koehler points out that what happens in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta dramatically affects the San Joaquin River and the Central Valley. The largest river in California, the Sacramento River, and the second largest, the San Joaquin River, both flow into the Delta. It houses a delicate and vital eco-system and is instrumental in maintaining California’s water supply as a hub for water delivery throughout the state.
There are water-banking opportunities for the San Joaquin River, according to Koehler. In wet years, he believes it behooves public and private entities to store water. The Kern River System is a model to draw from. The system there is able to sell water from basins to municipalities because the county has developed water banking systems to store water underground during wet years. The San Joaquin River Restoration Program has put substantial funding into banking water. Over the next decade, Koehler expects to see more of this type of development throughout the state.
Private companies have purchased plots of federal lands with waterways, like a gravel company has done on the San Joaquin River Parkway, and have invested in water banking systems. Koehler believes that “this is where the energy should be focused and that these private-public partnerships can effectively manage California’s water needs.”
According to Koehler, “The biggest challenge for the San Joaquin River Parkway community is the budget and continued stewardship, particularly for operation, safety and maintenance.” The City of Fresno Parks Department was not large to begin with and during the recession became completely gutted. Fortunately, within the last year it has begun to build back up and has rehired a parks director. Koehler hopes that is cause for optimism going forward.
“We should change directors at least every 25 years,” Koehler says tongue-in-cheek. “It’s been an honor to work here for a quarter century and I’m very proud of the work we’ve accomplished at the San Joaquin Parkway and Conservation Trust over that time.”
After “launching [himself] out of a cannon, [Koehler] found a place to land” at the Sonoma County Land Trust. He hopes to carry on his legacy in Sonoma by helping the public enjoy the river landscape, facilitating restoration projects and maintaining educational programs that teach students through hands-on experiences. The sixth graders who passed us on the trail might not realize how significant what they learn at the San Joaquin River may be to their future, or how many years of hard work went into making it possible. Should they discover it on their own in the future, they will have Koehler as the one to thank for it.
Watch the full 30-minute video of my interview with David Koehler at https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=0tyalchIqbU
Hannah Brandt is a freelance journalist who has previously published in the Community Alliance and the Fresno Bee. Contact her on Twitter @HannahBP2, where she runs @ FresnoAlliance.