Two rivers that have been dry for decades because of 20th Century water diversions may flow again thanks to some reverse engineering. However, while restoration of the Owens River does appear to be proceeding, returning the San Joaquin River to a year-round waterway is anything but guaranteed.

Although the City of Los Angeles continues to battle environmentalists and Inyo County in court, Los Angeles earlier this year began work on a project that will send water to a 62-mile stretch of the Owens River. The city’s Department of Water and Power faces a July 31, 2007, deadline to finish the plumbing project.

While the fate of the Owens River — or at least the plight of the hapless landowners and politicians in the Owens Valley — has been broadly known since 1974, when Roman Polanski directed Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston in “Chinatown,” the diversion of the San Joaquin River to Central Valley farmers has not received widespread attention. Considering the obstacles that the San Joaquin River restoration project faces, a Hollywood classic couldn’t hurt the effort.

In September, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Friant Water Users Authority announced that they had settled an 18-year legal dispute over the operation of Friant Dam and would return salmon to the river. The bureau operates the 60-year-old dam on the San Joaquin River, about 20 miles north of Fresno. The NRDC has spearheaded conservationists’ and fishing group’s lawsuits over dam operations. The Water Users Authority is a collection of 22 southern valley water agencies that get water from Millerton Lake, behind Friant Dam.

Under the settlement, the Bureau of Reclamation agreed to operate the dam so that there would be continuous water flows in the San Joaquin River between Friant Dam and the Merced River, near the town of Patterson. For decades, about half of that 150-mile stretch of the San Joaquin has been dry except for the occasional surge of flood waters. Friant contractors would pay $7 per acre-foot of water annually into a restoration fund for channel and structural improvements. To ensure adequate water for the farms and cities that rely on diversions from Friant, the settlement calls for development of a water management program that includes water recycling, reuse and new exchanges or transfers.

The settlement was announced on the steps of the federal courthouse in Sacramento and earned endorsements from both House Water and Power Subcommittee Chairman George Radanovich (R-Mariposa) and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Radanovich called the settlement “a momentous step.”

However, the settlement will go nowhere without the approval of Congress, and any party to the settlement could kill the agreement if Congress doesn’t act before year’s end — meaning that lawmakers would have to pass something during a lame-duck session after the November election.

Although federal officials and the boards of 22 water districts agreed to the settlement, plenty of opposition exists, led by U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Visalia). He represents much of the area irrigated and plumbed by Friant water and contends that the river project could hurt farmers dependent on federal water.

“I think this is a gross misuse of public funds,” Nunes told the Fresno Bee. “You’re going to spend $800 million to bring back some fish?”

In fact, both the cost of the project and the funding for it remain at issue. The project is estimated to cost $250 million to $800 million, depending largely on how much flood control levee work is necessary. Opponents such as Nunes doubt even the larger figure.

If Congress approves, the federal government would contribute $250 million to the project, while water customers would pay at least $300 million via annual fees. The settlement also anticipates the state will contribute at least $100 million either from the $5.4 billion Proposition 84 bond for water, parks and coastal resources, or from the $4 billion Proposition 1E bond for flood control, according to Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Michael Jackson. At this point, only the fee revenue is assured.

Farmers along the dewatered stretch of river have raised flood control concerns, as have local districts responsible for providing flood protection. Other farmers who have voiced support for the legal settlement say they can back only a project that returns salmon to the river on an experimental basis — a potential hitch in Congressional negotiations.

Still, the existence of the settlement after 18 years of courtroom battles suggests the project may go forward. Jackson said planning, design work and environmental reviews have already begun, and interim flows for experimental purposes are scheduled to begin in 2009.

The Owens River litigation is even older, having produced no fewer than six published court decisions since the early 1970s, including the landmark County of Inyo v. Yorty, 32 Cal.App.3rd 795 (1973), in which an appellate court ruled that Los Angeles’ continued extraction of groundwater from the Owens Valley required an environmental impact report. In fact, Superior Court Judge Lee Cooper cited that case last year when he imposed a fine of $5,000 per day on Los Angeles because the city failed to complete the Lower Owens River project by a court-ordered September 2005 deadline.

Originally proposed in 1991, the project calls for restoring 62 miles of river and riparian habitat as mitigation for the city’s pumping of groundwater. The approximately 18,000 acre-feet of water needed for the river restoration would come from Los Angeles’s usual exports.

In September, lawyers for the Department of Water and Power and for the Sierra Club argued before the Fourth District Court of Appeal. At issue was Cooper’s decision to prohibit Los Angeles from using a second Owens Valley aqueduct unless it completes the Lower Owens River project. The Fourth District had earlier issued a tentative ruling saying it would uphold Cooper; a final decision is expected soon.

“The injunction, I think, has had an obvious effect,” said Sierra Club attorney Laurens Silver, who noted the city began work on the delayed project after Cooper’s ruling. “They should have implemented mitigation for this 32 years ago.”

The latest arguments may be academic, though, as the city is reportedly on schedule to start directing water into the dry riverbed in early 2007. The ambitious project calls for restoring the entire riparian system, including a delta at Owens Lake, where the city is already implementing a large-scale dust control project by turning the dewatered lake into wetlands and grasslands.

Bureau of Reclamation South-Central California office, (559) 487-5116.
San Joaquin River settlement:
Laurens Silver, Sierra Club, (415) 383-7734.