Environmentalists and anglers were smiling last week over the planting of fewer than 100 salmon in the waters of the San Joaquin River, just below Friant Dam.
But a lot more people were shaking their heads, and with good reason.
Since the late 1940s, when the dam was completed, the part of the San Joaquin River that flows between Fresno and Madera counties hasn’t been a salmon stream.
One reason was the nature of the construction of the dam itself. A decision was made not to put fish ladders in the dam, which would have allowed salmon to ascend into Millerton Lake, from where they could have gone upstream into gravel-bottomed natural spawning pools.
Other decisions changed the nature of the river for good. It no longer would be a free-running stream below the dam. It would be dry part of the year so the water behind could be used for irrigation. It was sent through canal systems instead, and then to fields.
Cutting the flow of the river made it silt up in many places. No more would it be deep enough for boats. Some fish remained, but they weren’t salmon.
Salmon need a free flow of water, and that’s what the salmon folks hope will happen with the restoration that has been under way since the settlement in 2006 of a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council to restore flows and salmon to the 60 miles of the river, from the dam to its confluence with the Merced River.
But don’t count on that happening anytime soon. The cost will be too high, even with as much as a billion dollars budgeted to accomplish it. Millerton Lake only holds so much water, and many farmers and others have righteous claims on it.
If 100 salmon return to spawn five or six years from now, they will be the most expensive fish on the planet. And it will be illegal to catch them.