2009: Looking Back And Looking Forward
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2009 will be remembered at Friends of the River as a year of stark contrasts. We began to reverse the damage to one of the greatest rivers in the state caused by the construction of a dam nearly 70 years ago. At the same time, the California Legislature approved a funding mechanism that threatens to reinvigorate a new era of big dam building and river destruction in the state. More than a hundred miles of Wild & Scenic Rivers in California were protected in 2009, while simultaneously the Governor revived the plan to build the massive Peripheral Canal to increase water exports from the largest estuary on the West Coast. It just proves that California is a dynamic and often unpredictable place. This is particularly true when it comes to complex water issues. And it underscores the challenges facing our rivers and Friends of the River’s conservation efforts in 2010.
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In September, some switches were flipped and valves opened on the Friant Dam, releasing more water into the San Joaquin River. As a result, water slowly creeped down a portion of the river west of Fresno that in most years is completely dry. Friends of the River and 12 other conservation and fishing groups first sued the federal government over the operation of the Friant Dam in 1988. It took decades of litigation, settlement negotiations, and federal legislation, but a portion of the San Joaquin River will soon be permanently re-watered. And eventually, one of the largest salmon runs in the state, which was wiped out by the completion of the Friant Dam in 1942, may be restored. Scientists are now examining the “interim” flow releases over the past few months to determine what kind of riverbed restoration is needed for when permanent flows are reestablished. Click here to read news reports about San Joaquin River restoration featured on FORs Blog.
In March, President Obama signed into law the Omnibus Public Lands Protection Act, which protected eight California streams totaling 105 miles as Wild & Scenic Rivers and preserved 750,000 acres of public lands in the state as wilderness. The bill protected the largest single chunk of California rivers in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System since 1987 and represents the greatest success to date of Friends of the River’s 20 year campaign to identify, promote, and legislate protection for potential Wild and Scenic Rivers statewide. The legislation also protects the state’s incredible biological diversity, by protecting rivers in the scenic eastern Sierra Nevada, White Mountains, Mojave Desert, San Gabriel Mountains, and San Jacinto Mountains. All of the California streams protected in the legislative package were first nominated by Friends of the River (some decades ago) and we also played a lead role in organizing public outreach and support in key regions to support passage of the landmark bill. Click here for more info and to send a "Thank you" message.
Passage of the omnibus bill is encouraging new regional campaigns to protect wild places throughout the state. In October, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) introduced legislation to protect 94 miles of Wild & Scenic Rivers on the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County. A comprehensive Wild & Scenic Rivers proposal developed by Friends of the River in 2006 is the foundation of the bill, which also makes technical corrections to Rep. Farr’s 2002 additions to the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness areas. Click here for more info and to send Rep. Farr a "Thank you" letter. In addition, Friends of the River and other organizations in August secured a promise from Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) to introduce legislation protecting more than 40 miles of Wild Rivers and Wilderness in the San Gabriel Mountains adjacent to Los Angeles. Click here for more info and to send a message to Rep. Dreier to also encourage him to submit legislation.
Excavation of a new spillway for the Folsom Dam promises to substantially improve flood management along the American River and in the Sacramento region. Although it won’t be complete until 2015, the new spillway, with levee upgrades along the American and Sacramento Rivers and a proposed re-write of Folsom Dam’s operating manual, will increase flood protection and alleviate the perceived need to build new dams on the American. The dam and levee improvements, along with forecast-based dam operations, are the cornerstone of a flood management plan first proposed by Friends of the River in the 1990’s as an alternative to the Auburn Dam. Friends of the River played an instrumental role in securing congressional authorization and funding for the dam and levee improvement project, and the use of forecast-based operations. Click here to learn more.
A lawsuit filed in 2006 by Friends of the River and other organizations prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to release in the summer of 2009 a new Biological Opinion (BO) requiring additional protections under the Endangered Species Act for the Central Valley’s threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon. The BO called for a modest reduction in fresh water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect salmon young migrating to the ocean. Other highlights include permanently raising the gates of the fish-killing Red Bluff Diversion Dam on the Sacramento River by 2012, implementing a fish friendly flow standard on the lower American River, and directing federal agencies to consider ways to restore salmon and steelhead to the 90% of their former upstream habitat blocked by the Central Valley’s massive rim dams.
In August, Governor Schwarzenegger signed SB 670, which immediately halted the practice of suction dredge mining on all California rivers until the California Department of Fish and Game develops and implements regulations to protect endangered fish and wildlife, water quality, and human health. Passage of the bill by the California Legislature and its signing by the Governor was strongly supported by Friends of the River, the Karuk Tribe, and other organizations. The Department of Fish and Game is developing new regulations and the accompanying environmental report required under state law. Meanwhile, Fish and Game wardens are authorized to cite anyone illegally operating a suction dredge. If you see someone operating a suction dredge, call 1 888 DFG-CALTIP (888 334-2258).
As part of the federal relicensing of hydroelectric projects on the Merced River, Friends of the River has been a leader in the effort to discourage the Merced Irrigation District (MID) from pursuing its goal to expand New Exchequer Reservoir, which threatens to drown a portion of the Merced Wild & Scenic River. Friends of the River successfully recruited the assistance of the Interior Department and other regulatory agencies, which agree that the reservoir expansion violates federal law. In addition, Friends of the River and its allies have encouraged the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency (FERC), the federal entity that licenses hydroelectric projects, to recognize that the operation of the upstream hydroelectric projects affects flows in the lower Merced River. This will set the stage for potentially improved flows in the lower Merced for salmon and steelhead as part of the new license. Click here for more info.
Although Friends of the River enjoyed significant river conservation achievements in 2009, our agenda for 2010 will be substantially driven by some of our defeats. In November, the California Legislature approved and the Governor signed an $11 billion proposed general obligation bond to fund water projects and programs. The bond measure will likely be placed on the November 2010 statewide ballot for voter approval. The bond will provide significant new funding for new and enlarged dams on the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Mokelumne, Merced, and Bear Rivers. It also threatens to bankrupt the state. Friends of the River and other organizations successfully delayed passage of the bond in the Legislature for the past several years, but the state’s continuing drought along with substantial campaign donations to Legislators and the Governor from those who will benefit directly from the bond overpowered our efforts to stave off its passage for another year. The Friends of the River Board of Directors will decide in early December to what extent we will actively campaign against the bond in 2010. Click here for more info.
Along with the budget-busting water bond, the California Legislature approved and the Governor signed a complex package of new water policies for the state that threatens to increase the state’s reliance on fresh water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Although the Legislature claimed that the policy package had little to do with the controversial Peripheral Canal, which was rejected by statewide voters in 1980, the Governor declared his intent to build the canal the day after the policy package was approved. But with threats, there are also opportunities. In this case, the legislation directs the California Water Resources Control Board to determine flows needed in the Delta and its upstream river tributaries to protect public trust values. Friends of the River intends to be a major player in this process in 2010.
More Wild & Scenic Rivers
On a more positive note, there are significant opportunities brewing in 2010 for the introduction of additional Wild & Scenic River bills, in addition to the bill introduced by Rep. Farr for rivers and streams in Monterey County and the promise from Rep. Dreier to introduce rivers and wilderness legislation for the San Gabriel Mountains. Senator Dianne Feinstein is considering follow-up legislation to her landmark 1994 California Desert Protection Act that may include more than 90 miles of rivers and streams in the Mojave Desert and San Bernardino Mountains. In addition, Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Vista) is expected to introduce a bill to protect modest additions to the Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia Wilderness areas and that could be a vehicle to consider protection of more than 40 miles of potential Wild & Scenic Rivers in northern San Diego County. Rivers and streams that are or may be included in federal legislation were identified by Friends of the River, which has also developed narrative descriptions and maps for each stream. Click here for more about Desert river protection and click here to learn about San Diego area river protection.
Seeking to Protect Rivers by Legal Means
We expect more decisive legal victories to protect California rivers in 2010. Friends of the River and California Trout have been fighting in federal and state courts to protect Piru Creek in Los Angeles County. The Department of Water Resources has reduced flows into the creek from its massive Pyramid Dam. The flow reduction has harmed the creek’s catch and release trout fishery, and threatens its endangered steelhead and other sensitive wildlife. Unfortunately, we lost our bid to force FERC to reconsider the flow scheme in the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, we have challenged the flow change in state court as a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Click here for more info.
Friends of the River has also joined with the Foothill Conservancy and other organizations challenging the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s (EBMUD) approval of a plan that would expand the Pardee Reservoir on the Mokelumne River. The reservoir expansion would flood a segment of the Mokelumne for which we have secured recreational access and improvements and that has been recommended by the Bureau of Land Management for Wild & Scenic River protection. We expect this CEQA suit to be decided in 2010. Click here for more info.
We expect a legal ruling from federal court in 2010 on lawsuit filed by Friends of the River and the South Yuba River Citizens League challenging the inadequate biological opinion for dam operations on the lower Yuba River. The Daguerre Point Dam blocks up to 60% of the threatened spring Chinook salmon run on the Yuba and 100% of the threatened green sturgeon. Further upstream, the Englebright Dam blocks all fish passage. Federal agencies have done little to rectify these problems and our lawsuit is intended to force them to take action before these important fish species decline into extinction.
Restoring More Rivers
In addition to our leadership in the relicensing process for hydroelectric projects on the Merced River, Friends of the River will be active in similar proceedings on the McCloud and Tuolumne Rivers. Our goal in the relicensing process is to restore flows for fish, wildlife, and recreation, as we have for more than 450 miles of the Kern, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Mokelumne, American, Feather, and Pit Rivers. In addition, we expect to continue to push via the relicensing process for the removal of large and small dams to restore salmon habitat on the Klamath River, Cow Creek, and Butte Creek. Click here to learn more.
None of the achievements of 2009 would have been possible without the dedicated support of our members. Continued support is even more critical to meet the challenges of 2010. Please consider a donation today to ensure we can continue our work, click here to donate now. Give the gift of rivers through a gift membership, click here to learn more.