Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giving Thanks - a portion of San Joaquin River flows again

San Joaquin River flows stop below Mendota Dam

By Mark Grossi, The Fresno Bee, Calif.

Nov. 21--The first revival flows of the San Joaquin River have stopped about 30 miles downstream of Mendota Dam, well short of fully refilling the dried riverbed.

Reconnecting the entire river probably won't happen until next year, but federal officials collected a lot of information from monitoring wells during the seven-week experimental flow that ended Friday.

Officials believe a lot of water was lost in a section that has been mostly dry for the last half-century.
"As we sort out all the data, we'll have a better feel for how much we lost and how the river reacted," said Jason Phillips, restoration program manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "But there were no surprises."

The river restoration began Oct. 1 under a lawsuit settlement signed by farmers, environmentalists and the federal government in 2006. The San Joaquin dried up and salmon runs died after Friant Dam northeast of Fresno began capturing the water in the late 1940s.

The experimental flow was stopped Friday so Central California Irrigation District can perform a regularly scheduled safety inspection of Mendota Dam, 62 miles downstream of Friant Dam.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which owns and operates Friant Dam, will resume water releases Feb. 1.

To completely refill the San Joaquin, the flows would have to travel an additional 84 miles downstream of Mendota Dam to reach the confluence of the Merced River.

Earlier this week, the water moved quickly -- taking about 24 hours -- from Mendota Dam to Sack Dam, 23 miles downstream. That's because the river already had water flowing in it. Irrigation water is routinely sent from the Mendota Pool down that stretch of the river.

But the river moved very slowly in October, inching along for weeks through a 20-mile dry section between Gravelly Ford and the Mendota Pool. The river did not reach the pool until this month.

Throughout the process, officials and the farmers who own Mendota and Sack dams discussed how the water would pass through the dams. Federal officials said the talks helped to create a relationship that they want to continue as the restoration unfolds.

Trip tests waters of revived San Joaquin

Published online on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009

By Mark Grossi / The Fresno Bee

FLOATING ON THE SAN JOAQUIN RIVER -- My plastic kayak suddenly ran aground in a place where the San Joaquin River has flowed only a few times since the 1950s.

But I was only briefly caught on a shallow gravel bar about 40 miles west of Friant Dam.
It was one of many unexpected encounters on an otherwise smooth float that began Wednesday with a monstrous barn owl and ended with an iPhone.

The kayak trip was an up-close peek at a section of the rejuvenated San Joaquin that not many people have boated over the last several decades because it usually is dry.

It will be months, if not years, before the river becomes fully navigable, but the day is coming when it might provide an important new recreation amenity for the Valley. But questions remain unanswered: Who will settle conflicts between power boats and kayakers? Who will provide access points?

Special report: A River Reborn This trip became so much more than a quick look at a reborn river.
The San Joaquin's split personality -- lush and green below Friant Dam but desertlike beyond Gravelly Ford -- is far more vivid when viewed from a boat.

Such a view wouldn't even be possible except for a federal restoration program that increased the amount of water released from Friant Dam starting Oct. 1. The construction of the dam more than half a century ago left a dry riverbed downstream.

The river's green section from Friant Dam to Gravelly Ford is familiar to many boaters. Officials continuously release water from the dam for riverside property owners, and the river never died here.

But 38 miles downstream at Gravelly Ford, the flow dwindles to nothing in most years. Now, with extra water flowing, that stretch is waking from a half-century of slumber. West of Kerman, the San Joaquin is a gorgeous desert river meandering around cobble islands -- piles of large stones -- as screeching swallows fly in every direction.

Bee photographer Mark Crosse and I started at Skaggs Bridge Park so we could see the transition from sycamores and eucalyptus to cobble and sand.

About two miles down from Skaggs Bridge, we passed through a wide pond where we saw two Fresno fishing enthusiasts, Peter Jew, 36, and Edward Juarez, 31, on the shore. We wanted to chat, but our boats were quickly moving into a swift bottleneck in the river.

We had to navigate around sycamore limbs and arundo -- a dreaded invasive giant reed plant from Asia. Suddenly, we heard a rush of wings. It was the monstrous owl, making a mad rush for a new perch and scaring me silly.

We stopped on a cobble island at Gravelly Ford for lunch and tried to imagine what it looked like here in 1982, when a string of El NiƱo-influenced storms created November runoff more than twice as high as it was Wednesday.

When we moved on, I tried to spot a bald eagle nesting site that a biologist had described to me. I saw only migrating geese, honking wildly as they flew by. Their calls soon were drowned by the sound of a powerful motorboat.

The guy driving the boat slowed politely to keep the wake down and let us pass. The motorboat was surprising because I had expected the water to be too shallow.

Three young men along the banks apparently didn't expect to see us. They were carrying rifles, seemingly hunting -- perhaps on private property -- for ducks or dove. So we asked which type of bird they were hunting. Suddenly, their rifles no longer were in sight.

"We're just looking," one called out.
We moved onward.

By then, Mendota was in the distance, but we would not get that far. Our pullout point was several miles short of the Mendota Pool, which is next to Mendota.

We weren't sure we could boat much farther anyway. The blades of our paddles were sometimes hitting the river bottom. When we hung up on that pesky sand bar, I climbed out and pushed my boat back into the flow.

Then I solved my last dilemma with the help of an iPhone -- tucked away in a sealed plastic bag. There were no landmarks that I recognized. I needed the GPS program to locate our pullout place along the river. I was surprised at how well it worked.

We were about seven miles from Mendota when we hauled out the boats.

Which leads me to one piece of advice for other boaters: Until the Mendota Pool, there are few places to get out of the river beyond Gravelly Ford without crossing private property.

Ask around, check Google Earth, carry a GPS unit.


  1. Experienced river boaters often use the public easements at bridges to achieve legal access to the rivers. My river guide provides information about access points as well as flow, difficulty, map, weather, guidebooks, trip reports & links.

    San Joaquin River Parkway Guide for Kayaking, Rafting & Canoeing.

    The directory provides links to recreation & conservation throughout the watershed.

    San Joaquin River Watershed Directory - Conservation & Recreation. Websites for San Joaquin River valley. (Sort alphabetically. 1=kayaking, 2=rafting, 3=environment-conservation, 4=fishing, 5=hiking-camping, 6=local-websites)

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