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San Joaquin river restoration bill introduced

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in Congress to get $250 million in federal funds, the federal government’s share of the cost to restore water flows on all the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam.

Identical versions of the “San Joaquin River Settlement Act” were introduced in the Senate and House by California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and U.S. Reps. George Radanovich, Grace Napolitano, Dennis Cardoza, Jim Costa, George Miller and Richard Pombo.

The legislation seeks authoization for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to implement an historic agreement between farmers and environmentalists to restore water flows on river and at the same time preserve the right rights of current water users.

Congress is poised to go home for the holidays, however, introduction of this legislation sets the stage for debate on the bill when the new Democratically controlled Congress returns after the recess.

The legislation represents the federal part a settlement agreement ending an 18-year legal dispute between Friant Water Users Authority (FWUA) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) bureau’s operation of Friant Dam near Fresno, Calif.

Additional funding will come from Friant water user payments and at least $100 million from the Proposition 84 water and parks bond that was approved last month by California voters.

“The introduction of legislation is the latest step in this long process. For the co-equal water management goal to be effective, the Friant community must work together cooperatively and fully utilize the water-loss mitigation measures in the settlement. Appropriate legislative and administrative actions by federal, state and local officials to ensure recovery of the surface water losses and maintenance of the underground aquifer are an integral part of this process. Failure to diligently pursue the necessary actions for effective mitigation could result in Valley residents being forced to make difficult choices in the future,” said Kole Upton, chairman, Friant Water Users Authority.

“This legislation’s introduction...represent a major advance toward making river restoration, renewed river flows and associated new water management in the Friant Division a reality,” said Ronald D. Jacobsma, Friant Water Users Authority Consulting General Manager.

“We hope these bills are passed this year, but even if they are not, they set the stage for action by the 110th Congress. Either way, restoring the river is one step closer to reality,” said Hal Candee, senior attorney and co-director of NRDC’s western water project.

Should there be no action on the bill during the waning days of the current session of Congress.

The bill establishes programs and activities of water recapture, recirculation, reuse, exchanges or transfers to minimize impacts on Friant Division contractors and the 15,000 mostly small family farmers on approximately one million acres of the most productive farmland in the nation in addition to numerous communities served from the Friant-Kern and Madera canals.

The bill also seeks to restore the San Joaquin River so it can again support historic salmon populations, including the southernmost Chinook salmon population in North America. Since Friant Dam became fully operational in the early 1950s, parts of the system have been dry except for flood releases or infrequent operational spills. Salmon are no longer present above the river’s confluence with the Merced River.

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