PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Blog Post · July 18, 2023

From Litigation to Collaboration on the San Joaquin River

This post is the final in a series on community engagement in river restoration projects in California, funded by the 2022–23 PPIC CalTrout Ecosystem Fellowship.

photo - High River Flows on the San Joaquin River, pixel-ca-dwr-2023_06_13_KJ_0020_San_Joaquin_River

The San Joaquin Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, and much of its success comes from the waters of the San Joaquin River. Historically, the big challenge in managing this river was how to harness its waters for irrigation while also reducing the impacts of floods. Today, another big challenge has been added to the mix: how to undo some of the damage done to the environment and to reconnect the river to its many communities.

The San Joaquin River and its tributaries—including the Merced, Tuolumne, and Stanislaus rivers—drain the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, flowing north into the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. Before colonization, the waters fanned out across the floodplains of the valley, feeding wetlands, creating vast underground reserves of water, and fueling one of the state’s most productive freshwater ecosystems, which supported numerous tribes, including the Yokuts and Miwoks.

But harnessing the San Joaquin for irrigation and seeking to tame its floods extracted a very high environmental price. All of its tributaries host large dams that regulate flows and block salmon’s access to historical spawning grounds. Roughly 80% of its average runoff is diverted; most of the river is cut off from its historic wetlands by levees or reductions in flows; large sections of the San Joaquin dry out completely in most years; and its groundwater has been drawn down to levels that disconnect it from the river. The ecosystems we see today—along with the species that inhabit them—are vastly different from their historical counterparts.

map - San Joaquin River

We’re now in an era of rebalancing, as climate change upends the stability of natural systems that were already struggling. There is increasing pressure to improve environmental conditions on the state’s rivers while reconnecting them with their communities. The San Joaquin is a case study in the many approaches being undertaken to achieve this rebalancing.

The first approach is litigation. In the late 1980s, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit against the US Bureau of Reclamation, seeking to restore Chinook salmon below Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River. When a federal district court found that the US Bureau of Reclamation had violated state law, the parties to the litigation settled, leading to the San Joaquin River Restoration Program (SJRRP).

The result was a federally managed restoration program that seeks, in large part, to restore and keep a population of spring-run Chinook salmon in good condition.

Yet after several decades of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, results have been mixed. The salmon population still is not re-established (although in recent years restoration efforts have shown some progress). And the objectives of the program remain very narrow, focusing on a single species of fish in a limited part of the San Joaquin watershed.

The second approach to rebalancing on the San Joaquin River has been regulation. In 2018, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted controversial new flow and water quality standards for the river that would increase flows to benefit the environment, with a focus on salmon and steelhead populations. These regulations remain a work in progress as environmental documentation is completed and efforts to negotiate voluntary agreements continue. One weakness of this regulatory approach is that it does not reconnect the river to its historic floodplains and does little to connect communities.

The third approach to rebalancing is broad, multi-benefit restoration. Many valley players have recognized that simply bringing back salmon through increased flows won’t meet community needs or restore the health of the river. Reconnecting the river to its historic floodplains is key. This reconnection has multiple social, environmental, and economic benefits. It sustains riparian forests and wetlands vital to river health, opens areas for recreation for local communities, recharges depleted groundwater, and, done right, reduces flood risk for towns along the river by lowering flood elevations.

River Partners is pioneering one multi-benefit project: Dos Rios Ranch. California’s largest floodplain restoration project ever, the project is on track to become a new state park. The land is already thriving as wildlife habitat, and the complex has served as a shock absorber, taking floodwater and possibly mitigating flooding further downstream. And the group is making a point to work closely with local residents and tribes: River Partners hires their neighbors, and native partners are helping to plant sedge, willow, and other plants used in cultural tradition.

In a different way, the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust is also engaged in multi-benefit work, creating both a greenway and recreational opportunities. The trust says it serves about 50,000 people annually, many of them schoolchildren, through visits to their main interpretive campus, guided canoe trips, events, and RiverCamp. The project is building river awareness among school-age children, reaching underserved communities, and even offering employment to some local residents.

Of the three approaches to rebalancing the San Joaquin River—litigation, regulation, and multi-benefit restoration—the latter holds great promise for improving ecosystem conditions while reconnecting the river to its many diverse communities. Of course, all three approaches play an important role. Without regulation, there might be insufficient flow to meet restoration goals. And the threat of litigation can be motivation for some parties to seek solutions. But restoration—with its multiple benefits—holds hope for a better future for the San Joaquin River.


California rivers climate change dams ecosystem restoration ecosystem restoration community engagement endangered species Freshwater Ecosystems San Joaquin Valley Water, Land & Air wildlife