Restoration begins in the courts

First Time in 60 Years: Spring Run Salmon Spawn in the San Joaquin River   

Restore Hetch Hetchy has taken its campaign to the California courts. After a year of motions, responses, replies and amicus briefs filed at the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno, we are waiting for the next hearing to be scheduled. We believe we have a strong case. 

If we are successful in court, it's possible that the schedule and other terms for restoration will ultimately be determined by negotiation rather than by a direct court order. That's what happened in the successful campaigns to restore Mono Lake and the lower San Joaquin River. As recently reported in the Fresno Bee, spring run chinook salmon that swam upriver in 2017 have spawned along the San Joaquin for the first time in 60 years! 


Dam removals on Butte Creek, a tributary of the Feather River, in the 1990's have provided endangered spring run chinook salmon additional access to habitat for spawning in the Sacramento Valley.

Photo: Bill Husa, Chico Enterprise-Record

All "runs" of salmon have suffered from development in California due to a combination of factors, including loss of habitat, pollution, and the diversion of natural flows. The loss of cold water habitat for spawning has been particularly devastating to fall and winter run salmon as these fish are present in Central Valley streams during the hot summer months. Because access to cold water has become so limited, populations of both spring and winter run chinook salmon have plummeted and both species are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

So it's exciting that spring run are again spawning in the San Joaquin, where they were plentiful before Friant Dam was built. These fish surely benefited in part from the extraordinarily high runoff in 2017. We'll see if they are able to spawn again later this year. 

Our campaign to restore Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley includes some of the same elements as the campaigns to restore Mono Lake and the San Joaquin River. All three cases began with public interest groups suing a recalcitrant water agency, which at the outset had no interest in making any system improvements to reduce harm to the environment. In the Mono Lake and San Joaquin cases, these water water agencies elected to negotiate only after adverse court rulings. But times change. Today many San Joaquin farmers support restoration of the fishery and it's tough to find anyone in Los Angeles who remains opposed the restoration of Mono Lake. 


The San Joaquin River provides water to some of the world's most productive farms in the eponymous valley. The law requires, however, that enough flow be left in stream to support fisheries.


If Restore Hetch Hetchy is successful in court, San Francisco may decide it is in the City's interest to negotiate the terms of restoration. Until then, we expect city leaders to continue to resist restoration. (Not everyone in the City is opposed. Restore Hetch Hetchy is grateful to our many supporters in San Francisco and its water service territory.)

The most obvious difference between our campaigns is that Mono Lake and the San Joaquin River are about water and ours is only about water storage. The other campaigns required Los Angeles and valley farmers to reduce their withdrawals of water from California's streams. Restore Hetch Hetchy, in contrast, does not begrudge San Francisco's withdrawal from the Tuolumne River - we just ask the City not to use Yosemite as a storage tank. 

We will let you know as soon as we hear from the court about the next hearing in our case.


Also, please join us for our 2018 Annual DinnerSaturday, March 17, 6PM @ the Berkeley City Club.