Judge gives more time to reach a final San Joaquin River agreement | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Judge gives more time to reach a final San Joaquin River agreement

SACRAMENTO (AP) – A federal judge on Monday gave farmers and environmentalists until the end of the month to reach an agreement that seeks to restore year-round water flows to parts of the San Joaquin River, negotiations aimed at bringing salmon runs back to one of California’s most important waterways.

Attorneys for both sides told U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton that they have resolved key substantive issues to reverse the negative effects of a dam built nearly 60 years ago.

A final agreement remained elusive, however, as attorneys continued to negotiate details with state officials. Those details focused on how the state Department of Water Resources would implement the final accord, they said.

“Our hope and expectation is we’ll be able to close (discussions) off by the end of June,” said Phil Atkins-Pattenson, an attorney representing the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Details of the tentative agreement remain confidential under a court order.

Attorneys representing Central Valley farmers, environmentalists and the federal Bureau of Reclamation had negotiated through Monday morning in hopes of meeting a court-ordered deadline for a final plan to release more water from Friant Dam. The dam, built in 1949, and created a reservoir that is now a state recreation area.

The case dates to a 1988 lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The environmental group was seeking to restore salmon runs after the dam choked the flow of water along the San Joaquin, leaving many downstream sections filled with tumbleweed.

The expected agreement would set in motion the largest river-restoration project in state history, ensuring the river would run year round from below the dam to where it enters the delta near Stockton.

The San Joaquin is a crucial link in the state’s vast water-delivery network. It helps irrigate Central Valley farm land and is part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta, which supplies drinking water to more than 20 million Californians as far south as Los Angeles.

“What we’re trying to do is get fish back to the delta without sacrificing the country’s most productive agricultural economy,” said Gregory Wilkinson, a partner with Best Best & Krieger who is representing the Friant Water Users Authority, a group that represents 15,000 farmers.

At a previous court hearing in April, the judge had threatened to impose his own solution if the parties failed to reach an agreement by a deadline he set for Monday. But as the deadline day arrived, Karlton said he was “significantly encouraged” that an agreement appeared close and ordered the attorneys to submit a written report by the end of the month.

“Last time we said we’d get this buttoned up by today,” the judge said. “Here we are getting closer.”

California water officials allowed the Bureau of Reclamation to proceed with its dam in the 1940s even though state Fish and Game officials knew that it would dry up parts of the river.

In 2004, Karlton agreed with the environmental group that the bureau had broken state law, which requires dam operators to provide enough water to sustain fish. He has postponed trial several times to allow the parties to continue to work toward an agreement.

Attorneys said the outstanding issues center on the state’s responsibilities for funding, restoration projects and to fortify downstream levees. Environmentalists say a steady river flow would provide fish habitat and improve water quality in the delta.

But downstream farmers in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties worry that an agreement might impose new Endangered Species Act regulations in order to protect the spring run of the Chinook salmon.

Meanwhile farmers in the Central California Irrigation District fear constant water flows could flood some 200,000 acres of valuable farm land.

The next hearing in the case likely will be scheduled for August, the attorneys said.

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