Swept along by a drought-busting winter, the San Joaquin River restoration is getting good reviews at the end of its first year -- even from one vocal farm critic.
The stormy season helped officials reconnect the long-dry river with the Pacific Ocean and ease fears of farmers who lost irrigation water for the restoration.
Some of the restoration water was recaptured and sent back to farms. Plus, farmers bought a bounty of cheap river water from excess snowmelt.
But challenges await in the second year, which starts Friday.
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Federal officials must deal with a farm family's lawsuit alleging seepage damage from the revived river. And the global weather-changer La Nina may bring a dry winter to California.
In the next year, officials must keep the river running to prepare for restoring salmon runs in late 2012, avoid seepage damage and somehow return water to farmers -- even if the next winter is dry.
Restoration critic Kole Upton, a farmer and water official, was impressed with the effort this year -- though he remains skeptical of the project.
"It was refreshing to see the government put some effort into farmers getting their water back," Upton said.
Environmentalists applauded the first year, said Monty Schmidtt, senior water resources scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to restore the river.
"For decades, there have been people saying it would never happen, but it did, and that's significant," he said. "We have a tremendous amount of detail now about this river, and we'll have much more in the next year."
The restoration -- which could cost up to $1.2 billion over the next several years -- began last October after nearly two decades of legal wrangling.
Environmentalists were winning the lawsuit, which contended the government violated state law by wiping out two salmon runs after building Friant Dam in the 1940s. The legal action ended in 2006 with a settlement among farmers, environmentalists and the federal government.
The settlement's goals: refill 60 dried miles of the state's second-longest river, reintroduce the two salmon runs and return some restoration water to farmers.
The restoration started with release of extra water from Friant Dam on Oct. 1.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation kept flows moving slowly forward in the dry parts of the river on the Valley's west side through winter months. The main fear was that surrounding farm property would be damaged either by flooding over the river's banks or seepage into the ground below adjoining property.
Flooding did not appear to be a problem. There were sporadic reports of seepage, however.
A network of monitoring wells helped officials keep track of the underground water table, which typically rises in the areas next to rivers and can seep into the adjacent land.
In late August, the Wolfsen family on the west side filed a seepage damage suit in federal court, claiming damage to about 13,000 acres of crops. A family spokesman said the suit is intended only to preserve the family's rights, not to stop restoration.
Federal officials, who don't comment on pending litigation, said their plan this year is to continue releases, expand the network of monitoring wells and figure out where they need to deepen or widen the channel to support higher water flows.
In the next few years, officials must decide whether the water will flow through the river's original dried bed or through a massive flood-control bypass channel nearby.
This year, officials will double the current water release from Friant for 10 days in November to simulate the increased flows of water that salmon will need to swim upstream for spawning.
"We still have a lot to learn," said Jason Phillips, bureau project manager. "Every year is different -- the weather changes, irrigation patterns change and ground-water levels are different." This winter might be much drier than last year, according to predictions from federal forecasters. La Nina, an ocean cooling trend along the equator, has formed in the Pacific, meaning parts of California may be drier than normal.
If it's a dry winter, less water will be required for the restoration flows, according to the legal settlement.
During the wet first year, officials used about 260,000 acre-feet of water, which is enough to fill half of Millerton Lake. An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, or a 12- to 18-month supply for an average Valley family.
Federal officials returned about 42,000 acre-feet of the restoration water to farmers. Because of the above-average water year, farmers also bought about 80,000 acre-feet of extra water at a discount, in accordance with the settlement.
The 42,000 acre-feet of restoration water that was returned to farmers was captured at Mendota Pool, 62 river miles from Friant Dam, near Mendota.
But officials won't be capturing much water at the pool in a few years. Instead, they will send the majority of it 80 miles farther to the confluence of the Merced River and on to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Fresno Bee reporter Mark Grossi can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6316.