12/18/2014: Hope is in the Water

Peter Vorster reflects on salmon as a messenger of hope and restored health for the San Joaquin River.

Peter Vorster has over 36 years of experience as a hydrogeographer, much of it focused on California's water resources and the landmark environmental water conflicts in the Eastern Sierra (Mono Lake and the Owens Valley) and the San Francisco Bay-Delta watershed.  At The Bay Institute, Peter heads up the San Joaquin River Restoration Initiative and is a principal for the Ecological Scorecard project. He also works with the Oakland Museum on their urban creek and watershed map series

November, 19, 2012

On November 9, TBI’s Rivers and Delta Associate Greg Reis and I witnessed adult Chinook salmon swimming on the upstream side of Hills Ferry Barrier near the Merced River confluence. Seeing the salmon past the barrier was a very moving and fitting end to a Water Education Foundation tour where discussion about the San Joaquin River Restoration Program and the re-introduction of salmon focused heavily on obstacles rather than opportunities. At the end of the day, however, even some of the most skeptical water district managers were visibly excited to see the fish.

Although the barrier is designed to prevent salmon from becoming stranded up-river in the dry sections that lie between the barrier and their spawning grounds, fish succeed in getting past it. Those that end up on the upstream side of barrier – and nobody is exactly sure how they do this – meet an early and unproductive death.

This fall, California Department of Fish and Game and the Bureau of Reclamation have agreed to capture and relocate all fish getting past the barrier and move them up to spawning grounds below Friant Dam where they will be allowed to swim in the upper San Joaquin River for the first time in more than half a century. As of Monday, November 19, 51 salmon have been moved; 32 of them were tagged to allow biologists to track spawning and death.


My work on the San Joaquin focuses on implementing the 2006 settlement to restore fish and flow to the upper river and re-connect California's second longest river with the SF Bay. Despite the 2006 legal settlement and 2009 Federal legislation authorizing and funding the re-watering of the San Joaquin River, the river remains dry in reaches above the Merced River. Riverside landowners who both farm in the floodplain and benefit from a dry riverbed have stymied the Federal Bureau of Reclamation from releasing water down their reach of the river. TBI, along with our partners at NRDC and Trout Unlimited, are working diligently to ensure dry reaches are re-watered so that the young fish emerging from the gravels can successfully swim back to the ocean. Otherwise, some of the young fish will be trapped next spring and moved downstream.

TBI’s work to restore flows to Central Valley rivers and increase the freshwater inflow to the SF Bay has and continues to be a long and arduous process. Several recent events give us hope and increase our resolve. After many years of dismal returns, fall-run Chinook salmon are returning to spawn in numbers that appear to be the best in a decade on many rivers. November and December is a good time to see them spawn and TBI’s Salmon Viewing Map will guide you to the good places in Bay-Delta watershed to see fall-run and coho salmon spawning in the wild. Recent rains should get the Coho salmon moving up into coastal watersheds from now through January, and let’s hope their returns are as good as the fall-run Chinook.

Nature works its magic.