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U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Releases 2023 Flow Schedule for San Joaquin River Species

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Releases 2023 Flow Schedule for San Joaquin River Species
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By Miles Krieger and Steve Anderson

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau) released its default flow schedule for releases from Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River for the benefit of San Joaquin River fish species, particularly spring-run chinook salmon. According to the Bureau, 2023 is deemed a wet year, and the Bureau allocated 556,542 acre-feet for salmon restoration flows, measured over 30 miles downstream of the dam.


The San Joaquin River Restoration Program (SJRRP) is a long-term collaborative program to restore flows in the San Joaquin River from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River in Central California. One of the SJRRP’s two primary goals are to restore a self-sustaining spring-run chinook salmon population. The second goal is to reduce or avoid negative impacts on the water supply for all Friant Division long-term contractors.

The Friant Dam is a concrete gravity dam located on the San Joaquin River in central California. Its construction was completed in 1942 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for the purpose of flood control and providing agricultural irrigation water to the southern San Joaquin Valley. According to the Bureau, before the completion of Friant Dam, the San Joaquin River supported the southernmost populations of Central Valley spring-run chinook salmon and fall-run chinook salmon, where hundreds of thousands of chinook used to return each year. After Friant Dam was completed, parts of the San Joaquin River began to run dry as more and more water was diverted into canals for agricultural irrigation, disconnecting salmon from their habitat in the upper San Joaquin River. Currently, according to the Bureau, the tributaries of the lower San Joaquin River still support populations of fall-run chinook salmon but spring-run chinook salmon have been absent from the mainstem San Joaquin River for over 60 years.

The requirement for water flows to be released from the Friant Dam into the San Joaquin River for the benefit of salmon is a result of a lawsuit that spanned nearly two decades. In an unpublished federal court case, Natural Resources Defense Council, et al. v. Rodgers, et al., United States District Court, Eastern District of California, Case No. CIV-S-88-1658-LKK/GGH, plaintiffs Natural Resources Defense Council, et al., brought suit against the Bureau and others alleging violations of the federal Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531, et seq., California Fish and Game Code, § 5937, and § 8 of the Reclamation Act of 1902. The alleged violations were a result of the reduction of the natural water flows used by salmon for spawning runs on the San Joaquin and Merced rivers. Ultimately the litigation ended with the a settlement agreement (Settlement) between the parties, the adoption of federal legislation enacted to facilitate the Settlement, structural changes to the Friant Dam and associated facilities, and an ongoing obligation on the Bureau to release water into the San Joaquin River in an effort to re-establish salmon runs.

There are two main goals that came out of the Settlement (which later became the goals of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program): (1) the Restoration Goal, which is to restore and maintain fish populations in “good condition” in the mainstem San Joaquin River below Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River, including naturally reproducing and self-sustaining populations of salmon and other fish; and (2) the Water Management Goal, which is to reduce or avoid negative water supply impacts on all of the Friant Division long-term contractors that may result from the Interim and Restoration flows provided for in the Settlement.

Restoration Flows and the Settlement

To meet the Restoration Goal, the Bureau is required to release water pursuant to the terms of section 13 of the Settlement. Section 13, “Restoration Flows,” identifies ongoing requirements of the Bureau to source and release water from the Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River. The amount of water to be released is defined in the Settlement pursuant to hydrograph flows, also known as the “Base Flows.” Up to an additional 10 percent of the applicable hydrograph flows, or “Buffer Flows,” may be released as needed. Together the Base Flows, Buffer Flows, and any additional water acquired by the Bureau from willing sellers to meet the Restoration Goal are collectively referred to as the “Restoration Flows.” (Settlement, section 13(a), pp. 10-11.)

In addition to releasing sufficient volumes of water to restore the salmon runs, the Friant Dam must release water for flood control purposes. While dry climate in California limits the needs to flood control from season to season, flood control is nonetheless one of the primary purposes of the Friant Dam. California has recently experienced a season of heavy rain, as such the Friant Dam will release flood flows into the San Joaquin River as part of its flood control operations. These flood flows may accomplish some or all of the Restoration Flows required by this Settlement.

However, nothing in the Settlement is intended to limit, affect, or interfere with the ability to carry out flood control operations. (Settlement, section 13(d), p. 13.) Although flood control flows may lead to more water being released than the Restoration Flows require, the excess flood control flows do not create an additional obligation of the parties. In other words, times of heavy rain and the need for flood control operations have a positive benefit for the purposes and terms of the Settlement. For example, the Settlement contemplates the use of excess waters. These provisions allow for the Bureau to enter in agreements with either the long-term contractors or third parties to bank, store, or exchange the flood flow water for future supplemental Restoration Flows, or to arrange for the transfer of or to sell such water and deposit the proceeds into a Restoration Fund that has been created by the Settlement. Further, the Settlement allows Friant Dam to release the water during times of the year other than those specified by the Settlement. (Settlement, section 13(i), p. 16.)

Conclusion and Implications

The report released January 20, 2023 entitled, “Initial 2023 Restoration Allocation & Default Flow Schedule” is part of the annual and ongoing requirements of the Settlement, and sets the default flow schedule for releases—this year, totaling 556,542 acre-feet—unless hydrological or operations change are warranted to modify the releases.

Increased rains in California have resulted in additional water flowing to the Friant Dam and the San Joaquin River. While it remains to be seen whether the wet year designation for 2023 and corresponding releases will encourage or support salmon spawning more than releases have in dryer years, the additional water from the winter storms appears to add flexibility in meeting current and possibly future flow releases pursuant to the Settlement. For more information, see:Initial 2023 Restoration Allocation & Default Flow Schedule, January 20, 2023, available at; Settlement Agreement available at