The study, produced by Shawn Kantor, a professor at University of California, Merced, predicts 11,392 jobs could result from a restoration effort slated to start next year in Merced, Fresno and Madera counties and be mostly done by 2019.
The San Joaquin River Restoration Project will restore spring-run Chinook salmon to the river and lead to the return of water to portions of the river that are now dry during much of the year. The project stems from a 2006 legal settlement among federal agencies, environmental groups and the Friant Water Users Authority in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Critics say more water in the river could mean some farmers would have too little to irrigate crops, while others might lose farmland to returning wetlands.
Researcher suggests reasons for optimism
What’s good for the river will be good for the economy, according to Kantor’s study, which was sponsored by the Fresno Regional Foundation, a nonprofit foundation whose mission is to improve the lives of people in the central San Joaquin Valley.
“The San Joaquin Valley is in dire need of this type of impetus as the region experiences some of the highest rates of unemployment in the country,” Kantor’s report states.
Specifically, Kantor’s study estimates the restoration project will directly create 4,696 jobs — mostly within the construction industry, but some in scientific fields. Most of those jobs would exist during the peak of the construction project from 2015 to 2019.
The northernmost construction project for the restoration effort would entail building a fish barrier where the river intersects Mud and Salt sloughs east of Gustine, less than 20 miles from Patterson.
Kantor’s study also predicts restoration work will produce 1,891 indirect jobs as the result of supply-chain purchases — in the cement industry, for example.
He also anticipates 3,696 induced jobs from real estate agents, retailers and other industries that would benefit from having the project in the area.
Another 635 jobs could result from private groups, such as the nonprofit River Partners, that could seek grants to carry out restoration efforts of their own, according to the study.
Finally, the study predicts that 475 permanent recreation jobs will remain in place starting in 2025. That finding echoes a 2005 study by University of California, Berkeley, resource economist W. Michael Hanemann.
In the long run, the restoration project could fuel more tourism within the region, such as fishing, boating, wildlife viewing, picnicking, swimming and other outdoor activities, Kantor’s study indicated.
The project would particularly be helpful, as the central San Joaquin Valley has suffered from dismal unemployment figures in recent years, the report stated. In 2011, Fresno County had an average rate of 16.5 percent unemployment, Madera County had 15.3 percent and Merced County had 18.3 percent, making it the fourth most challenged county in the state.
The report also notes that the average median income of the eight San Joaquin Valley counties, at $28,775, is only about 84 percent of the state’s $34,079 median income.
Kantor estimates the project will produce 14.1 jobs for every $1 million spent, based on a comparison of similar restoration projects throughout the country.
State and federal agencies are slated to spend about $792.8 million, mostly during a seven-year period, on projects such as construction of channels and structural improvements, rewetting of the river, fish reintroduction and water management. Those projects will occur over a 153-mile stretch from the Friant Dam at Millerton Lake east of Madera to the confluence of the San Joaquin and Merced rivers.
While Kantor’s study demonstrates some of the economic benefits of river restoration, the researcher emphasized last week that his report was not a full cost-benefit analysis. Instead, he said he sought to provide a nuanced response to the restoration project’s economic impacts after other studies pointed out potential drawbacks.
“We have this unintended benefit,” Kantor said. “We get this economic jolt.”
Bill Bassitt, the CEO of the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance, which promotes economic development within the county, was cautious in his response to the report. He said he wanted to avoid the politics involved in the restoration effort.
“Certainly, whenever there is a construction project or whenever someone is building anything at all, there are construction jobs, and whenever people are employed, it is a good thing for a community,” Bassitt said.
Bassitt said questions about the “appropriateness” of the restoration project were “above my pay grade.”
Alicia Forsythe, project manager of the San Joaquin Restoration Project, said she had not seen Kantor’s study, but said studies conducted on behalf of the project itself predicted both job gains in construction and losses in agriculture.
“Based on our analysis, the construction benefits would be greater than the losses,” Forsythe said. “But we do recognize there would be jobs gained and jobs lost from the program, sometimes in different locations.”
Ag representatives point out negatives
Some farm water advocates, such as Mike Wade, president of the Sacramento-based California Farm Water Coalition, have expressed disappointment in the study, which Wade said did not consider how restoring the river could hurt agriculture.
“We’re not out to criticize (Kantor) for pointing out where the jobs are going to be,” Wade said. “There’s a significant number of jobs that will be produced by restoration activities. However, the report failed to look at the impact of restoration to private property.”
For example, he said a lack of assurances that water taken from the Friant Water Users Authority will be returned to water users from other sources could mean the loss of thousands of farm jobs.
The Friant Unit of the Central Valley Project delivers water to more than 1 million acres of farmland on the east side of the southern San Joaquin Valley, from Chowchilla south to the Tehachapi Mountains. If that water is diverted to the San Joaquin River and no other source is found and is not returned through other means, deliveries to farm water districts are expected to drop by 140,000 to 170,000 acre-feet per year, on average, according to a 2009 fact sheet released by San Joaquin River Restoration Program officials.
As a result, project officials are looking at various means of returning that water to irrigation districts. Those include low-cost sales of surplus water from Millerton Lake, improvements to the Friant-Kern and Madera canals to increase capacity, and various water transfers and exchanges with other Central Valley Project contractors further downstream, Forsythe said.
Ron Jacobsma, the general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority, cited a 2005 economic analysis done on behalf of the authority, indicating that restoration would take 200,000 acre-feet of water per year from farm users, far more than project officials anticipate.
That study predicted that 50,000 to 65,000 acres of farmland would eventually be taken out of production, leading to the loss of 3,000 jobs.
In addition to challenges related specifically to the loss of water to the Friant users, the rewetting of the river will damage surrounding croplands as river water seeps under the soil, both Jacobsma and Wade said. They said that would lead to less farmable cropland and more lost jobs.
Seepage on farmland likely will reach north of the restoration area, including in the Patterson area, according to Dan Nelson, the executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority. His organization oversees delivery of federal Central Valley Project water to contractors in the Bay Area and northern San Joaquin Valley.
Project representatives are now monitoring seepage problems as portions of the river are being rewetted in experimental phases, seeking to better understand those issues and prevent further damage to crops when the bulk of the project is implemented, Forsythe said.
Both Jacobsma and Wade also criticized Kantor’s claim that restoration would create more opportunities for people interested in fishing in the San Joaquin River.
Wade pointed out that spring-run Chinook salmon are on a federal list of threatened species.
“The salmon that they’re reintroducing are spring-run (Chinook) salmon,” he said. “Yeah, go out to fish — and go to jail.”
Ecology, economy both could benefit
Monty Schmitt, a senior scientist for the San Francisco-based Natural Resources Defense Council who has worked on restoration of the San Joaquin River, disputed farm water users’ contention that the restoration effort could cut back on fishing opportunities.
He noted that fall-run salmon, unlike the spring-run Chinook, are not federally protected and could be caught. More water in the river also could lead to larger fish populations and more fishing opportunities, he said.
Schmitt also said he was pleased to see the economic angle to Kantor’s study. People tend to think only about the ecological improvements that result from such projects, he said.
“I think it’s exciting and interesting news,” Schmitt said. “Most times, people don’t think of the jobs creation aspects of restoration.”
Schmitt said the settlement will provide mitigation measures for the Friant Users who will have to release some of their water, though Jacobsma countered that those measures have yet to be precisely spelled out and it’s unclear how they will be funded.
In addition, Schmitt said the settlement upholds the law.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups initially sued the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1988 after the agency proposed to renew Friant Division’s 40-year water service contracts without an Environmental Impact Statement.
The complaint was later amended to include other claims, including one under the Endangered Species Act and another alleging the operation of Friant Dam violates a state law that requires any dam to release enough water to keep fish populations in good condition below the dam.
The San Joaquin River historically supported large numbers of salmon, including the southernmost Chinook salmon population in North America, until Friant Dam became operational in the late 1940s. Since then, about 60 miles of the river have dried up in most years, eliminating salmon above the river’s confluence with the Merced River.
“A living river will generate more use and more appreciation for the area,” Schmitt said.
• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187, ext. 26, or email@example.com.