SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge ruled Friday that the U.S. government violated California law when it built the Friant Dam near Fresno six decades ago, a decision that could settle a 16-year-old water dispute and restore water flows to the state's second longest river.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton in Sacramento decided in favor of environmentalists who sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Friant Water Users Authority in 1988 over the dam on the San Joaquin River.
In the lawsuit, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups contended that the defendants violated state law by failing to release enough water to sustain the surrounding environment and wildlife.
Karlton wrote: "There can be no genuine dispute that many miles of the San Joaquin River are now entirely dry, except during extremely wet periods, and that the historic fish populations have been destroyed."
The river supported thousands of spawning Chinook salmon and other fish before the Bureau of Reclamation built Friant Dam, about 20 miles northeast of Fresno, in the 1940s.
The water now collects in Millerton Lake and provides irrigation to about 15,000 farmers and 1 million acres of farmland east of the river.
But the dam diverts so much water that long stretches of the river run dry most of the year.
Environmentalists argued that the river could be restored without hurting the region's farm economy, while opponents claimed that restoring the river for salmon would take water away from farmers and residents.
Officials with the Natural Resources Defense Council said they were thrilled with Karlton's decision, which could send water through the dam for the first time in more than 50 years.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns and operates the dam, wouldn't comment until its attorneys had a chance to review the judge's decision.