When Darrell Imperatrice was a boy, California's San Joaquin River teemed with so many king salmon his father could catch 40-pound fish using only a pitchfork.
Then the salmon vanished from the icy river for nearly 60 years, after a colossal federal dam built to nurture the croplands below dried up their habitat.
Now, as federal officials try to bring the fish back through a sweeping restoration program of the state's second-largest river — opening the valves for the first full day on Friday — those who know it best are debating its value and its virtue.
“There were so many salmon back then, you could fish any way you wanted, even dynamite. But when they built that dam, thousands of fish lay dead on the banks,” said Imperatrice, who at age 82 still treasures his father's fishing gear. “There's no real restoration that will bring back the river I knew.”
Friends of Imperatrice's family helped build the dam after the Great Depression, hauling sand up the channel and running cranes to build the 314-foot concrete wall that now holds back the Sierra Nevada snowmelt.
Thanks to the Friant Dam, that river water sustains more than 1,500 square miles of productive farmland on the east side of the Central Valley.
But for part of its course, in areas where the salmon once flourished, the river also serves as a drain, taking leftover irrigation water from fields, mixed with fertilizers and city runoff, out to a freshwater delta and the San Francisco Bay. Dry stretches totalling more than 60 miles hold gravel and tumbleweeds.
Friday morning, hours after federal officials released the first streams of water down its channels since the 1940s, environmentalists celebrated the beginning of a major restoration effort, the result of their decades-long legal tussle with farmers and the federal government.
The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit in 1988, claiming the government's massive dam and irrigation channels favored commerce at native salmon's expense.
After years of hearings and negotiations, all parties agreed to a legal settlement in 2006 to return water to two dry stretches of the river and bring back native Chinook salmon by 2012.
President Obama signed a bill implementing the agreement in March, and on Friday, the first test flows snaked toward the dry riverbed, where Bureau of Reclamation officials hope they will revive the river's ancestral channels.
But as freshwater supplies throughout the state dry up due to a three-year drought, some farmers worry the deal could wither their crops.
Kole Upton, who grows almonds and corn north of the river's floodplain, says he won't have enough water to irrigate his fields once more water is diverted for the fish.
Under the settlement terms, farmers who gave up their supplies were supposed to get some freshwater in return from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Now they fear drought and environmental restrictions mean there won't be enough water left to pump back from the beleaguered delta where the river ends in a maze of levees.
“The agreement on this restoration deal was that we wouldn't harm any of the people involved. The solution is not to just keep taking away water from farmers,” said Upton, who negotiated the agreement on behalf of the Friant Water Users Authority. “They can take every drop of water we have down here and it's not going to solve the delta's problems.”
Upton — and Imperatrice — say the solution is to build another dam above Friant to capture more river water in a larger reservoir.
But biologists caution that even with the current effort, it will take decades before salmon return to the San Joaquin, which once carried the continent's southernmost salmon run.
After the fish are reintroduced next year, it will take four to seven life cycles before the spring-run Chinook come back from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in its pools, said Peter Moyle, a biologist at the University of California, Davis.
“Everybody agrees we're not really going to recreate the old San Joaquin because we aren't going to end up with half a million salmon flowing through here,” Moyle said. “We're going to be inventing a new river.”
As the releases flow out over the next six weeks, scientists plan to monitor the water's impact on the dry channels, surrounding croplands and potential spawning habitat.
Eventually, the aim is for the river to flow uninterrupted to the delta, and out to the open ocean.
While that won't do much in the short term to replenish commercial fishing stocks, which have fallen so low the season has been canceled for two years along the Pacific coast, fishermen say it could offer some help.
“It's not going to be an overnight recovery, but every time surplus water goes down the San Joaquin, we see the fish show up,” said Duncan McLean, a salmon fisherman in Half Moon Bay. “It's got to be a holistic ecosystem.”