updated 9/14/2006 12:09:52 PM ET 2006-09-14T16:09:52

Water dammed for more than half a century will be returned to the San Joaquin River by 2009 in one of the West’s largest river restoration projects, according to a settlement filed Wednesday.

The agreement caps an 18-year legal battle played out in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento over how much water should be allowed to flow from the federal government’s Friant Dam to restore the salmon population.

When the dam began operating in 1949, it transformed the San Joaquin Valley’s main artery from a river thick with salmon into an irrigation powerhouse that nourishes more than a million acres of farmland in some of the country’s highest-grossing agricultural fields.

The 314-foot barrier also dried up long stretches of the river below the dam and made it a more likely home for lizards than spawning salmon.

In 2004, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton agreed with the Natural Resources Defense Council that the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that built and maintains Friant Dam, had broken the law by not letting enough water flow to sustain the salmon.

Details of the 43-page settlement were hashed out in June among environmental and fishing organizations, farmers, irrigation districts and state and federal agencies. The groups were under a court order to keep the provisions confidential until Wednesday.

“This is a story about breathing new life back into a critical waterway,” said Hal Candee, an NRDC senior attorney.

As part of the 20-year agreement, the Friant Water Users Authority, which represents 22 irrigation districts that supply water to the region’s 15,000 farmers, will relinquish between 19 percent and 23 percent of its traditional water usage from Friant’s Millerton Lake reservoir, according to documents accompanying the settlement.

In return, the Department of Interior will collaborate with the authority to determine how best to capture and recirculate water that is released downstream so it can be sent back to the Friant districts. Users also could buy surplus water at reduced cost in years where it is available.

Under the settlement, additional water will begin flowing from the Friant Dam beginning in 2009 and reach full flows by 2014.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will reintroduce fall and spring runs of Chinook salmon after water flows have been increased. Under the agreement, salmon will be restored to the river no later than Dec. 31, 2012.

Participants said the river restoration project will be among the West’s most ambitious and expensive, with preliminary cost estimates running from $250 million to $800 million.

Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the authority, called the settlement a workable compromise.

“We can’t afford long-term to give up those water supplies,” Jacobsma said, but he added that he hoped that the efforts to recapture water will make up for all or most of the loss.

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