FRESNO - It all starts Thursday with a gentle surge of water to be released from Friant Dam, northeast of Fresno, into the San Joaquin River.
A massive, unprecedented and unpredictable river restoration project will begin, reawakening miles of dried riverbed and salmon runs that have been extinct for six decades.
Long stretches of the river have been dry since the dam was built in the 1940s. Parts have become a gutter for the San Joaquin Valley, collecting muddy seepage, trash and abandoned cars.
Now, in a nine-year effort that could cost up to $1.2 billion, the 350-mile San Joaquin will be reconnected with the Pacific Ocean. Salmon, which once teemed in its waters, may again migrate from near Fresno to the ocean.
The project begins with test releases to determine how the river will respond. Engineers then will widen the riverbed in some places and dig new channels around obstacles.
In recent years, government agencies across the nation have attempted other big-river restoration projects, from the Penobscot River in Maine to the Klamath in Oregon. But nobody is restoring a big, salmon-supporting river this far south - or a river as damaged as the San Joaquin.
"I've never seen anything like this on this scale," said Bay Area-based biologist Chuck Hanson, a longtime fisheries consultant and now a member of an independent advisory committee on the San Joaquin restoration.
Farmers will lose water
Not everyone relishes the challenge.