Quantcast

'Most Endangered' River in the Nation

Insights + Opinion

The organization American Rivers has distinguished the San Joaquin River of California with the dubious title of "most endangered" river in the nation. Since 2009 the stream has been celebrated as a path-breaking example of restoration—status that could now be threatened.

The San Joaquin can claim to be the hardest working river in America; not only did diversions completely dry up a 63-mile middle reach for fifty years, but then the lower river's polluted return-flows are pumped back upstream to be used yet again. Photo credit: Tim Palmer

This artery of California's Central Valley and important supplier of water to southern California begins in high Sierra wonderlands south of Yosemite National Park and in the breathtaking Evolution Valley of Kings Canyon National Park. Below the stunning park-protected headwaters and wilderness areas, the river and its tributaries are dammed 30 times. The San Joaquin is repeatedly impounded for hydropower as it plunges toward grassy foothills, diverted for irrigation in the Central Valley, finally ending in the Delta as a conduit of agricultural runoff and the second-longest river system in California.

The San Joaquin can claim to be the hardest working river in America; not only did diversions completely dry up a 63-mile middle reach for fifty years, but then the lower river's polluted return-flows are pumped back upstream to be used yet again. The Water Education Foundation called this the "most impaired major river in the state." A legendary migration of half a million salmon—nourishing Indians, sport anglers, wildlife and a robust commercial fishery at sea—was reduced from one of the most prolific anadromous runs in America to virtually nothing. But in 1988, the river's prospects began to change.

When the federal Bureau of Reclamation acted to extend the San Joaquin's overdrawn plight by rubber-stamping another 40-year extension of irrigation supply contracts, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other conservation groups appealed, and prevailed in court. With hard-earned consensus of all major parties in 2006, a legal agreement set new rules, contracts and appropriations to serve irrigation needs but also to re-nourish nominal flows in the desiccated reaches, to upgrade water quality, and to restore self-sustaining runs of salmon. With great fanfare, initial flows freshening the San Joaquin's long-parched mid-section bubbled northward in 2009. Salmon—eager to return home for spawning even after the species' half-century of absence—migrated upriver once again in 2012 and 2013. Restoration flows were recaptured downstream for farmers. Fishing derbies, salmon festivals and summer camps sprang to life in communities along the way as the newly formulated San Joaquin gained stature as America's preeminent river to be reborn.

American Rivers has distinguished the San Joaquin River of California with the dubious title of "most endangered" river in the nation. Photo credit: Tim Palmer

A panic-stricken response to the drought could put these gains in jeopardy. Earlier this year a bill passed the House of Representatives to undercut the San Joaquin's negotiated settlement of two decades in the making. The Senate will not likely approve this edict, but the future of the restored lifeline remains vulnerable and depends on continuing support for the fish and wildlife gains of recent years.

Architects of the restoration accord anticipated the stress of this year's drought, and specified that flows would not be released to the dewatered section in years of lowest runoff, such as 2014. Restoration biologists have trapped the progeny of 360 adult salmon that made it up the river to spawn this year and trucked them around the dried-up reach—a backup plan recognizing that compromises are necessary. Even this year, at the height of California's worst drought, the restoration program is working. People from all sides have negotiated a truce that's effective and promising.

If there's hope that a nugget of California's original wealth can be restored while sustaining modern day demands, that hope lies along the San Joaquin. The restoration started here is a promising historic achievement with a legacy that belongs to everyone. It should not be sacrificed to the cynical belief that a river is wasted if it serves some small remnant of native life, which once thrived to the benefit of all.

Tim Palmer is the author of Rivers of California as well as Field Guide to California Rivers, California Glaciers, and other books.

You Might Also Like

California Drought Threatens Salmon as River Water Levels Drop

Dams Cause Climate Change, They Are Not Clean Energy

Top 10 U.S. Cities Running Out of Water

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Natural Resources Defense Council

By Emily Deanne

Shower shoes? Check. Extra-long sheets? Yep. Energy efficiency checklist? No worries — we've got you covered there. If you're one of the nation's 12.1 million full-time undergraduate college students, you no doubt have a lot to keep in mind as you head off to school. If you're reading this, climate change is probably one of them, and with one-third of students choosing to live on campus, dorm life can have a big impact on the health of our planet. In fact, the annual energy use of one typical dormitory room can generate as much greenhouse gas pollution as the tailpipe emissions of a car driven more than 156,000 miles.

Read More Show Less
Kokia drynarioides, commonly known as Hawaiian tree cotton, is a critically endangered species of flowering plant that is endemic to the Big Island of Hawaii. David Eickhoff / Wikipedia

By Lorraine Chow

Kokia drynarioides is a small but significant flowering tree endemic to Hawaii's dry forests. Native Hawaiians used its large, scarlet flowers to make lei. Its sap was used as dye for ropes and nets. Its bark was used medicinally to treat thrush.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Frederick Bass / Getty Images

States that invest heavily in renewable energy will generate billions of dollars in health benefits in the next decade instead of spending billions to take care of people getting sick from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, according to a new study from MIT and reported on by The Verge.

Read More Show Less
Aerial view of lava flows from the eruption of volcano Kilauea on Hawaii, May 2018. Frizi / iStock / Getty Images

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.

Read More Show Less
A couple works in their organic garden. kupicoo / E+ / Getty Images

By Kristin Ohlson

From where I stand inside the South Dakota cornfield I was visiting with entomologist and former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren, all the human-inflicted traumas to Earth seem far away. It isn't just that the corn is as high as an elephant's eye — are people singing that song again? — but that the field burgeons and buzzes and chirps with all sorts of other life, too.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A competitor in action during the Drambuie World Ice Golf Championships in Uummannaq, Greenland on April 9, 2001. Michael Steele / Allsport / Getty Images

Greenland is open for business, but it's not for sale, Greenland's foreign minister Ane Lone Bagger told Reuters after hearing that President Donald Trump asked his advisers about the feasibility of buying the world's largest island.

Read More Show Less
AFP / Getty Images / S. Platt

Humanity faced its hottest month in at least 140 years in July, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said on Thursday. The finding confirms similar analysis provided by its EU counterparts.

Read More Show Less
Newly established oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

By Hans Nicholas Jong

Indonesia's president has made permanent a temporary moratorium on forest-clearing permits for plantations and logging.

It's a policy the government says has proven effective in curtailing deforestation, but whose apparent gains have been criticized by environmental activists as mere "propaganda."

Read More Show Less