9 Ways to Support San Joaquin River Restoration and Help California Weather the Drought

As I blogged about in July, CNN reporter John Sutter recently completed an amazing source-to-sea journey down the San Joaquin River. Last week he published an extraordinary account of his travels characterized by thoughtful insights into what the San Joaquin River once was, what it is today, what it means to people who care about its fate, and what it might become if we only modernize our approach to managing this important natural resource.

I appreciate the national attention John has drawn to this issue through his unique journalistic approach. Here at NRDC, we have worked for nearly three decades to restore the San Joaquin River, not only because it’s the right thing to do -  after all, it is California’s  second largest river -  but also because through doing so we are promoting the kind of water resource management solutions that our state needs, especially given the current drought. In keeping with a theme of John’s story – that the San Joaquin River is worth restoring—he came up with a fantastic  list of 7 ways to help save the San Joaquin River. His list has many great suggestions that will help support restoration of a living river that will benefit wildlife and communities along its entire length. In order to further the conversation, I came up with my own list of 9 ways to help restore the San Joaquin River.

1. Support for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program (SJRRP). Since 2006, a coalition of federal and state agencies, farmers, water districts, and conservation groups including NRDC has been working towards two primary goals: (1) restore a living river with healthy salmon runs, and (2) improve water management to support the region’s agricultural economy.  However, if the SJRRP succeeds, we will not only restore historic salmon runs that are needed to help revitalize California’s ailing salmon fishery and improve water management in an area hard-hit by the drought but our restoration projects will also improve flood protection in the region. Furthermore, restoration of the River is already a catalyst for improving the quality of life for communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley by creating jobs and opportunities for tourism and recreation. To achieve all the benefits of a restored river, the SJRRP needs public support. Contact your senator or congressional representative to let them know you support the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.

2. Conserve water and support policies to improve urban water-use efficiency. California is in the middle of a drought of historic proportions that is impacting cities, farms and wildlife alike. NRDC, in conjunction with the Pacific Institute, recently published a series of reports to identify water supply solutions to help California weather the current drought and be better prepared for the next one. If we increase urban water use efficiency, there is the potential to save 2.9 – 5.2 million acre-feet (maf) of water each year. For comparison, that is 10-25 times the amount of water that could be stored by the current suite of big dam projects being pushed by some state legislators.  To learn more about why it makes sense to invest in smart water use rather than environmentally-damaging new dams, check out our recently released fact sheet, and blogs.

3. Support investments in water-use efficiency for agriculture. Agriculture accounts for roughly 80% of California’s 40 maf of applied water use – that’s a lot of water. So even small improvements in efficiency can generate vitally important water supplies needed for communities and wildlife that are particularly vulnerable during droughts.  Based on our analysis, we estimate a potential savings of up to 6.6 million acre-feet  annually through improvements in agricultural water-use efficiency, while maintaining productivity and total acreage irrigated. That is more water than 3 times the annual runoff of the San Joaquin River. By supporting investments in water-use efficiency for agriculture, we can meet the water needs for cities and our rivers while supporting the region’s agricultural economy.

4. Send low-income kids on a river trip. I stole this one directly from John’s list because it is a great idea. One of the major benefits of restoring the San Joaquin is that it will provide some of the more impoverished communities in California with desperately needed access to recreation opportunities. The San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust has created a River Camp for kids from the low-income community of Firebaugh. The Tuolumne River Trust has also set up a page where you can make a donation to send a low-income kid from the San Joaquin Valley on a canoe trip down the San Joaquin River. The river is free to enjoy and a vitally important resource for these communities, particularly the children. A day on the river can be a life-changing experience and one that increases awareness about the importance of water in California and a sense of stewardship for the river that runs through their San Joaquin Valley. 

5. Vote ‘Yes’ on Proposition 1 to fund water infrastructure improvements statewide. After years of back and forth, the California State Legislature has finally come up with a sensible water bond that will be on the ballot this November as Proposition 1. The bond will provide $7.5 billion in much needed funding for projects that improve water management in the San Joaquin Valley and throughout the state. The bond will also provide funding for river restoration efforts including the San Joaquin River Restoration Program. You can learn more about the water bond and what it will fund here.

6. Oppose the construction of a new Temperance Flat Dam on the Upper San Joaquin.  Amazingly, at a time when the Bureau of Reclamation is working hard to restore the San Joaquin River due to the impacts of Friant Dam, they are investigating building yet another dam just upstream.  The proposed Temperance Flat Dam would cost an estimated $2.6 billion, and yield a meager amount of water when compared to other alternatives that are also more cost effective.  Sadly, in attempts to sell this costly dam to the public, the Bureau has made flawed claims the dam would benefit restoration of the river. The Bureau of Reclamation is taking comments on their environmental impact study until October 21st, 2014.  Tell them you oppose a new environmentally harmful and costly dam on the San Joaquin River.

7. Support the state’s efforts to implement a comprehensive flood management plan. The flood management system in California’s Central Valley is desperately in need of repair. Aging levees currently do not provide the public with adequate flood protection, leaving millions of people and billions of dollars in property at risk of flooding.  Furthermore, the old system of building levees along the banks of rivers has significantly contributed to the loss of nearly 95% of the state’s wetland and riparian habitats while also encouraging people to build in floodplains.  In 2012, the state completed the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan to implement multi-benefit projects that improve public safety while also supporting healthy riverine ecosystems and providing other public benefits including recreational access and improved water supply management. Implementing the Flood Plan will result in projects on the San Joaquin River that increase flows for fish and wildlife, improve flood safety for local cities and farms and improve groundwater recharge to benefit the region’s water supply. Email California’s Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird to tell him that you want the state to improve public safety and help restore California’s rivers by implementing the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan.

8. Support increasing San Joaquin River Flows in the Bay-Delta. This is another one I am going to copy from John Sutter’s list because it is so important.  Today, such a small fraction of water is allowed to flow in the lower tributaries to the San Joaquin that the water quality entering the Delta is at times more fit for a sewer than a river. California’s State Water Resources Control Board is in the process of determining how much water the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers should release to protect water quality and the health of the Delta. Experts have estimated 60% of the natural flow is needed – not the 10% we sometimes see. Salmon restored to the Upper San Joaquin must navigate through this region of the system to safely make their journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.  Increasing flows will benefit restored salmon runs as well as the existing salmon and steelhead populations on tributaries.  Please sign the petition telling the Water Board you support increasing flows to help restore the Lower San Joaquin River and its historic salmon runs.

9. Keep the conversation going. As John mentions in his story, most people (even in California) know little to nothing about the San Joaquin River and its plight. Yet a restored San Joaquin River could provide immeasurable benefits for millions of Californians, so let’s spread the word! Please take a minute to Tweet, text, blog or post a comment about why you support restoration of the River. Join the conversation on Twitter by following #endangeredriver, or Tweet about what you are doing to save the San Joaquin with #SaveMySJR. This is a river worth saving, and it needs your help.