Today, American Rivers released their 2014 list of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country. The San Joaquin River sits at the very top of this list and unquestionably deserves this unfortunate distinction. Diversion of over 70% of the San Joaquin River system’s natural flow has resulted in drying up over 60 miles of the upper river and reducing or altogether eliminating historic salmon runs. Diminished flows have degraded downstream water quality for farms and communities. The region’s flood management system is in need of major repairs and its levees have straightjacketed the river and contributed to the loss of over 95% of the region’s historic wetland and riparian habitats. More than a dozen major dams have altered flows and blocked access to hundreds of miles of fish habitat in the upper watersheds. These statistics paint a bleak picture of a river that is arguably one of the most altered in the nation.
However as much as the river’s endangered status is warranted, NRDC has been engaged in several efforts to change the fate of the San Joaquin and manifest the potential to restore the health of the river. The California State Water Resources Control Board is currently developing a plan to increase flows in the river that will improve water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation while continuing to support sustainable agriculture. The San Joaquin River Restoration Program created by NRDC’s settlement agreement with the federal government and local water districts in is the process of increasing flows below Friant Dam, restoring fish habitat, and reintroducing both fall- and spring-run Chinook salmon. In 2012, the California Department of Water Resources created the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan to implement a new vision of flood management in the region to improve public safety while supporting the restoration of healthy riverine ecosystems. These ambitious efforts have the potential to transform the San Joaquin River back into a living river. However, achieving a brighter future will require the Water Board developing a strong plan to protect every Californian’s interest in a healthy river. Legislative efforts to stop the restoration of the San Joaquin and gut other environmental laws need to be blocked. Expensive flood management improvements must keep development out of areas with a high risk flooding and incorporate other public and environmental benefits in order to have broad public support.
Restoring the health of the San Joaquin is vital to the health of California. The region is home to about four million people and is predicted to have some of the highest future population growth in the state. Water from the river and its tributaries supports some of the most productive and profitable agriculture in the nation and contributes flows to the San Francisco Bay Delta – a source of drinking water for 25 million Californians. The San Joaquin River used to support the second largest salmon run in the state and is essential to California’s commercial salmon fishery which has suffered unprecedented declines in the past decade. Overcoming the significant challenges facing the San Joaquin River and balancing the needs of the various groups with interests in the San Joaquin River will not be easy, but is certainly far from impossible. With strong public support, these efforts currently underway can restore a healthy living river and is why the San Joaquin is poised for a come-back and perhaps even become an example for the restoration of other endangered rivers.