5 Ways Building Up the San Joaquin River Has Helped California

An NRDC lawsuit has led to the comeback of the Golden State’s second-largest river (and its salmon).

The San Joaquin River in California’s Central Valley

The mighty San Joaquin—a 366-mile force of nature and the second-largest river in California—has long carried snowmelt and rainwater from the high Sierra Nevada down into the San Joaquin Valley. It once supported the state’s second-largest salmon run, flowing swiftly through the valley before fanning out into the San Francisco Bay Delta and on into the Pacific Ocean.

But in the 1940s, the San Joaquin River began shrinking, drop by drop, after being dammed and and diverted for irrigation. Big agriculture boomed in the following decades, but nature lost out—big-time. Wide riverbed stretches went dry, the salmon disappeared, and 95 percent of wetlands were lost.

In 1988, NRDC took action by filing a lawsuit based on violations of the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit led to a 2006 settlement with the federal and local governments and the creation of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program. So far, more than $175 million has been spent to improve flood protection and water supply and to restore salmon habitat. Like tributaries flowing into a larger river, each action contributes to a stronger San Joaquin.

Of course, building up the river requires ongoing work by NRDC and its partners, but the resulting benefits to those who work, eat, and live nearby are multifaceted—and already obvious.

1. Growing river communities

For decades, the San Joaquin’s Friant Dam halted the river’s flow and caused areas downstream to dry up. But in 2009, the dam began releasing some water back into the river. This brought dramatic changes, including a waterway people started flocking to for swimming, canoeing, and other recreational pastimes.

“We’re refocusing on the opportunities of the river,” says Rene Henery of the nonprofit coldwater fisheries organization Trout Unlimited, which has worked with groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs to offer canoe trips along the San Joaquin for inner-city children. Families can now enjoy scenic picnics on Sycamore Island Ranch, and kids can learn to swim at River Camp Scout Island, both of which are run by the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust.

2. Improving fisheries

The construction of Friant Dam decimated the San Joaquin’s Chinook salmon runs, which contributed to a decline of the entire state’s commercial fishing industry. So when the San Joaquin began flowing again after the dam release, environmentalists hoped they could help the silvery swimmers make a comeback.

In 2012, biologists transported more than 1,200 juvenile Chinook salmon into the San Joaquin; in 2014 and 2015, they released more than 100,000 juveniles. Until the fish start passing through the river naturally, they must be trapped and transported around barriers in certain areas. “After four years of extreme drought, we hope the coming rains will provide enough water to revive a living river that supports salmon runs,” NRDC senior scientist Monty Schmitt says. More salmon are also beneficial to the river’s ecology, he points out, as they provide nutrients for other fish, birds, and wildlife.

Families can visit the San Joaquin fish hatchery and participate in the San Joaquin River Trout and Bass Fishing Derby, which has welcomed anglers since 2012. Derby prizes include a lifetime California fishing license, fishing passes, summer camp scholarships, and canoe rides on the San Joaquin River.

3. Enriching jobs

The river renewal process will create upwards of 11,000 jobs in the Central Valley, according to a report from the University of California, Merced. Employers include nonprofit organizations, the service industry, and the Watershed Stewards Program, whose members work at the conservation salmon hatchery.

San Joaquin’s cleanup act is expanding the recreation industry, too. When tourists visit for rafting, kayaking, and wildlife watching, they often require guides and outfitters—not to mention places to eat and stay. Travelers can tour the San Joaquin by stand-up paddleboard in Fresno, try fly-fishing off of Sycamore Island, or cruise the California Delta from Stockton. “People don’t always think of the San Joaquin River as an attractive place to visit,” Schmitt says, “but that’s something that can and will change over time.”

4. Upgrading flood protection

Currently, agricultural lands lining the river below the Friant Dam are vulnerable to flooding. Farming cut off thousands of acres of wetlands that could help absorb floodwater. Snowmelt, intense rainfall, and creek overflows can also overwhelm existing levees built out of sand and other older, subpar materials.

Projects to protect farms include the construction of stronger levees that are more likely to withstand higher flows. And efforts to rebuild natural wetland environments for birds will improve flood protection, as well.

5. Cleaning water

Wetlands are sometimes called the kidneys of the landscape, because they naturally remove toxins and sediment from the waters that flow through them. Not only did the San Joaquin lose its wetlands, but increased farming in the surrounding area caused more pesticides and fertilizers to seep into groundwater and flow out into the river (or what was left of it) and the larger San Francisco Bay Delta.

The restoration program will help dilute contaminants and improve water quality for the 25 million Californians who rely on the Delta. The program also includes $100 million for water supply and $500,000 per year for water management programs.

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