Saving the San Joaquin River

California’s San Joaquin River ran dry for most of the 20th century until, in 1988, the Natural Resources Defense Council stepped in and led a two-decade struggle to restore the river’s rich ecosystem.

| November 2, 2010

Force For Nature Book

“A Force for Nature” tells the story of the Natural Resources Defense Council — one of the largest and most successful environmental organizations in the world — which has helped establish many of the laws that protect our air, our water and our land.


The following is an excerpt from A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and the Fight to Save Our Planet by John H. Adams and Patricia Adams, with George Black (Chronicle Books, 2010). Since its inception in 1970, the Natural Resources Defense Council has grown to include 1.3 million members and activists. A Force for Nature chronicles the organization’s challenges and victories in safeguarding our planet throughout the past four decades. This excerpt is from Chapter 20, “The Rule of Law.” 

The San Joaquin is the second longest river in California. It rises among the snowfields of the Sierra Nevada, close to Yosemite National Park, and joins the Sacramento River 350 miles downstream to form the largest estuary on the West Coast. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, likened the estuary, or delta, with its immense oak forests and wetlands and its teeming wildlife, to the Garden of Eden.

Yet by the late 20th century, Californians were barely aware of the San Joaquin, for it no longer existed as a real river in any meaningful sense. The problems began with a huge hydroelectric dam on the upper river in the early 1900s. The wholesale re-engineering of the San Joaquin got under way when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation decided “surplus water” from the river should be exported to other areas as part of the massive Central Valley Project, launched in 1933 to transform arid areas into productive agricultural land and shield California’s farmers from economic ruin in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Starting in 1940, the bureau built major dams on both the Sacramento and the San Joaquin. It was the 319-foot-high Friant Dam near Fresno that ripped the heart out of the San Joaquin.

The dam rerouted 95 percent of the flow of the river into two big irrigation channels, watering about a million acres of cotton, corn, fruit, almonds, alfalfa, wheat and other cropland up and down the eastern slopes of the San Joaquin Valley. Fresno County became the richest agricultural county in the United States, and the San Joaquin became, as the Amicus Journal once put it, “both tub and toilet” for California’s agribusiness boom. Below the Friant Dam, more than 60 miles of the river ran bone-dry in all but the wettest years. Flows that did emerge farther downstream were often heavily polluted by agricultural runoff and municipal sewage outflows.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta had also been grossly deformed. Giant pumps installed in the 1950s and 1960s reversed the flow of the lower reaches of both rivers to channel water southward to the California Aqueduct. Although the delta provides water for 23 million people, including part of the drinking water supply for almost two-thirds of California’s population, it was so polluted that tens of millions of dollars had to be spent each year on purification plants. The loss of the freshwater inflow from the San Joaquin had wiped out one of the richest salmon fisheries on the West Coast. Old-timers can still remember when the sound of thousands of Chinook salmon thrashing their way upstream at the site of the Friant Dam would keep people awake at night.

In 1988, the original water contracts at the Friant Dam came up for renewal, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which managed the dam and the diversions, said the contracts would be renewed automatically, and on the same terms as before: Every drop of water from the upper river would go to the same powerful contractors, primarily farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. Hal Candee, who had been hired to work in NRDC’s San Francisco office a few years earlier, thought differently. Marc Reisner, who sadly died of cancer in 2000, had provided the blueprint for Hal’s work in his classic book, Cadillac Desert. “Marc’s argument was that the West was a heavily subsidized and tremendously expensive ‘hydraulic society,’ based on dependence on dams and aqueducts that destroy some of America’s greatest natural resources,” Hal says. “An advantage of not growing up in California was that I could not accept that just because the San Joaquin had been dried up for 40 years, it had to stay that way.”

russell morris
11/8/2010 10:53:04 AM

What an inspiring story. I live in Austrlia, but I spent a year as an exchange student living on an irrigated farm in Colusa, on the Sacramento river. So I am very familiar with the area and the issues. Australia also has a huge problem with water use conflicts on the huge Murray / Darling basin and river system. It is the breadbasket of Australia, and covers many thousands of square miles. About 1/4 of Australia's landmass. Far too much water has been allocated to agriculture. Natural ecosystems and some communities are missing out on needed water flows. Often the Darling river dries up. The Murray River often stops flowing into the sea, and the associated wetlands have either dried up completely or become salted up. The same Federal vs State and agriculature vs the environmentalists conflicts have erupted. Currently they are squabbling like a bunch of kindergarten kids fighting over a bag of lollies. Sensible dialogue is hard to come by. But the parties are finally realizing that serious round table negotiations and hard decisions are inevetable. I hope the US case in California can be a useful working model to show the way to better outcomes for all the communities in the Murray Darling basin so that a good balance of neccessary environmental floes, and prudent water use can be worked out here too.

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