By Ilana DeBare
The San Joaquin River is the second longest river completely contained within California, but I bet you’ve never gone white-water rafting on it.
You’ve probably never even gone birding alongside it.
That’s because for the last 70 years, much of the San Joaquin River has been completely dry — diverted above the Friant Dam for use by Central Valley farmers.
Consider the photo below, of a section of the San Joaquin “river.” The water in this picture is only there as part of a test release; otherwise, what used to be a river is now a flat, sandy field.
But change is on the way.
In 2006, federal officials agreed to restore 60 miles of the San Joaquin River as part of a lawsuit settlement with environmental groups including the Audubon Society. The lawsuit was over the loss of habitat for Chinook salmon, and the settlement called for the river to be ready for the reintroduction of salmon by the end of 2012.
While the lawsuit and restoration plan centered on salmon, restoration of the San Joaquin will be good for a wide range of wildlife, including birds such as the Least Bell’s Vireo and the Yellow Warbler.
The Least Bell’s Vireo, an endangered neotropical migrant, was extirpated from the Central Valley in the 1970s. But in the last five years, individuals have been found at refuges where riparian habitat has been restored. Sixty miles of flowing river would mean a lot more habitat for them.
The Yellow Warbler, listed as a Species of Special Concern in California, today is found throughout its historic range — except in the Central Valley. It relies on willows and shrubs, which don’t exist along a dried-up San Joaquin River but would flourish alongside a restored, flowing one.
Sounds like with the restoration, the future is looking better for Central Valley salmon, birds and other wildlife, right?
But the project also faces some possible hurdles. It’s a couple of years behind schedule due to delays in getting the implementing legislation through Congress. And although the restoration plan guarantees a continued flow of water for agriculture, some Central Valley farmers feel it isn’t enough, especially in dry years.
Central Valley Republican congressmen have tried to derail the restoration, most recently through a bill (HR 1837) that passed the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate.
To keep the San Joaquin River restoration moving forward, our elected officials need to hear from us.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have been supportive of the project. But they’re hearing a lot of complaints from disgruntled farm interests. They need to hear from us — people who care about the river for wildlife, recreation, natural beauty and quality of life as well as for agriculture.
Audubon California is currently mounting an “I’m for the river” campaign. The goal is to send 8,000 postcards or emails supporting the restoration to elected officials by November.
Please take a moment to add your voice. Click here to go to the I’m for the river campaign site — it will allow you to contract all your elected representatives quickly and easily with a single email.
The San Joaquin restoration is important not just in itself, but because it is the largest river restoration project on the West Coast and has the potential to be a national model.
Want more info on the San Joaquin River and its future? The map below shows the 350-mile path of the river — starting in the Sierra peaks east of Fresno, continuing past Friant Dam, north through the Central Valley where it merges with the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers, and then finally to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
You can also check out:
- I’m for the River by California Audubon
- Recent Stockton Record editorial and Sacramento Bee editorial on jobs that will be created by the restoration
- Aquafornia directory of news articles on the restoration
- Technical documents from the government agencies managing the project
If we can keep this restoration on track… five years from now, Golden Gate Audubon may be able to schedule field trips to see Least Bell’s Vireos, Yellow Warblers, and many other birds along the banks of a flowing, flourishing San Joaquin River.