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San Joaquin River deemed 'most endangered river' in the nation
San Joaquin River USGS
The San Joaquin River was ranked the most endangered river by the environmental group American Rivers. - photo by Photo Contributed

The San Joaquin River is in grave danger.

Placed at No.1 on the list of the nation’s most endangered rivers, the San Joaquin River’s future could possibly be determined this year, according to the environmental group American Rivers.

Releasing its annual list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers,” the environmental group says that the San Joaquin is at the top of the list not because of pollution, but rather because of critical political decisions that will soon determine its future.

In the list, the group cites outdated water management and excessive diversions as leaving the river dry in various stretches, while also threatening water quality, fish and wildlife, and agriculture. Compounded with the ongoing drought facing the state, the threats to the San Joaquin River have left several California communities who depend on the river for drinking water vulnerable.

American Rivers is calling on the California State Water Resources Control Board to increase flows in the river to protect water quality, fish, and recreation while also helping support sustainable agriculture. Additionally, the group is urging members of Congress to preserve agreements and laws designed to protect the San Joaquin River and the jobs and communities it supports.

“The San Joaquin River is ground zero for water supply challenges, but it is also fertile ground for new and innovative water supply solutions,” said Bob Irvin, President of American Rivers. “We want a future with a healthy river and sustainable agriculture. This ‘Most Endangered River’ listing is a call to action for all of us to come together around solutions to protect and restore reliable and predictable clean water supplies and a healthy river for future generations. We’re all in this together.”

John Cain of American Rivers noted a bill passed by the House of Representatives that will stop the river’s restoration, saying that “simply cutting environmental rules is not going to solve the underlying problem that we’re using water unsustainably today.” The group also says that the San Joaquin River is continually overtapped.

According to American Rivers, approximately four million people live in the San Joaquin watershed, while the river and its tributaries support some of the productive and profitable agriculture in the world, irrigating more than two million acres of arid land.

Turlock Irrigation District’s water comes from the Tuolumne River and its watershed, which feeds into the San Joaquin River. The City of Turlock also currently discharges tertiary treated recycled water from the Turlock Regional Water Quality Control Facility into the San Joaquin River, which has been at the center of a dispute between TID and the Del Puerto Irrigation District over the past few months.

Although TID’s responsibilities lie with the Tuolumne River, TID spokesperson Calvin Curtin says that the district supports American Rivers’ efforts to call attention to “the many challenges that face all the river systems in California and particularly the San Joaquin River.”

“TID has been caring for the natural resources of the Tuolumne River for over 125 years, including carefully deciding how to operate the water system, providing necessary environmental flows, carrying out everyday business practices, and evaluating future water supply alternatives,” said Curtin. “We believe there needs to be a balanced approach that provides flows for agricultural needs and environmental concerns as well as safe, reliable drinking water supplies for communities relying on the river.”

Acknowledging that a portion of the San Joaquin River may indeed go dry this summer as it has in past years, Curtin says that TID customers would not be impacted as TID’s primary source of water comes from the Tuolumne River.

According to American Rivers, the San Joaquin River does continually go dry in certain stretches due to the river being heavily exploited, which has been exacerbated by additional stress on the river from the current drought — revealing the inadequacies of status quo water management for both people and the environment.

“On the San Joaquin and across the nation, communities can increase their ability to deal with drought now and in the future by protecting and restoring rivers and using water more efficiently,” said Irvin. “By prioritizing healthy rivers and sustainable water management, we can enjoy reliable clean water supplies, healthy fish and wildlife, recreation, and quality of life for generations to come.”

The report concludes that the California Department of Water Resources must take action this year to help save the San Joaquin River and increase water flows.

Last year’s No.1 endangered river, the Colorado River, continues to remain in the spotlight this year as second on the list, followed by the Middle Mississippi River, New Mexico’s Gila River, the San Francisquito Creek, the South Fork River in South Carolina, Colorado’s White River, Washington’s White River, North Carolina’s Haw River, and the Clearwater/Loscha Rivers in Idaho.