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Memo to Internet whizzes: Climate change isn’t why river cruises aren’t the norm in California
Dennis Wyatt 2022
Dennis Wyatt

I’ve got nothing against someone holed up in a windowless office in New York City pounding out Internet postings regarding California designed to snare clicks.

It  would be nice, though, if they did a little research framed by history — whether it is relatively recent or a 100 years ago — before making a breathless declaration.

Such declarations run from the absurd to the believable.

Either which way they help distort people’s perspectives that are critical to building consensus to address a wide array of issues and concerns.

An example of the absurd a few years back was one of those never-ending lists websites crank out.

In the example it was the 10 fastest growing cities in California.

The No. 1 city in the year highlighted of 2019 was Chico.

Chico’s population had swelled by nearly 20 percent.

The author of the post obviously did a quick Wikipedia search and found out that Chico had the massive Bidwell Park covering 2,500 acres as well as being a university town.

They then used those two facts to write glowing text that people were obviously drawn to Chico because of its university setting and amenities as well as its unparcelled park system.

One little small detail. Chico took on the lion’s share of the people displaced from the Camp Fire that lost 15,000 homes overall when PG&E burned down Paradise the previous year.

This brings up one of the “fun facts” a website inserted into its story regarding American River Cruises launching what was described as the “first California river cruise” in 80 years.

The cruise itinerary happens to include an excursion up the San Joaquin River to Stockton.

The author writes “river cruises are a rarity in California, an unfortunate result of limited waterways and intermittent droughts.”


As Ricky would say to Lucy, let me ‘splain.

And rest assured the explanation is likely to irk hardcore environmentalists and those that think the only good river is one encased in concrete whether it is a dam or the actual river bed such as the Los Angeles River.

First, California is not the Midwest, the South or the Eastern Seaboard.

Most of California is blessed — and at times cursed — by the fact we have a Mediterranean climate.

Much of California,  southern and southwestern Australia, central Chile, the Western Cape of South Africa and the Mediterranean Basin are the five basic Mediterranean climate regions in the world.

It’s a great place for one to grow fruits, nuts, and to avoid extreme temperatures almost all year round.

Basically, its also a place where it doesn’t rain year round.

Many of California’s rivers left on their own would either dry up or be so shallow during certain times of the year that you could walk across them without getting much wet above your ankles.

Then there is the issue of rivers that flow directly into the Pacific Ocean, whether they have been turned into a monument to the cement gods or not.

They’re a different animal than the rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, much of the Eastern Seaboard, or even the Great Lakes.

It also doesn’t help that for the better part of a century California leaders never saw a river they didn’t want to place a couple of dozen dams or so on.

Then there are little details such as the fact 40 percent of San Francisco Bay and about 80 percent of the original tidal wetlands have been filled in since the 1850s. That is something you don’t see on such a scale east of the Rockies.

Passenger ships and barges used to make their way up to Sacramento and Stockton for decades such as they do on the Mississippi River.

That, of course, was before the Central Valley Project and State Water project made it possible for California to provide  the bulk of the nation’s vegetables, most of its fruits, and almost all of its nuts.

After the Friant Dam was built in 1942, long stretches of the San Joaquin River — that drains the watersheds of the Central Sierra and the Southern Sierra and is California’s second longest river at 366 miles — ran dry between Fresno and the confluence with the Merced River.

It wasn’t until last decade that the flow has been restored to a small degree.

From 1864 until the mid 1880s when railroads made moving barley and wheat more efficient and cheaper, barges made their way to San Joaquin City at the confluence of the San Joaquin River and the Stanislaus River.

Shipping took place during the harvest season that run from late August to October.

It was bustling enough to support a hotel, two restaurants, two saloons, a large warehouse and a healthy scattering of houses.

San Joaquin City was on the river’s western bank 10 miles south of Manteca and Lathrop.

It was a half mile from today’s Airport Way bridge. The only thing that reminds the world it was once there is a roadside historical marker less than a 20-second drive south of Jimmy’s One Stop along Kasson Road.

The San Joaquin River between Mossdale in Lathrop and the confluence of the Stanislaus River has likely never been dredged at least for the last 140 years or so.

This is important for a very big reason.

When the Central Valley Project originally started operating, it set up
“plumbing” on the Westside of the valley that sent water that was diverted there.

Water that overflowed irrigation systems was sent back into the San Joaquin River after it passed the Merced River.

Besides upending ecological systems, it also dumped a lot of silt into the river from Westside farmland.

Longtime farmers — including the late Manteca farmer and engineer Alex Hildebrand of Manteca who was considered an astute water expert by many in Sacramento  — have indicated that the flow of silt from the Westside before it was stopped raised the river bottom.

They point to anecdotal evidence that it could be as high as six feet.

Given it reduces river capacity it means the river hemmed in by levees can hold less water during periods of heavy flow.

Dredging obviously by itself would not allow barges laden with grain to once again depart San Joaquin City in late summer and early fall.

But it underscores in California our river system is not what most people think it is.

What passes as “normal” now is the result of what man has done to it during the last 175 years.

We’re not just talking levees and dams. We’re talking about diverting water out of natural water basins to coastal cities.
And we’re talking destructive placer hydraulic mining that washed away hillsides and chipped away at mountain.

 It literally accelerated natural erosion time frames easily by the speed of light squared 100 times in a few short years during the Gold Rush.
Some rivers such as the Yuba were drastically altered due to such destructive mining practices.

California does not have “limited waterways” per se.

And the geological area the state now covers handled “intermittent droughts” that are nature just fine, thank you, before almost 40 million people started living the California dream.

That was also before the Golden State started generating upwards of half of the non-meat and non-grain based foods that Americans consume

The bulk of what we are dealing with is not climate change, per se, but the impacts of trying to civilize wilderness in less than 1½ centuries and adding almost 40  million people to the mix.

As such, solutions have to reflect that reality.

You can’t pin the destruction and harshness of drought on nature reacting to climate change from greenhouse gases.

It is what we’ve done to California’s waterways and how we’ve ignored long-range weather patterns for the better part of 175 years.