Eco-group: Delta system ‘most endangered’

National conservation group singles out the Sacramento River

Tell us something we didn’t know.

That has been the reaction of many Californians to news that a national conservation organization, the Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers, this week named the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, including the Delta, as the most endangered river system in the country.

Californians are well aware that the ecological health of the Delta—the largest estuary in Western North America—is gravely imperiled and that the two great rivers that feed it, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, have serious problems of their own.

Now the rest of the country knows.

Perhaps the best impact of American Rivers’ designation is that it will “open up a national audience, for what that’s worth,” Paul Tebbel, executive director of Sacramento-based Friends of the River, told the CN&R.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin system is failing on nearly every front, the American Rivers report states. And because it provides the primary water supply for 25 million people, as well as irrigation water for the nation’s most valuable farming industry, its collapse would be a disaster of almost incalculable proportions.

Not only that, it also poses the worst flood threat in the nation to a metropolitan area, Sacramento. The city has only a set of old and crumbling levees protecting it from a potential Katrina-style flooding. Similarly, a significant levee failure in the Delta could “cripple the water supply system for the entire state because salt water would be sucked into the Delta by waters rushing through the breach, thereby making it too salty for municipal or agricultural use.

And, even should neither of those eventualities occur, the system is seriously threatened by overuse, to the point that fisheries are collapsing and the ecological sustainability of the Delta is threatened.

“Roughly three million wild salmon once returned to the Sacramento-San Joaquin system each year,” the report reads, “but today only around 500,000 hatchery salmon and 50,000 wild salmon return in a good year.”

The cause: an outmoded water- and flood-management system.

The solution to flooding, says the report, is not to build bigger levees and dams—that would only be repeating the mistakes of the past, at great cost—but rather to develop a comprehensive approach that includes natural flood-protection systems, such as moving levees back, allowing the rivers to move “and, where possible, storing water on the floodplain and letting it seep slowly back into the ground.”

And, of course, cities need to stop allowing development on floodplains protected only by outdated levees.

The water-management problems are caused mainly by the huge pumps in the southern part of the Delta that pull water into state and federal aqueducts that transfer it to points south. The pumps are so powerful they’re disrupting the natural flows of the Delta, disrupting its ecology and sucking up vast numbers of fish. As a result, courts have imposed a 30 percent reduction in the amount of water that can be exported.

One proposed solution is a canal that would bypass the Delta altogether, carrying water directly from the Sacramento River to the aqueducts. Its impacts are not fully understood, however, and there is concern that powerful water interests could divert more water from the Delta than is healthful for it.

And Northern Californians are worried that increased ease of transport may encourage water districts to sell water south, replacing it with ground water, to the detriment of all residents of the area.

“Any consideration of a canal,” the American Rivers report states, “must first begin with a commitment to water conservation and efficiency efforts throughout the state on a scale not yet attempted. A canal must come with a co-equal purpose of Delta ecosystem recovery and water management.”

The Delta can get much worse really fast, Tebbel said. The issue is “are we going to destroy the Delta? It’s a monumental question.”

There is a bit of good news. Congress recently passed an omnibus wilderness bill that contained funding for the San Joaquin River Restoration Project, a comprehensive, long-term effort to restore flows to the river below Friant Dam, above Fresno, and establish it as a self-sustaining chinook salmon fishery to its confluence with the Merced River. Nearly $400 million in state and federal funding will be spent over the next 10 years reviving the almost-dead stream.

And efforts are continuing to restore wild salmon populations by removing migration barriers such as agricultural dams and weirs.

Steve Rothert, director of American Rivers’ California field office, in Nevada City, said the group first came up with a list of the 10 most endangered rivers in America and then began ranking them. The discussion became heated at times, he explained, but there was never any doubt about which system was the most threatened.

“The Sacramento-San Joaquin river system was the hands-down choice as the most endangered,” he said.

For more about American Rivers and the other streams on its list of the 10 most endangered rivers, check out the Web site at