Rivers of no return?

The Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta system is in danger of collapsing, enviros say

A waterway snakes through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the most endangered river system in America.

A waterway snakes through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the most endangered river system in America.

Photo courtesy of DWR

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.

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.

Paul Tebbel, executive director of Sacramento-based Friends of the River, said the river system’s ignominious rating may “open up a national audience, for what that’s worth.” For Tebbel, the issue is simple. Are we going to destroy the Delta? “It’s a monumental question,” he said.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin system is failing on nearly every front, the American Rivers report states. 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.

The system also poses the worst flood threat to any metropolitan area in the nation, Sacramento, thanks to an aging levee system. 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. Even if those eventualities don’t occur, the system is seriously threatened by overuse, to the point that fisheries are collapsing and the ecological sustainability of the Delta is in jeopardy.

“Roughly 3 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.” Last year, a federal judge ordered the pumps in the southern Delta that transfer water to Southern California shut off because endangered Delta smelt were being sucked up into the intakes.

The solution, 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.”

The report stopped short of endorsing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s controversial peripheral-canal proposal, but seemed to leave some wiggle room.

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

Meanwhile, the threatened river system recently got a much-needed boost when Congress passed an omnibus wilderness bill that contained funding for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program. Nearly $400 million in state and federal funding will be spent over the next 10 years reviving the almost-dead stream. Goals of the project include restoring flows to the river below Friant Dam and above Fresno, as well as establishing a self-sustaining chinook salmon fishery at the San Joaquin’s confluence with the Merced River.