San Joaquin River, CA | Photo: Sarah Craig

The San Joaquin is Central California’s largest river, supporting one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world and providing water to local communities and habitat for endangered fish and wildlife. However, the river is so overtapped that in some places it runs completely dry, threatening water quality, endangering fish and wildlife, creating uncertainty for farmers, and leaving communities vulnerable in the face of more frequent and severe droughts. The California Water Resources Control Board must act this year to increase flows in the San Joaquin so that the watershed is healthy enough to support fish and wildlife, sustainable agriculture and resilient communities for generations to come.

About The River

The San Joaquin River and its principal tributaries — the Merced, the Tuolumne and the Stanislaus — originate on the high slopes of the southern Sierra Nevada, and flow through the fertile San Joaquin Valley south of Sacramento. For millennia, the cool waters of these rivers sustained the southernmost runs of king salmon and vast wetlands that supported millions of waterfowl, herds of tule elk and even grizzly bear.

Paddling the San Joaquin

Today, approximately four million people live in the San Joaquin watershed. These rivers support some of the most productive and profitable agriculture in the world, irrigating more than two million acres of arid land.

The rivers also generate more than 3,000 megawatts of hydropower, provide drinking water to more than 4.5 million people (including the City of San Francisco), and support numerous endangered or declining species.

From the headwaters, including Yosemite National Park, to the mouth at the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary, these rivers support a thriving recreational industry that generates hundreds of millions in economic activity and includes world class whitewater rafting, bass tournaments, waterfowl hunting, and a native rainbow trout fishery.

The Threat

Years of managing the San Joaquin for agriculture, hydropower and flood control have taken their toll on the river. Dams, levees and excessive water diversions have hurt river habitat and opportunities for recreation and community access. More than one hundred miles of the mainstem river have been dry for over fifty years, and water diversions along the tributaries take more than 70 percent of the natural flow. The river’s salmon and steelhead populations are on the brink of extinction. Excessive diversions, groundwater overdraft, and poorly designed levees have left the river and surrounding communities vulnerable to increasingly frequent and severe droughts and floods.

California’s ongoing drought places additional stress on the river and its communities, but we must not allow the drought to force rash decisions — such as cutting environmental protections or building expensive new dams at taxpayer expense — that will harm the river, fish and wildlife and communities for years to come.

What Must Be Done

It is time to take long-overdue action to restore the San Joaquin River. We must plan for a more sustainable future that includes both a healthy river and sustainable agriculture.

The California State Water Resources Control Board, the agency charged with allocating water rights and protecting water quality, is required to issue a plan for management of the river and its three principal tributaries. The Board must act this year to increase flows in the river to protect water quality, fish, recreation and community access, and support sustainable agriculture. In order to comply with state and federal laws, the Board must require dam owners to release more water to the river in a manner that mimics the natural flow regime. Powerful interests who have historically taken the water without regard to the river’s health will resist any changes to protect their economic interests. We need members of the public to write the Board and share our vision where both the river and family farmers get the water they need for an economically and environmentally sustainable future.


Want to learn more about America’s Most Endangered Rivers? Find out about the other rivers listed as for 2016 by checking out the full report.


America’s Most Endangered Rivers® is sponsored in part by The Orvis Company.