A Desert Runs Through It – A Photographer’s View


Today’s guest blog about the #1 San Joaquin River- a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series- is from Alison Jones. Alison is the Director of No Water No Life® and a professional photographer. Today Alison tells us about the most impactful moment of her eight day expedition through the Central Valley of California.


San Joaquin, CA | © Alison Jones, No Water No Life
© Alison Jones, No Water No Life

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On the seventh day of exploring impacts of drought in California’s Central Valley, I slipped down some loose rocks into a San Joaquin riverbed. Shadows of Mendota’s bridge on San Mateo Road were lengthening. The early-evening hush of the desert was overtaking the power of the sun’s heat. There was just enough light to photograph a snake-like bed of sand swallowing the San Joaquin River.

Sierra Nevada Mountain glaciers no longer melt into the basin of California’s long-lost Corcoran Lake of 750,000 years ago. That vast inland sea spilled into the Pacific half a million years ago, but it left a rich legacy. Over the last 10,000 years glacial melt, winter rains, and Sierra snow carved the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers and added further nutrients to one of the world’s most plentiful breadbaskets.

The San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers flowed freely until 1919 when human engineers began redesigning California into a sprawling network of levees, aqueducts, canals, pumps, dams, and reservoirs. Today, the Central Valley Project (1930) and State Water Project (1957) supplies water to 22 million Californians, irrigates 4 million acres, and provides hydro-electricity, flood control, and recreation. Built in 1941, Fresno’s Friant Dam irrigates over a million acres of farmland, but it leaves 60 miles of the San Joaquin River dry.

“Picture a river running through a desert. Now picture a desert running through a river.”

I read that concept two days earlier at the Delta Visitor Center. It was now in my camera’s viewfinder. Amidst a whine of mosquitoes, I considered this crippled river, nature’s persistence versus man’s ingenuity, and how one balances nature’s productivity with human productivity.

Sudden splashes from behind were an alert that I’d hiked out alone from a dirt road. But then I saw telltale stripes flashing and fish thrashing, framed by willow roots in shallow water. There were four or five – maybe even seven – each at least 18 inches long. Flipping over each other, they fled my shadow into the far end of their stagnant puddle, leaving me with only ripples to photograph. Striped bass, introduced to the California Delta in the 1800’s, are a saltwater species that seek freshwater for spawning.

Can they survive this three-year drought? It’s unlikely that there will be further significant rain this year, so human intervention would be needed. That’s not likely, given today’s unprecedented clamoring for water by municipalities and farmers.

There are, however, signs of hope. In 2009, Friant Dam began releasing “restoration flows,” determined by water users’ negotiated agreements. In December 2013, National Marine Fisheries Service announced it might re-introduce spring Chinook salmon to the San Joaquin. Salmon thrive in big, broad rivers, but struggle in drought and heat. However, restored flows and recognition of common interests suggest that Chinook salmon may again reach the Sierra Nevada.

American Rivers’ 2014 focus is on the San Joaquin River. With their efforts, coordinated with other stakeholders, the San Joaquin River between Mendota and Fresno will hopefully become more than a fish trap in desert sand.

Please help us make Alison’s vision a reality by telling the California Water Board to protect water flows in the San Joaquin!

One Response to “A Desert Runs Through It – A Photographer’s View”

Bonnie Wyper

Wonderful article! It breaks my heart that we have wreaked such havoc on the habitat of other species.