Finding the Flow in the San Joaquin Basin

Today’s guest blog about the #1 San Joaquin River and its tributaries (including the Tuolumne River)— a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series— is from Cindy Charles. Cindy is a fly fisher and the long time Conservation Chair of the Golden West Women Flyfishers and has been past Vice President of Conservation for the Northern California Council Federation of Fly Fishers. She was the first woman to have received the National Federation of Fly Fishers Conservation Award in 2007. Cindy grew up and resides in San Francisco and also spends weekends at her cabin outside of Groveland from where she regularly fishes on the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers, both tributaries of the San Joaquin River.

Tuolumne River, CA | © Cindy Charles

Tell the California Water Resources Control Board to take a stand to support healthy flows in the San Joaquin River | © Cindy Charles

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The Tuolumne River is my special river— it was the river where I caught my first trout at Camp Mather as a kid on the Middle Fork, and where I caught my first trout on a fly as an adult. I have been lucky to explore and fish many, many of its wonderfully scenic spots and have had some of the best days of my life on this water. The Tuolumne River was instrumental in why I have spent my time working for its restoration as well as for conservation efforts for a wide range of rivers and creeks throughout California.

While I have fished the Tuolumne River from top to bottom, it is the lower Tuolumne which is so often overlooked, yet can be remarkably evocative of what California used to be. This section of river is below the Don Pedro and La Grange dams and runs to the confluence with the San Joaquin River. Sadly, this section of river is lacking in at least half its natural flow, given that water at this point has been diverted for use by the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts for major agricultural use in the Central Valley as well as by the City of San Francisco and its water customers.

But the first time I floated this section in a canoe to fish, it was after the 1997 flood when water came over the Don Pedro dam spillway. Several high water years followed, when the dam releases allowed for higher water flows even during the very hot Central Valley summers. In those years of plentiful water, the fishing was AMAZING.

I floated down the river from Basso Bridge to the Turlock Campground many times, and there were plenty of strong, large, feisty, colorful wild rainbow trout to catch. It was truly a hidden and somewhat secret fishing spot, yet literally not far from downtown Modesto or even the Bay Area, thereby being very accessible. There were fish in every fishy looking spot. My friend and I caught and released many trophy-sized trout, and I marveled at how the fish were definitely on par with the more famous blue ribbon trout streams of California. In addition to the fish, it was wonderful to float down the river corridor— a piece of remnant California riparian habitat sandwiched in-between orchards, dairy farms, and other development— and see vibrant birdlife, beavers, and old trees.

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When the drier years came, and since the flows in that part of the Tuolumne are governed by an arbitrary flow schedule that is not adequate to sustain trout over the hot summers, the trout numbers fell off year after year. I actually have not had a great fishing day on the lower Tuolumne in some years. The fish are barely there anymore and I miss them a lot.

Yet, it is clear to me that given adequate flows, the fish— including wild trout, Central Valley steelhead, and fall-run Chinook salmon— can recover and thrive once again. More water equals more fish, and I hold on to the hope that we can make the much needed flow changes sooner rather than later to give the fish a chance to come back in numbers. A fishless river is a tragedy.

Please help save the San Joaquin River and its tributaries by sending a letter to the California Water Resources Control Board asking them to take a stand to support healthy flows in the San Joaquin River and maintain a sustainable future water supply for the benefit of local communities, farmers, and salmon.

3 Responses to “Finding the Flow in the San Joaquin Basin”

Peter Drekmeier

Cindy, thank you for all your great work to protect and restore the Tuolumne and other rivers. You’re an inspiration!