Finding Wetlands in a Drought

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 experiencing the magnificent wetlands that are fed by the river.

Lesser yellowlegs, San Luis NWR | © Alison Jones

Tell the California Water Resources Control Board to stand up for healthy flows on the San Joaquin River | © Alison Jones

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The phone rang. That snowy Saturday I was editing photos of Ethiopia’s Omo River. “Alison, you must cover California’s drought for No Water No Life®. It’s beyond regional. U.S. and Asian markets depend on that produce.” I envisioned photographs of a three-year drought: monotones of white salt on sand. 

Within 24 hours however, I connected California’s plight with our project’s case-study watersheds. Management solutions for California could help other watersheds. So, escaping an unusually wet East Coast winter, I packed cameras and sunglasses to document an arid valley 3,000 miles away. I didn’t expect to enjoy it.

On the plane, I read The Mountains of California written by John Muir 120 years ago. “Every glacier in the world is smaller than it once was. All the world is growing warmer…” What would he say today? Surface area of Sierra Nevada glaciers is 55% less, and development still increases along rivers below. Rivers? Oh, actually, the Central Valley now has fewer rivers and more canals.

Then unexpectedly, with expedition advice from American Rivers, my story grew beyond the desolation of drought to include hope. Droughts come and go in California. They may get worse. But there are mitigating solutions. Restoration of streams, riparian zones, and wetlands matters as much as reduced water consumption.

As American Pelicans paddled through Mendota Pool, I read that wetlands hold 10 to 1,000 times the living matter in nearby dry land. At dusk, a Great-horned Owl hunted above as I framed reflections in San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. What a relief from miles of empty concrete canals! I thanked the sedge grasses rubbing my ankles for absorbing pollutants from nearby crop fields, hog farms, and dairy-cattle pens.

An insect hatch sounded like rain on my windshield. I wished for higher levees to better view Pacific Flyway waterfowl in the bottomlands. Someday I hope to see Aleutian Crackling Geese and tule elk now protected in San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge.

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In 2006, Jared Diamond, Paul Ehrlich, Sandra Postel, Peter Raven, and Edward O. Wilson et al. told the Supreme Court [PDF], “More than a source of water and fish, the nation’s rivers, lakes, and wetlands store flood waters and reduce economic devastation due to flooding. They recharge groundwater, filter pollutants, and purify drinking water. And they provide the habitats that sustain a diversity of species, which themselves perform important ecological functions.” 

Despite such support, more than 90% of California’s historic riparian and wetlands habitats are gone [PDF]. Today, the San Joaquin’s riparian habitat is scant. But these traces of willows, shrubs, and grasses support the highest diversity of wildlife in the Central Valley. Wood ducks, river otters, warblers, eagles, spawning salmon, and formerly California bear follow these wooded highways for safety, food, and spawning.

The drought brought me here. I saw trickles lead to less water, not more. Nature seems turned inside out. Yet American Rivers, other stewards, scientists, stakeholders, and policymakers are working together to address needs of natural and human communities. Just as John Muir wrote in 1885 about accumulating snowflakes in the Sierra, grassroots efforts can affect policy— “Come, we are feeble; let us help one another. We are many, and together we will be strong. Marching in close, deep ranks, let us … set the landscapes free.”

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!