My Flight over America’s Most Endangered River

Today’s guest blog about the #1 San Joaquin River- a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series- is from Jon Fairchild. Jon is a American Rivers’ conservation intern from California.

Mendota Pool, San Joaquin River, CA | © Julie Fair, flight by LightHawk

Tell the California Water Resources Control Board to act this year to increase flows in the San Joaquin | © Julie Fair, flight by LightHawk

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Whitewater kayaking in the Sierra Nevada has been one of the most rewarding parts of my life. While the physical challenge of the sport is the most exhilarating, I’ve realized that whitewater kayaking has also taken me to some of the most spectacular places I’ve ever been.

The power of rivers and the beauty of river canyons and valleys have proved to be some of my most vivid memories. Navigating the rivers in the Sierra Nevada quickly increased my awareness of the vital resource the water provided by rivers is for both wildlife and humans. On all of my kayaking trips, I would see wildlife and habitat, but on almost every trip I would also encounter a dam or diversion. I realized that the health and sustainability of rivers was not something to be overlooked, it was something that is and always will be critical to ecosystems everywhere.

My developing concern for rivers led me to seek an internship with American Rivers as part of a program offered by my employer, Patagonia. At American Rivers, I got the opportunity to research the San Joaquin River for this year’s Most Endangered Rivers list, a watershed in which I had a made countless kayak trips to over the years. On many of my trips thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands, of cubic feet of fresh water would rush under my kayak very second. It made it hard to fathom the freshwater as a scarce resource.

However, as I did my research with American Rivers, I quickly learned that the plumbing and infrastructure associated with the San Joaquin is immense. The San Joaquin waters provide irrigation for millions of acres of agriculture as well as water supply and power for millions of people. Astonished, I also soon found that the mighty San Joaquin ran complete dry in multiple places. And this was happening in years without drought.

Flight over San Joaquin River, CA provided by Lighthawk | © Julie Fair

Getting ready for our flight over the San Joaquin River with Lighthawk

I was thrilled to hear that LightHawk, a non-profit that donates flights for conservation, was going to donate a flight over the San Joaquin for us to get better documentation of the river. The flight was not only an adventure, but more importantly it gave us a large-scale perspective of the river that couldn’t be rivaled. It was an experience of a lifetime.

To see California’s Central Valley was impressive in itself. There we were at an elevation of 2000 ft, looking down on one of the most productive and abundant agricultural regions in the world, much of which is supported by the San Joaquin. We flew almost 200 miles south from Stockton to near Fresno and the landscape rarely changed; farms with canals diverting water in every direction were commonplace.

When we reached Mendota Pool I was truly awestruck. Mendota Pool is where the San Joaquin is re-watered by water traveling via aqueduct from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta about 150 miles to the north. I had previously read about this infrastructure, but the concept seemed so bizarre to me that I don’t think I truly believed we would find it there. But sure enough, there was the mighty San Joaquin riverbed being filled with delta water only to be diverted again and again and again.

San Joaquin River running dry below Friant Dam | © Julie Fair, flight by LightHawk

San Joaquin River running dry below Friant Dam | © Julie Fair, flight by LightHawk

Just upstream of Mendota we found a bone dry San Joaquin riverbed. Again, this was a sight I had anticipated seeing, but that I could not seem to fathom after paddling on such abundant waters upstream. The river literally just flowed into dust before our very eyes. The river runs dry here because the majority of flows are diverted into two major canals headed for agriculture and communities upstream at Friant Dam. Our flight took us past Friant Dam and north along the foothills where we saw dam after dam blocking the tributaries to the San Joaquin.

Although it may not sound like it, my research and flight over the San Joaquin was a positive experience. I learned that the challenges facing the San Joaquin are vast, but that there is also hope for this mighty river, and rivers elsewhere, to return to a more healthy and sustainable state. The habitat and fresh water that rivers provide is a critical resource that everyone should be aware of. Through education and awareness we can pursue better management techniques for our rivers allowing them to be healthy and sustainable for generations to come.

Tell the California Water Resources Control Board to act this year to increase flows in the San Joaquin to ensure the watershed is healthy enough to support all users, including fish and wildlife, agriculture, and the communities that depend on it.