The Sacramento is Indeed a Transcendent River


This is a guest post by Bob Madgic, author of The Sacramento: A Transcendent River.


Sacramento River, CA - Scenic Delta - © Bob Madgic

Efforts are underway to help restore the fragile Sacramento River Delta, CA | © Bob Madgic

At one time the Sacramento River was one of the richest rivers in the world. It alone carried four distinct runs of Chinook or king salmon, joined by ancient white and green sturgeon and a plethora of other native fishes. One of the world’s greatest collections of trout species evolved in its vast primordial watershed.

This, the longest river in California, historically carried nourishing nutrients and sediment from the mountains down to the estuary and ultimately out to the ocean. In turn spawning salmon brought vital minerals back to nurture webs of flora and fauna along the river’s course, making the Sacramento Valley’s biodiversity comparable to that of the American Prairie and African Serengeti.

Tragically, this magnificent river system was thoroughly degraded. Vast swaths of riparian forest were stripped away. Levees and rip rapping straitjacketed the river in long stretches. Shasta Dam on the main stem and numerous other dams on several major tributaries were built to capture water and send it south to irrigate deserts and fuel urban development. Shasta itself abruptly stymied and altered the Sacramento’s flows. Water diversions and extensive canals accompanied by ferocious pumping degraded this waterway further. Such machinations thwarted the river’s true nature, while depleting fish, bird, and other wildlife species.

By the late 1900s salmon runs were plummeting. Water diversions, pollution, and exotic species put the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta at risk of collapsing. Further, Delta levees, most never built to meet engineering standards, are at high risk of failure due to rising waters and other natural events such as earthquakes, At stake is the supply of water for as many as 25 million Californians and about three million acres of agricultural land. In 2009 American Rivers designated the Sacramento River – particularly the Delta – as America’s Most Endangered River®.

There are glimmers of hope. Thousands of acres of riparian land are being restored; more meandering and flooding is happening; wildlife is on the upswing; efforts to protect the fragile Delta ecosystem are underway. But new human intrusions are being initiated, including raising Shasta Dam and sending more water to southern California.

The issues related to the Sacramento could not be more complex. Hanging in the balance is the ecological health of a waterway and its estuary that sustain what is left of California’s once remarkable biodiversity, every bit as crucial to the wellbeing of humankind as to wildlife.

Enjoy some of my favorite photos of the Sacramento River

Click to enlarge image

  • Sacramento River, CA 1 - © Bob Madgic
  • Sacramento River, CA 2 - © Bob Madgic
  • Sacramento River, CA 3 - © Bob Madgic
  • Sacramento River, CA - © Bob Madgic
  • Sacramento River, CA - Birds - © Bob Madgic
  • Sacramento River, CA - Scenic Delta - © Bob Madgic
  • Sacramento River, CA Kayaking - © Bob Madgic