Sacramento-San Joaquin named America’s Most Endangered River

Outdated water and flood management threaten millions

April 7th, 2009

<P>Steve Rothert, American Rivers, 530-478-5672 or 530-277-0448 (cell)<BR>Amy Kober, American Rivers, 206-213-0330 x23</P>

Washington— The Sacramento-San Joaquin River System, the largest watershed in California, is on the verge of collapse, threatening the water supply for 25 million people, placing the capital of the nation’s most populous state at high risk of flooding, and damaging a once productive and healthy ecosystem. This threat landed the Sacramento-San Joaquin in the number one spot in America’s Most Endangered Rivers: 2009 edition.

“Unless we overhaul the way we manage water supply and flood protection on the Sacramento-San Joaquin, the lives of millions of people and the entire economy of the state of California will continue to be jeopardized,” said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers.  “It’s time for 21st century solutions to restore the health of these rivers and protect the health, safety and quality of life of Californians.”

American Rivers called on the California Department of Water Resources, the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers, and other stakeholders to invest in 21st century sustainable solutions that protect water supply, farms, and cities, while restoring the health of these great rivers and their estuary.

“The future of California is joined at the hip with the Sacramento-San Joaquin River System,” said UC Davis geologist and American Rivers board member Jeff Mount. “This Most Endangered River listing should be a wake up call to our elected leaders. It’s time to get to work restoring these rivers.”

The Sacramento-San Joaquin is threatened by outdated water management. Pumps in the Delta that feed the south-bound state and federal water supply aqueducts reverse natural river flows and are a leading cause of plummeting fish populations. The emergency in the Delta has led to various proposed solutions, including the “peripheral canal” which would deliver Sacramento River water along the Delta’s eastern edge to the pumps, circumventing the Delta. So far, however, none of the current solutions adequately balance ecological recovery with water supply goals. 

Flooding is another major concern. Approximately two million people in the Central Valley rely on levees for flood protection. The city of Sacramento, among the fastest growing in the US, is the nation’s most at-risk major metropolitan area for flooding. Conservative estimates of potential direct flood damages in the Sacramento area alone exceed $25 billion. A significant levee failure could also cripple the water supply system for the entire state because salt water would be sucked into the Delta by waters rushing through the breach, thereby making it too salty for municipal or agricultural use.

The real threat to the rivers of the Central Valley is that business-as-usual will dominate the flood planning process. Proposals are already being considered to simply make the levees bigger, at extraordinary costs to the public and the environment and with little assurance of long-term effectiveness.  History has shown that this approach only increases risk by promoting more floodplain development behind levees. 

A comprehensive approach to flood management is needed, rather than simply recycling the failed engineering efforts of the past.  This approach involves non-structural or natural flood protection solutions, such as setting levees further back from rivers to provide room for to move and, where possible, storing water on the floodplain and letting it seep slowly back into the ground.  This approach also requires floodplain managers to reduce floodplain development or redirect it out of harms way. 

The Sacramento and San Joaquin join to form the Delta, a web of channels and islands connecting to San Francisco Bay. Roughly three million wild salmon once returned to the Sacramento-San Joaquin system each year, but today only around 500,000 hatchery salmon and 50,000 wild salmon return in a good year. The Delta provides habitat for more than 50 species of fish, including habitat for 75 percent of the state’s commercial salmon catch, and is the center of important components of California’s civil infrastructure, including electricity and gas lines, transportation, shipping and water supply. 

About America’s Most Endangered Rivers

Each year, American Rivers solicits nominations from thousands of river groups, environmental organizations, outdoor clubs, local governments, and taxpayer watchdogs for the America’s Most Endangered Rivers report.  The report highlights the rivers facing the most uncertain futures rather than those suffering from the worst chronic problems.  The report presents alternatives to proposals that would damage rivers, identifies those who make the crucial decisions, and points out opportunities for the public to take action on behalf of each listed river.
American Rivers President Rebecca Wodder and California Director Steve Rothert  are available for interviews, both pre and post embargo.  Please contact Amy Kober (206) 213-0330 x23 for booking.

Reporters wishing to direct readers to the report online may use the following link:    



About American Rivers

About American Rivers

American Rivers protects wild rivers, restores damaged rivers, and conserves clean water for people and nature. Since 1973, American Rivers has protected and restored more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects, and the annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® campaign. Headquartered in Washington, DC, American Rivers has offices across the country and more than 200,000 members, supporters, and volunteers.

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