Sacramento-San Joaquin River System, America’s Most Endangered River of 2009, still faces critical threats

Six months after 'Most Endangered River' listing, river still threatened by water and flood systems, ecosystem collapse

October 20th, 2009

<P>Steve Rothert, American Rivers, 530-277-0448<BR>Angela Dicianno, American Rivers, 202-243-7077</P>

California — Six months after American Rivers named the Sacramento-San Joaquin River System America’s Most Endangered RiverTM for 2009, the river continues to face dire threats from the outdated water supply and flood control systems and the environmental harm they cause.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin system serves as the main water supply for 25 million Californians and millions of acres of irrigated agriculture, and supports 80% of the commercial salmon catch in California.  The extensive network of levees severs the rivers from their floodplains, and fails to provide adequate flood protection for Central Valley communities.  The elaborate water supply scheme of pumps and aqueducts, with the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta serving as the hub, jeopardizes the continued existence of several salmon and other fish species. 

The ecosystem remains at the verge of collapse.  For example, the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers used to see millions of salmon return each year to spawn.  However, only 122,000 Chinook salmon are projected to return this fall (this is considered the absolute minimum number necessary to sustain the population), prompting yet another near total closure of commercial and recreational salmon fishing in the ocean and Central Valley rivers.  Historically, fall Chinook made up the bulk of the salmon caught in California’s ocean salmon fisheries and within the Central Valley.

 “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 quality of life of Californians.”

Since the America’s Most Endangered River listing in April 2009, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service issued in June a Biological Opinion for the state and federal water supply projects and in October a draft Recovery Plan for listed Central Valley salmon.  Together these documents provide measures needed to protect and restore several threatened species.  Several large Central Valley irrigation interests have already filed lawsuits to halt implementation of the Biological Opinion, and the Recovery Plan is under public review.

The state legislature attempted to develop new water management policies to address the crisis, but failed to reach a deal by close of the regular session in September.  As of mid-October, legislators continue to negotiate behind closed doors on a package of water-related measures, but American Rivers remains concerned about policies and projects that will further harm California’s rivers.  The legislation could also hamper efforts by American Rivers and many other stakeholders working to develop a long-term solution to the water supply and ecosystem crisis in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) process.  The BDCP will develop a comprehensive strategy by March 2010 to recover the bay-delta ecosystem and provide greater water supply reliability.

A promising development since April is the launch of the Central Valley Flood Management Planning Program, which will develop a Central Valley Flood Protection Plan to guide the modernization of the Central Valley flood protection system.  The flood protection plan offers an opportunity to simultaneously reduce flood risk for millions of people and help restore the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers by reconnecting them to their floodplains.  Restoring access to floodplains will reduce the risk of flooding and restore wetland habitat that is so critical to endangered species.  American Rivers is playing a leadership role in the process and are hopeful it will produce significant benefits to California’s two largest rivers and the communities that live along them.

“Our predecessors utterly failed to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system, and with it the water supply for millions of Californians and tens of thousands of fishing and farming jobs.  The situation has created a crisis for countless communities across the state.  Wasting the current opportunities to produce a lasting solution for all interests would make a tragedy of this crisis,” said Steve Rothert, California director of American Rivers.

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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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