The San Joaquin River and its three main tributaries ranked second on a list of “endangered” streams released Tuesday by a national group.
Water demand from farms and cities has sapped the San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers, said the annual report from American Rivers, based in Washington, D.C.
“Dams, levees and excessive water diversions have hurt river habitat and opportunities for recreation and community access,” the report said. “The river’s salmon and steelhead populations are on the brink of extinction.”
American Rivers called on the State Water Resources Control Board to boost the flows. That agency already has proposed that they increase to 35 percent of natural conditions from February through June of each year – something water users say would mean lost food production and jobs.
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Science has found that a healthy river needs more water.
Michael Martin, Merced River Conservation Committee
In response to the listing, the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts noted their efforts to enhance the Tuolumne fish habitat. They have argued that factors other than water volume, such as predation by non-native fish and pollution, are part of the picture.
“We are disappointed in American Rivers’ attack on the Tuolumne River and their lack of acknowledgment of all that has been done to improve the fishery,” MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said in an email on behalf of both districts.
The San Joaquin river system ranked first on the endangered list in 2014 but was not on last year’s. No. 1 for 2016 is the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint river system in Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
American Rivers compiles the list to draw attention to current or pending threats it sees on the streams, including dams, hydroelectric plants, mining and pollution.
The group notes that a San Joaquin River stretch upstream of the Merced confluence has been mostly dry since Friant Dam was built around 1950. A major restoration project is underway.
The Stanislaus has relatively higher flows because of federal and state rules for fish. The Tuolumne and Merced could have increased releases as part of new hydropower licenses.
The state board is expected to announce a revised proposal this year for the February-to-June flows on all four rivers. The aim is to improve fish numbers and water quality there and downstream in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Michael Martin of Mariposa, director of the Merced River Conservation Committee, urged steps aimed at enhancing agriculture and the ecoystem. They include water efficiency on farms and “conjunctive use” of rivers and groundwater.
“Science has found that a healthy river needs more water,” Martin said. “We have to work together to find solutions to better manage the water we have.”
Mike Jensen, spokesman for the Merced Irrigation District, said the report overlooks the groundwater recharge that happens through irrigation with surface water.
“Further, at multiple times during the recent drought, the Merced River ran essentially dry,” he said. “Were it not for Exchequer Dam, there would have been no water in the river.”
Jensen said the district has proposed to change its river management in a way that benefits the environment. This includes increased flows, adjustments in flow timing, control of predators, restoration of old mining damage, and hatchery upgrades.
“To have an honest and reasonable discussion, there must be a recognition that the Delta itself has been drastically and dramatically altered over time,” he said. “The once wild and naturally vibrant Delta ecosystem is now hundreds of square miles of levees, armored channels, highways, railroads, cities and farms. Yet our community is being asked to give up its water to improve the water quality in the Delta for others’ benefit.”
John Holland: 209-578-2385
Endangered rivers, 2016
1. Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint river system in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, under heavy demand for cities, farms, recreation and other uses
2. San Joaquin River and three main tributaries – Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced – because of excessive diversions
3. Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and Maryland, dam operations and water quality
4. Smith River in Montana, proposed copper mining
5. Green-Duwamish River in Washington, floodplain management and pollution
6. Pee Dee River in Virginia and Carolinas, hydropower
7. Russell Fork River in Virginia and Kentucky, coal mining
8. Merrimack River in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, polluted runoff
9. St. Lawrence River in New York, hydropower
10. Pascagoula River in Mississippi, proposed dams
Source: American Rivers