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San Joaquin is Most Endangered River in U.S., Says Group

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San Joaquin River far upstream of Friant Dam, in the Devil's Postpile area | Photo: jcookfisher/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A national river protection and advocacy group has released its annual ranking of the most-endangered rivers in the United States, and a California watercourse that's been hammered by diversions and drought has the dubious honor of first place.

According to American Rivers, which has released its America's Most Endangered Rivers list annually since 1984, over-diversion for agriculture and urban use, and obsolete water management practices have put central California's San Joaquin River at greater risk than any other river in America in 2014.

Another California watercourse, San Francisquito Creek in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, took fifth place on the list due to an aging dam that threatens the stream's excellent steelhead habitat.

Among the other watercourses earning spots on the 2014 list are the Upper Colorado and White rivers in Colorado and the Gila River in Arizona, all of which are important tributaries to the lower Colorado River -- on which millions of Californians depend for drinking water. To be strictly accurate, the Gila's meager flow joins the Colorado only a few miles above the Mexican border: its water gets used by Californians of the "Baja" variety, as it's piped to farms and cities in the Mexicali Valley from the Morelos Dam.

The San Joaquin River has been a center of attention of late: a plan to ensure there's water in the lower river for salmon for the first time in 60 years has attracted significant opposition from the majority party in the House of Representatives. Since the 1950s, when diversions from the river at Friant Dam went into full swing, 60 miles of the river above its confluence with the Merced have gone dry except in the wettest years.

That drove the river's spring and fall runs of chinook salmon extinct. Some salmon and steelhead still persist in the river against all odds, but according to American Rivers, swift action is needed to keep those fish going for much longer.

"Years of managing the San Joaquin for agriculture, hydropower, and flood control have taken their toll on the river," reports the group on its website. "Dams, levees, and excessive water diversions have hurt river habitat and opportunities for recreation and community access....The California State Water Resources Control Board must act to increase flows in the river to protect water quality, fish, recreation, and community access, and support sustainable agriculture."

"The present drought places additional stress on the river and its communities," adds the group, "but we must not allow the drought to force rash decisions -- like cutting environmental protections -- that will harm the river, fish and wildlife, and communities for years to come."

Steelhead play an important role in 2014's fifth most endangered river as well: the largely undeveloped San Francisquito Creek, a tributary of San Francisco Bay that for much of its length makes up the line between San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, is some of the best remaining habitat for the seafaring trout left in the Bay Area. The creek is largely undeveloped along much of its length, meaning that instead of culverts and concrete beds, there are fish-friendly gravel bars and cobble beds .

But there's an exception: the aging 65-foot Searsville Dam on the Stanford University campus, which has blocked more than 20 miles of steelhead habitat in the upper reaches of the creek.

The dam's silt-filled reservoir, which provides little utility for Stanford aside from irrigation water for its golf course, is being discussed by the University and others as a possible candidate for removal. That would eventually allow steelhead to swim and spawn much farther up into the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers has been working to preserve rivers and streams since 1973.

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