Sacramento, San Joaquin rivers 'most endangered' in U.S.

WASHINGTON — The Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers together are the most endangered rivers in the nation, an environmental group claims in a new report.

Pressed by population growth and irrigation demands, and imperfectly restrained by outdated levees, the two Central Valley rivers are said to be "on the verge of collapse" in the latest assessment by American Rivers. This marks the first time either river has topped the subjective most -endangered rankings.

"We really have to overhaul how we manage this river system," Amy Kober, communications director for American Rivers, said Monday.

Based in Washington, D.C., American Rivers has been producing the "America's Most Endangered Rivers" report since 1986. Like similar assessments produced by groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- which publishes an annual "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" -- the river rankings have neither regulatory nor legislative significance.

No objective criteria explains why the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are considered more endangered than Georgia's Flint River in Georgia or the Oregon's Lower Snake River, which rank number two and three respectively on the American Rivers' list.

Rather, the 36-year-old environmental group wants the grim report card to rivet public and political attention. Selected rivers generally face an important policy decision -- for instance, proposed dam construction - in the coming year.

"This really sheds a spotlight on the problem, and puts pressure on the policymakers to do the right thing," Kober said.

State, federal and local officials are now preparing a Bay-Delta conservation plan, which could include a still-controversial scheme for conveying water around the Delta's east side. The potential peripheral canal, as it was once known, has the support of leaders including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger even as Kober said environmentalists believe "there are better solutions available."

In previous years, pending dam and hydroelectric project proposals have earned the Clavey River in Tuolumne County and the American River in El Dorado County spots on the most-endangered list. In 1997, the San Joaquin River cracked the Top 10 list.

The Sacramento River flows south for about 440 miles, while the San Joaquin River flows north for about 330 miles. They mingle in the 1,000-square mile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

There's no disagreement about the importance of the two rivers. Together, they provide drinking water to 25 million Californians and irrigation water to five million acres of California farmland.

There's plenty of disagreement, though, about how to manage the rivers.

"They're not looking at the human populations that are endangered, the communities where unemployment is 30 or 40 percent," said Andrew House, spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.

House added that the "environmental concerns should be secondary" to concerns about the "endangered communities" that rely on irrigation water from Valley rivers.

Nunes was on the losing end of one big river fight, which concluded March 30 when President Barack Obama signed a massive public lands bill. The public lands package included San Joaquin River restoration provisions, designed to restore water and ultimately a salmon population in the river channel below Friant Dam.

American Rivers strongly supported the public lands bill, which also designated 86 new wild and scenic rivers spanning 1,100 miles in seven states. Nunes opposed it, contending the San Joaquin River restoration plans will dry up irrigation supplies and drive Valley farmers out of business.

"Certainly, on the San Joaquin River there have been some issues," Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority, acknowledged Monday, "but a lot of that is being remedied right now."

American Rivers is primarily funded through individual and foundation contributions, although in the past it has secured grants from the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The American Rivers report