- Posted August 6, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Your favorite river
The San Joaquin River: A Personal History
The San Joaquin River has provided a living for my family for more than 113 years. When my grandfather settled here on Roberts Island, the San Joaquin River was truly wild and scenic. No dams restrained its cold, clear crusade from the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains to the salty San Francisco Bay.
The earthen levees that struggled to confine the spring runoff of mountain snow protected our family farm from damage or ruin. The clean fresh water nourished the seeds that were planted in what is considered some of the best farmland in the country. My grandfather was a hay and grain farmer. Once the crops were harvested, a barge would dock at our landing and take on the bales of hay and sacks of wheat. The mighty San Joaquin served as the conveyance of choice to take the crops to market in Stockton and San Francisco. (Photo: Barge landing on the SJ)
The horse drawn plows and cultivators had long since given way to diesel powered tractors by the time my father took over farming our ranch in 1946. The steamboats and barges had also disappeared from the San Joaquin River but a new thrilling mode of river transportation had arrived at our dock. I was about 6 or seven years old in the early 1950’s and remember my dad’s pride and joy, a 14 foot fiberglass boat with 25 HP Evenrude motor. I still remember the awesome feeling of speeding along at what seemed to be 90 mph but was probably only 35. The tree-lined river, dotted with the occasional sand bar and small channel openings captivated my imagination. What river critters had their secret hideout or lairs hidden there?
The swimming and fishing that my brother and I did was from a dock that had changed drastically from the 1915 barge landing. It looked more like Huck Finn’s raft, permanently anchored to the levee, floating up and down with the tide. We weren’t actually allowed to swim in the river because, “It was too dangerous.” Surprisingly, we were such klutzes and would often ’accidently’ fall in while fishing in the hot summer months. The river banks supplied our bait, fresh clams hiding in the rip rap were easily accessible at low tide. We would catch catfish, carp and the occasional small striper, which we released. Gone were the 30” salmon that served as an essential part of the diet for many Delta families in the 1920’s. The construction of Friant Dam in 1945 and the total diversion of the San Joaquin River to irrigate farms south of Fresno caused the salmon to disappear from our part of the river. My children and grandchildren still try their luck occasionally. (Photo: 4th and 5th generation to fish these banks of the SJ)
The second largest river in California has provided my family with the ability to earn a living for four generations. It has given us opportunities to play, relax and enjoy its attributes for over a century. But there is an ominous side to this river that fortunately we don’t see very often. I’m talking about flooding.
If you live on an island the threat of flood is taken very seriously. I was about 8-years old and remember the flood of 1955. The churning waters reminded me of chocolate milk. The farmers were on 24-hour levee patrol. Day and night jeeps and pick-ups slowly patrolled the tops of the only barrier between us and devastation. The water was within two feet of the crest. The levees were starting to saturate from the constant high water, so patrols switched to a lighter mode of transportation, horseback. This put less weight on the tenuous embankment. But soon the saturation was such that the hooves of the horses began to sink into the sodden earth. Now it was foot patrol and a lot of praying. Our levees held, but the levee protecting the City of Stockton didn’t. (Photo: 1955 Stockton Flood)
Our most recent flood threat was Christmas of 1996. Levees were failing in many places throughout the state of California. Farmers were again patrolling the roiling flood waters and again the levees of Roberts Island held! But the sight of a completely intact roof with Christmas lights still attached, floating down the churning river reminded us of just how lucky we were.
The San Joaquin is not what it used to be 113 years ago. The entire river is diverted 40 miles south of Friant Dam. Thanks to the contribution of water from the Merced and Stanislaus it regains some of its opulence, only to have more water diverted near Stockton and sent south via the California Aqueduct and Delta Mendota Canal. Salt water intrusion from the San Francisco Bay is a BIG concern. I’m not sure if this is an omen, but I have had four different sightings of sea lions swimming past my irrigation pump since January of this year. (Photo: Two Sea lions swimming near Roberts Island)
I am working to help save this most endangered river and I hope to see the water once again flow clean so that at least four more generations will be able to experience the magnificent San Joaquin River.