The River Past and Present

The San Joaquin River is a symbol of our history and our communities today. Native American tribes – Yokut and Miwok – long inhabited the San Joaquin and depended upon its natural resources. It is estimated that, in the 18th century, nearly 70,000 indigenous people lived in the Valley, one of the greatest population concentrations in North America. In the 1830s, smallpox decimated these populations. Today, visitors may come upon the acorn grinding stones and middens, or refuse mounds, that remain from these early human settlements.

In the late 1700s, Spanish explorers marked the first Europeans to visit the Valley. In 1826, when American fur trappers arrived, the Valley was sparsely populated and used primarily for cattle ranching. That changed in 1849, when the cataclysmic population boom of the gold rush transformed California physically and socially. During this time, the San Joaquin River, a vital link between San Francisco and the gold country, became a key water highway where riverboats plied the 250 miles between the Delta and Fresno.

In addition to this rich cultural legacy, the San Joaquin is home to an impressive natural history. Before the construction of Friant Dam, completed in 1944, the San Joaquin River spilled over the Valley floor, attracting unimaginably dense flocks of wintering migratory birds. Forty-pound Chinook salmon and sturgeon twice the size of a man swam these waters. The last salmon run in the San Joaquin came in the late 1940s, when sections of the river ran dry. Gradually, beginning in the 1860s with the introduction of irrigation, much of the Valley converted to farmland, cities, and towns, and the abundance of birds and other wildlife disappeared.

The vast working farms in the San Joaquin Valley reflect our agricultural heritage. For some 200 miles on the Valley floor the river is flanked on both sides by fields that grow nearly half of the nuts, fruits, and vegetables in the nation. Work related to agriculture accounts for over 30 percent of all employment in the Valley. The San Joaquin River Blueway will link Valley communities to this rich heritage, providing opportunities for farmland preservation as well as education about the importance of farming to our region.

Today, a landmark restoration project – one that will balance the agricultural legacy of the Valley with the river’s importance to wildlife – is underway on the San Joaquin. In March 2009 Congress authorized the San Joaquin Restoration Project (SJRRP) as a cooperative federal and state program to restore the river from Friant Dam to its confluence with the Merced River. The restoration program has two main goals: to restore river flows for self-sustaining salmon populations, and to provide water supply for a vibrant agricultural economy. As a result of this restoration, parts of the river that were de-watered when the dam was built will flow once again, bringing renewed natural life to this hard-working and hugely productive landscape. The San Joaquin River Blueway will complement the SJRRP, as well as other planning and policy frameworks for the San Joaquin Valley.

Efforts to expand public access along the river will require careful consideration of potential impacts to adjacent private property. Additionally, location and design of publicly accessible spaces, particularly in the restoration reaches, will need to avoid impacts to wildlife and habitat. Realization of a vision for a San Joaquin River Blueway will mean restoring balance between public access, wildlife protection, and agricultural sustainability, all vital to the quality of life in our region and our state.

When I was a kid, we went to Lost Lake all the time--we’d have barbecues there on Sundays ... And it’s what a lot of Latinos still do every weekend ... I like to look at the valley’s history, how the waves of migration have shaped our history and created what we are today. This valley is named after a saint because of Moraga, the Spanish explorer who came through the Central Valley and named many of the California rivers. He named this river too. They think that it’s because he crossed this river with his band of explorers on the feast day of Saint Joaquin, the father of the Virgin Mary. I don’t think many people know that.

Kristina Ortez