What inspired me to start this blog was two-fold. First, I went for a walk along the American River one day and took some pictures and wondered what to do with them. Write a blog post about it, but where and why. Which leads to my second inspiration. My dad has maintained a blog about the Sacramento River for the last few years. I decided that since he had taken on that project, I’d take on the American River. When my dad found out, he commented that I had picked a much more complicated river to catalog, blog about, and try to figure out.
He’s right in a way, but here’s what I don’t get. Who makes the rules about rivers? As my dad has written, there apparently is some controversy about the Sacramento River and it’s relationship to the Pit River. And then there’s the American, which doesn’t begin at just one source, but has a North Fork American River, Middle Fork American River, and South Fork American which feed in together at two different points to form the American River. The North Fork and Middle Fork join up near Auburn before those conjoined rivers flow into Folsom Lake, a man-made lake behind a massive dam.
That’s the North Fork and Middle Fork confluence.
The South Fork flows in to Folsom Lake separately and the flow that comes out of the other end of the lake is the American River.
So, who decided which flows of water would be the North Fork, the Middle Fork, and the South Fork? There are all sorts of streams, creeks, and rivers throughout the Sierra and the foothills that feed into the American River watershed. Are there some geological rules or unwritten rules of how rivers are named and what becomes a fork of this and a tributary of that. And why does the American River have these forks when most rivers don’t?
For instance, going back to the Sacramento River-Pit River controversy. The Sacramento River flows out of the northern reaches of California and into what is now Shasta Lake, a man-made lake behind a dam. Up above the dam, it is fed by creeks and streams and tributaries and the Pit River. Why is it the Pit River instead of just a fork of the Sacramento River. So, too, in downtown Sacramento, the American River and Sacramento River join into one river that flows towards the ocean and at that point, it becomes the final extension of the Sacramento River instead of the American River.
Who comes up with these names and decides these things? And ultimately, in the case of these two rivers, aren’t they something else? A part of the much vaster watershed that is the California Delta.
I’ve lived in Sacramento since February 1966. A long time. This bridge is a part of the drive to and from San Francisco. A bridge I have probably crossed several hundred times over the last 50 years. At the left is the Carquinez bridge, which spans the Carquinez Strait, where all of the rivers that gather steam throughout Northern California coalesce and reach towards the San Francisco Bay and beyond that and the Golden Gate Bridge to the Pacific Ocean.
And at it’s southern point, there is a small town called Crockett. Which until today, I’ve never been to. Some time last year on one of those countless crossings, my wife expressed an interesting seeing if there was anything in Crockett. We took a drive today, had lunch, walked around and realized there was nothing to see in Crockett.
But I pondered this and went back to my dad’s comment about the more complicated American River watershed and I think he’s on to something, only it’s far more complicated than even he imagined. The American River and Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River and all of the other creeks and streams and tributaries are all a part of something much larger.
That’s the Sacramento River that comes out of the north and feeds the Delta, one of the largest of its kind in the world. Up until about 160 years ago (conveniently timed around the Gold Rush when the white man invaded the area in droves), all of these rivers flowed naturally and the Delta was a marshy, swampy mush. Since then, the rivers have been dammed, levees have been constructed, agriculture covers the land. Which all means, of course, that the Delta is no longer in its natural state.
A few years ago, a plan was developed to build two massive tunnels to move water from the Sacramento River, up around Sacramento, and around the delta to assist in getting more water to Southern California and also to “restore the Delta.” There’s something highly illogical to that last claim. How does diversion of massive amounts of fresh water from the Delta help restore it? Wouldn’t that mean that more salt water from the ocean, coming in via the tidal ebb and flow of the San Francisco Bay, would encroach and harm the Delta?
That’s what I thought until last week until I had a conversation with a co-worker who was instrumental in drafting the legislation that created the Delta tunnel plan. He is at heart an environmentalist and extremely knowledgeable about water issues, so I give him a lot of credibility on this issue. The rationale behind the tunnels restoring the Delta goes back to what the Delta was before we man-made it. Back then, it was a brackish marsh. In the winter and spring when the rains fell and the snow melted, fresh water would push out towards the bay. And then as the fresh water flows diminished in the height of summer and the fall, the salt water from the bay would push back.
This ebb and flow created that brackish swamp where certain species survived and thrived. Since the rivers have been dammed and leveed, that ebb and flow has ceased, instead there is a steady line between the fresh water and salt water that has been created and the species native to the Delta are failing because their natural habitat is no more. The only real harm, according to my co-worker, to the Delta tunnels is to the agricultural interests who farm where that verge would be.
Which is all interesting and has given me pause in my opposition to the Delta tunnels. Sometimes the logical doesn’t prove to be correct.
So, what does this all have to do with the American River, which is what this blog is supposed to be about? As I said above, it’s all about the whole and not a piece of the whole. It’s about the interconnectedness of this world. The American River is a major river in Northern California, providing incredible recreational opportunities, beautiful scenery, and history. But it is only a proverbial drop in something much larger.