As you read this, a conservation victory is unfolding in California’s Great Central Valley. This year, thanks to the settlement of a 20-year lawsuit between conservationists and the federal government, the San Joaquin River will receive more water than it has since the 1940s when Friant Dam was constructed. This water will revive habitat areas that have been dormant for decades and return salmon runs to their glory.
If you grew up in the San Joaquin Valley before the 1940s, you probably remember an impressive river flowing to the Delta from the mountains beyond Fresno. It was a river that was as volatile as it was vital, a river that in wet years overflowed its banks and wreaked havoc and at the same time abundance, and in dry years caused scarcity and conflict.
If you lived near the river, you may remember birds crowding into the trees and shrubs along its banks, or the sound of thousands of salmon splashing upstream on their journey to spawn. You don’t see these things along the river anymore.
Audubon California is one of many organizations taking part in the San Joaquin River Partnership, which seeks to maximize the conservation opportunities that the rewatering of the river presents.
For our organization, the river restoration presents many opportunities for bird conservation. Since the river was dammed in the 1940s, the vast majority of wetland and riparian habitat that once existed in the San Joaquin Valley has been lost. Birds have been forced onto increasingly marginal and smaller pieces of land, and only those that have adapted to the agriculture-dominated landscape have survived.
With the water come tremendous opportunities for birds, particularly special status species such as Bald Eagle, Greater Sandhill Crane, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Swainson’s Hawk, Willow Flycatcher, and Bank Swallow.
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