FRESNO — By the time it meanders down to California 99, the dammed and diverted San Joaquin River is a lazy and slow-moving stream, its banks dotted with scraggly bushes and scattered trees.
A once-raging river that gave rise to a sprawling city and rich cropland, the San Joaquin is so tamed by Friant Dam and the demands of agriculture that it disappears underground 20 miles beyond the highway.
From a high bluff, Dave Koehler surveyed a verdant valley that the San Joaquin still carves, and warned that what is left of Fresno's final ribbon of water is in danger. He points out that developers hope to build luxury homes on the river bottom below Friant Dam. To the north, on the Madera County side of the San Joaquin, plans are being laid to create a city of 130,000 where cattle now graze.
As California's sixth-largest city approaches a population of 400,000, Koehler, director of the San Joaquin River Trust, is pushing for creation of a conservancy that would regulate building on the riverbed and create a parkway on a 22-mile stretch from Friant Dam to California 99.
The vision is simple: By canoe, foot, horseback or bicycle, people would find sanctuary from the city bustle in a system of riverine parks, paths and swimming holes, while deer, beaver, trout and birds could survive in protected habitat.
"This is the only chance the river has got," Koehler said.
In Washington and Sacramento, politicians haggle with farm lobbyists, big-city water representatives and environmentalists over water rights in battles that seemingly have no end. But in places such as Fresno, Visalia, Porterville and Bakersfield, activists are quietly working to preserve what is left of the rivers that were dammed to irrigate this valley.
The activists do not kid themselves. Even if they wanted to, they know they could not breach the dams and re-create wild rivers at the expense of farms.
"It's not going to happen. Agriculture is our economy," said Ginger Strong, a Visalia official who directs tree planting and other restoration along the skeletal remains of the St. John's River, a branch of the dammed Kaweah River.
There was time when the Kaweah, Kern and Tule rivers filled huge lakes that covered the lower San Joaquin Valley. But settlers in the 19th Century built dikes and channels to irrigate their land, and swamps dried. In time, Tulare Lake, once the largest inland body of fresh water in the Western states, disappeared. The Depression years brought dam construction, and by the 1950s, rivers downstream of the dams had become swaths of sand.
But in Bakersfield, Rich O'Neill, a pharmacist and avid bicyclist, stood on a bank of the riverbed of the Kern, a huge Texaco refinery at his back, and vowed that one day water would flow year-round through town.
O'Neill has been unwilling to sit back while corporate farmers and big environmentalist groups fought lofty battles over the future of California's water. "I just got tired of waiting, so I figured I would get involved," he said.
Over the years, O'Neil and his volunteer group, the Kern River Trust, have hauled old tires and broken-up concrete from the riverbed. They have planted sycamores, willows and cottonwoods along the river. Because the Kern runs underground through Bakersfield, they installed drip irrigation systems from the city water supply, lest the spindly seedlings dry up and die.
They have cajoled officials and business leaders into helping pave an eight-mile bike path along the river. Along the way, the movement has won important converts. Texaco, for one, donated $250,000 for the restoration.
O'Neil's goal is not grandiose. He knows farmers have rights to nearly all the water. All he wants is to "borrow" some of it so that people who live in fast-growing Bakersfield can see a flowing river on hot summer days. As soon as the water passes through town, he says, the owners can have it back.
The Kern has been called the most dangerous river in the state. Scores have drowned in its white water and flash floods. But below Isabella Dam, the river for the most part is docile. Once it leaves the mountains, weirs channel the water into irrigation ditches and onward to the cotton fields of Kern County.
"In one sense, Kern River now stands as a symbol for all of California's once-wild streams: harnessed, directed and utilized, but not fully tamed," author Gerald Haslam, who grew up on the Kern, writes in his 1990 book of essays, "The Other California." "It retains an edge of wildness--the capacity for an occasional flash flood and more than an occasional drowning."
In Fresno, where water still flows in the San Joaquin, the proposal for a river parkway is winning powerful support. Many landowners on the bluffs above the river support its preservation as long as they can develop their property. A scenic river can only enhance their land values.