John Sutter is kayaking the San Joaquin River. He’s gone from this:
Along the way, Sutter — a journalist who’d never kayaked a river before — has capsized, lost his GoPro camera, been washed through overhanging trees and had his food eaten by raccoons. He’s talked to farmers, migrant workers, biologists, environmentalists and others living along what’s been deemed the most endangered river in the country. And he’s documented it all on Twitter:
The trip is part of a CNN series called “change the list,” and its premise is simple: Last year, readers chose five issues, from wildlife trafficking to income inequality, and Sutter plans to use digital storytelling to raise awareness about a location or species that’s at the “bottom of the list” for each topic. He’s gone to Vietnam to document the plight of pangolins — “the most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of” — and to Alaska, the state with the worst rates of documented rape.
Now, Sutter’s kayaking the length of the San Joaquin River, which flows from the Sierra Nevadas to San Francisco Bay and passes through the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley along the way. The river was once the second largest in California and home to a thriving salmon run, but over-allocation of water has sucked more than 100 miles completely dry.
Still, in the midst of one of the worst droughts the state has ever known, advocates are optimistic that with better management, the river could flow again. We’re at “a crucial turning point,” Sutter says. “It could be a huge success story, this river that’s brought back from the brink, or it could be too far gone.”
High Country News caught up with Sutter as he sat on a riverbank yesterday in the town of Patterson, "the apricot capital of the world." The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
HCN: I think it can be easy for journalists to dismiss lists like “most endangered rivers.” But you’ve taken that concept and embraced it. How’d this project come about?
JS: The “listicle” and the idea of ranking things has been all over the Internet in the last couple of years, but most of them are void of any real information or insight. I’ve always been curious about why something gets ranked as the “worst.” Has it always been that way? Is anyone trying to address it? So we decided to use people’s interest in lists to get them talking about these issues in a more substantive way.
HCN: Is raising awareness enough?
JS: People use the term “clickdivism” in a derogatory way, but I think awareness is important. Getting a story out there can put pressure on people who need to be pressured.
That being said, I’m also a big proponent of readers being involved, so another idea behind this series is to try to make a change with the help of the audience. For the pangolin story, for example, our readers donated more than $17,000 to a non-profit that’s going to make (an anti-trafficking) public service announcement to run in Vietnam.
HCN: There have been a number of world-class athletes in recent years who have kayaked rivers threatened by dams or other development as a way to raise awareness. How is your trip different?
JS: Well for one thing, I don’t think I’ve ever actually kayaked on a river before now. So it’s not, “Wow, look at me, here’s this adventure.” The river is mostly flat. I’m just hoping to draw attention to people who depend on the river and the wildlife and the fish.
That’s one reason I’m posting all these pictures on Twitter as I go along. I’m trying to tell all these little micro-stories that make up the macro-story of this river. To me, a river is a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It connects people from all walks of lives and all kinds of different places. This river starts in the Sierras and is a gorgeous wild river that just dies in its midsection, mostly because of things we’re doing to it.
HCN: So why is the San Joaquin the “most endangered river” this year?
JS: It’s at a turning point. Two big things are happening: One is the San Joaquin restoration, in the upper part of the river. They’re trying to reintroduce salmon, and for that to happen the river needs to reconnect. Salmon cannot flop across the sand for miles and miles.
Then, down in the delta, the (California) state water board is looking at water quality issues. They need more water flushing in from the San Joaquin Valley to prevent issues with salinity. So there are two things in flux right now, and both are very politically contentious and could unravel. Regardless of your perspective, it’s a moment where a lot could change in how the river is managed, and I think that’s hugely important for people here and across the country, because we all eat food that’s grown in this region.
HCN: Where to next?
JS: I think most of the dry section is behind me now, but I have the delta up ahead. People keep telling me I’m going to capsize. I met a farmer who just flat out said to my face, “You will not make it to the Golden Gate.” But I’ve got all these people following me now (online), and I don’t want to let them down. I really want to make it.
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.