The Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers will be named today as the nation's most endangered waterways by the environmental group American Rivers.
It will be a news flash mainly for the other 49 states.
Many Californians are already well aware of the myriad problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its two main rivers. They've lived for several years with water shortages caused by the Delta's environmental problems, and with the threat of its declining fish populations, aging levees and problem plumbing.
Yet making the No. 1 slot on the group's 2009 list of the 10 most endangered rivers is a dubious distinction that both environmentalists and water users say will bring renewed urgency to finally solve these problems.
"It can't hurt," said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. "We keep telling the world this system is in crisis. It's in crisis for the fish and the water supply. So the more attention we can get ... the better off we're going to be."
American Rivers, based in Washington, D.C., has produced its annual list since 1986. The mostly subjective process focuses on rivers facing imminent threats or big decisions in the year ahead.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta certainly satisfies both categories. A massive habitat conservation effort, called the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, is expected by the end of this year and aims to both restore imperiled fish populations and improve water delivery.
More than 23 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland depend on Delta water.
A key proposal in that plan is a controversial canal. Up to 50 miles long and 1,000 feet wide, it would divert a portion of the Sacramento River's flow around the Delta to directly serve water diversion pumps near Tracy.
The Delta and its two main rivers are the only California waterways on the group's list of endangered waterways this year. The San Joaquin was previously listed at No. 4 in 1997.
"It was hands-down the most threatened river (system) that was proposed this year," said Steve Rothert, California director at American Rivers. "We're hoping this will help elevate the profile and motivate federal interest and federal support for a fix."
The Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers drain about 40 percent of California's land area and 50 percent of its precipitation. All this water is funneled through the Delta where the two rivers converge.
Environmental and water-supply problems have created urgency at the state level to reverse the Delta's decline. Federal interest, however, has waxed and waned.
Nine fish species are in steep decline in the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. Leading the list is the fall-run chinook salmon, which migrate through the Delta to spawn in the Sacramento River and its tributaries.
Once the largest salmon run on the West Coast, a crash in the fall-run last year is likely to require a ban on commercial salmon fishing for the second year in a row. Federal officials cite ocean conditions as the main culprit, but problems in the Delta also play a role.
This includes water pollution from farms and cities, predation by foreign species and water diversions. Massive state and federal pumps near Tracy reverse flows in the Delta, killing fish and altering the aquatic habitat.
There are also imminent threats to people.
The Delta is a 1,100-mile maze of waterways formed by weak levees first carved out of the estuary shortly after the Gold Rush. The levees form 70 islands that host a rich farm economy and several historic towns.
Those levees don't meet modern engineering standards and are under constant attack from storms and tides. Recent studies estimate there is a 62 percent chance many will collapse in an earthquake in the next 30 years.
A flood that size would draw a surge of seawater into the Delta from San Francisco Bay, contaminating the freshwater supply for millions of Californians.
Phil Isenberg, a former Sacramento mayor and state legislator, agreed the attention from American Rivers could help the Delta. But he said its analysis seems oversimplified.
Isenberg was chairman of the governor-appointed Delta Vision Task Force, which last year wrapped up two years of study to produce a set of comprehensive recommendations to heal the Delta. Those proposals are now being debated both by state lawmakers and the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.
Basic water scarcity and the need to improve governance of the Delta, Isenberg said, are key issues largely overlooked by American Rivers and by policymakers.
"You have to face up to the question of whether we have not reached the limits of how much water can be exported from the Delta," he said. "Having us described as the most endangered puts a lot of additional focus on the debate, and I think that is immensely healthy. But behind all the recognition comes the tough political questions."
Rothert acknowledged the Delta presents a thornier set of problems than most waterways his group has highlighted over the past 23 years. Yet he believes the attention can help.
As examples, the group points to San Mateo Creek in Southern California, where a proposed freeway extension threatened Trestles Beach, and a dam proposed on the Mattaponi River in Virginia. Both projects were shelved thanks, in part, to attention prompted by the "endangered" status.
"We don't have a choice but to develop a workable solution," Rothert said of the Sacramento and San Joaquin waterways. "The alternative is status quo and stagnation, and in time that will certainly lead to catastrophe. We certainly can't afford that and I think people recognize that."
Call The Bee's Matt Weiser, (916) 321-1264.