Upstaged Calaveras needs love

By Michael Fitzgerald January 07, 2009 6:00 AM 

The Calaveras River, the wallflower of Stockton’s environment, finally got asked to dance recently with the formation of a group called Friends of the Lower Calaveras River.

About time. For decades, everybody has sued and frothed over the San Joaquin River and the Delta. Yet we drive over the Calaveras without giving it a thought.

So let’s give it a thought. The Calaveras River originates in a sodden meadow in Calaveras County above Jenny Lind.

Fed by rain, not snow, it tumbles past ranches, through a wild canyon by Valley Springs and pools an average 164,000 acre-feet of water in New Hogan Reservoir, Stockton’s water tank.

This Upper Calaveras is mostly on private land. The Friends are adopting the lower, more public, stretch.

That part leaves New Hogan, swirls past a Bellota weir and Stockton and joins the San Joaquin River.

A seasonal river, the Calaveras dries up part of the year. Yet Delta tides often back up and fill the bed to West Lane or so. Other times the river looks dead.

But there’s life in the old gal yet. Its residents include bluegill, catfish, even fall-run chinook salmon, which evolved to flourish in an on-again, off-again river.

But while Stockton has lavished millions on an events center, marina and even a bubbling gizmo to remove algae along the San Joaquin River, the Calaveras gets bupkis.

So Job No. 1 is “really just to increase public awareness,” founder Jeremy Terhune said. “For people to value it as a resource, they first and foremost need to understand that it is there.”

Other jobs: photographing the river; removing a salmon-thwarting weir; replanting native plants along Stockton banks; periodic cleanups; even water quality monitoring.

All good stuff. If there’s potential for conflict, it is over flows down the Calaveras, which are controlled by Stockton East Water District at New Hogan Dam.

Stockton East and federal authorities are about to release a flow plan for public comment. Whether this will be a casus belli remains to be seen. The Friends could play an important role.

“We don’t expect it will go back to a wild river,” said Calaveras friend Kari Burr, a biologist. “But we do want to educate the public so they are interested in seeing it function as a river, not just a flood control channel.”

Why is this important? Well, much of Stockton’s natural heritage involves special interests, environmental degradation and ’50s-era ideas that need greening.

Also, the bleak riverbed embodies a mind-set of civic disengagement that has allowed so many of Stockton’s problems to languish. It’s high time to snap out of it.

Join by calling (209) 922-8215.

Volunteer Jim Marsh: “If there were a stretch of the river through town, and people could see what a more or less natural native California seasonal stream looked like, … that adds to what is attractive about the city.”

Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or