What’s your favorite river? Here’s a story about mine

By John D. Sutter, CNN

updated 9:32 AM EDT, Sat July 5, 2014

Me and John Dye, of Rivers for Change, at the Golden Gate Bridge on Friday.


  1. John Sutter on Friday completed a three-week trip down the San Joaquin River
  2. The river was named the most endangered in the country by an advocacy group
  3. Readers voted for Sutter to write about rivers as part of his Change the List project
  4. The San Joaquin travels through rich agricultural land in California — and it runs dry

Editor’s note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN’s Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

San Francisco (CNN) — Three weeks and about 400 miles ago, I started a trip down the “most endangered” river in the United States, California’s San Joaquin. The underloved river is born in the Sierra Nevada and snakes across one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, California’s Central Valley.

I finished that journey — which mostly involved kayaking, but also a fair bit of walking, since the San Joaquin runs dry for about 40 miles — on Friday beneath the Golden Gate Bridge here in San Francisco.

It was a moment I’ll always remember: that behemoth, cardinal-red bridge towering overhead, clanging in the wind, the distant roar of traffic, water rushing through a 1.7-mile channel that drains about 40% of this country-sized state’s land area. The ocean tossed the kayak around like a piece of dough.

John D. Sutter

Thirty-five mph winds seared salt water to my face, and tears of joy ran down my cheeks. It was thrilling but also bittersweet. I knew that not a single drop of San Joaquin water made it to the bridge, which should be the end of the river. All of it — 100% — is diverted for a variety of human uses, mostly for farming.

As I crossed under the bridge, which separates the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean, my thoughts were as choppy as the water. But between “Don’t flip!” and “ROCK!” I looked up at the bridge and remembered a moment from my June 11 hike at the headwaters of the San Joaquin.

I could hear the river rumbling down in a valley to the left on that mountain trail, and I said something to my hiking companion, Darin McQuoid — a pro kayaker who goes careening off 80-foot waterfalls like it’s no big thing — about how, to me, the river sounded like a highway.

No, he said, it’s the opposite. Highways sound like rivers.

San Joaquin River

That’s so true. And it really clicked for me in that moment. After three weeks on the river, I was finally starting to see things from the water’s perspective.

Rivers, of course, are the original highways. The roaring traffic above on the Golden Gate reminded me of the San Joaquin in its early, healthy stretches.

But for most of us, traffic is far more familiar.

We’ve become a people disconnected from the water. We don’t know rivers. We don’t know where they start, where they’re going, when they’re full, why they’re dry. We don’t know enough to understand why — long after the Huck Finn era — they still shape our lives, they’re still worthy of our attention and unyielding respect

I hope this trip is part of a much broader effort to change that. To tilt our collective thinking toward a focus on water, and its great shepherds, the rivers.

I could go on for MANY more paragraphs about the journey — about the farmers, bird-lovers, migrant workers, fish biologists, dam operators, boat nuts and barefoot skiers I met along the way. I’ll do that at a later date as part of our Change the List project. For now, I wanted to say a heartfelt thank you to all of the readers who followed my voyage down the San Joaquin so diligently — and helpfully — on social media. Some of you sent me scientific reports about locations I was passing; others actually met me out on the river to share a piece of your story.

Two science teachers brought me a burrito beneath a bridge. One woman stood at the edge of her family farm for two hours waiting for me to pass. For all of that I am forever grateful. It’s incredible that you cared about this story so deeply. You were an essential part of it. You shaped my path.

So, I’ll say it again, since I don’t enough: Thank you.

You readers are awesome.

AND: I do have a favor to ask. I’d like to ask you to turn your gaze toward rivers, too. CNN iReport is inviting you to send in photos, videos or essays about your favorite rivers. It could be a river you saw on vacation or one in your backyard. Tell us a little bit about it and it may be featured as part of a list of “our favorite rivers.”

Here’s a page with instructions on how to do it.

I know which river I’ll pick. Certainly the San Joaquin.

Stay tuned for more reporting on America’s “most endangered” river in coming weeks, and thank you again for being such an integral part of this adventure.


It was my daughter who alerted me to this movie by Peter McBride. The video illustrates the struggle between what we take for granted and what we often do not see that provides life. A conflict which will only become magnified every year.
If you have ever driven route 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco and seen the billboards. It is another conflict that will reach a boiling point with climate change. Water is the most precious commodity; life does not exist without it. We have not been good custodians.


iends at Sailors For The Sea continue their mission to ‘clean up sailing’, and their latest push is for racers to get rid of disposal water bottles for good. Southern California native and Melges 32 floater/crew glue Leslie Baehr sends in this report fromTeam INTAC at Key West. It’s great advice for the right cause – be sure to see how SFTS can help make your club or event greener at their site.

Few things trouble a boat’s Minister of the Interior as much as plastic water bottles. There is the inconvenient task of purchasing and transporting an entire isle of water bottle 24-pack cases. Then there is the daily burden of hauling just over 30 lbs of water out to your boat. There is also my personal favorite water bottle related activity: the between-race hunt for bottles carelessly thrown down below during races. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the issue of what to do with the water bottles when you are finished.

Everyday our 8-person Melges 32 team races, I pack four bottles per person. That is 32 bottles a day. With at least 50 racing days scheduled in a year, that is 1,600 water bottles. While we make every effort to recycle those bottles, often facilities are not available or the bottles end up mixed in with the rest of the boat’s trash.

As an alternative to this mess, our team followed suit with the Melges 20 fleet, which took the initiative to green the fleet’s liquids. We purchased a different color 21 oz stainless steel water bottle for each team member, placing them in a bottle caddy (~ $10) to keep them all together and keep them from becoming missiles down below. In general, it was easier to move around the plastic caddy and required less space than the large bag of disposable water bottles that it replaced.

Our process is to fill the bottles on the dock in the morning from either a large container or a dock hose fitted with a filter. Once racing, it is very easy to pass the caddy full of bottles up on deck and let everyone get their personally colored bottle. Some of the big guys get two and if any need to be refilled, we pass up the spare gallon jug and top them off. Though prepping the bottles for the day was a concern at first, it ended up taking less time and effort to fill eight empty bottles than packing the 30 lbs of water we would usually bring from our hotel. We found that one set of filled water bottles and one extra gallon jug was sufficient for the day. It is important to make sure that the gallon jug has either a secure top or is placed in such a way as to avoid rolling around. We chose the latter option and did not have a problem.

An individual reusable stainless steel water bottle can run from $15-$25. They are both environmentally and practically superior to other options as they are durable, safe and recyclable. Aluminum bottles are also an option, but may be non-recyclable and less safe depending on their lining. Reusable plastic water bottles are the cheapest option (around $8-$10 per bottle), but tend not to hold up as well in the heat and are less widely recyclable once you are through with them. In the end, it was faster, easier and more environmentally conscientious to use the bottles.