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Restoring the San Joaquin River and Recalling Its History

This photo from 1900 shows European-Americans boarding rowboats on the banks of the San Joaquin River in California. Using archives records like maps and photographs, scientists are trying to revive the delta. Photo courtesy Bank of Stockton

For centuries, California’s San Joaquin River teemed with over half a million wild Chinook salmon. Today, the river — much of it dry — has almost none. This year scientists have begun reintroducing Chinook into the river with hopes to eventually restore the salmon population–and the river itself. PBS NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports on tonight’s NewsHour.

The San Joaquin – like its larger cousin, the Sacramento River – flows into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and then out into San Francisco Bay. The Delta and the rivers that form it are part of a vast ecosystem that support fish, wildlife, and, of course, farming throughout the Central Valley. California is trying to restore not just the San Joaquin River, but the Delta as well. And those efforts have cast new attention on the human as well as the ecological history of this fascinating and watery part of California.

The state has funded scientists from the San Francisco Estuary Institute to reconstruct an image of the Delta’s pre-Spanish landscape. Using a process of “historical ecology,” these researches are layering thousands of historical sources from dozens of archives, including navigational charts, government land surveys, drawings, photographs, and journals to paint detailed picture of the Delta ecosystem of 200 years ago.

By understanding the region’s ecological history and how native Americans carefully used the land, researchers hope to restore the Delta’s vibrant ecosystem and ensure a more sustainable future.

Take a look at the people and landscape of San Joaquin River over a century ago:

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