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Visit the river . . . while its still there
A water pump stands forlornly near the levee at Avenue D, where it once stood atop the San Joaquin River. Now the river resides more than 50 yards away. - photo by James Burns

“Get a running start and leap,” shouted the bobbing head in the water below, “but make sure you clear the pump or we’re all in trouble.”

Fifteen to 20 years ago, this is how we spent most of our summer days. We’d power up the ATVs and tool around the Manteca and Ripon countryside, looking for the most entertaining, most daring points of cool water entry.

Most afternoons it was a rope swing.

Others, a tall rock, towering train bridge or a water pump.

It was never completely safe or legal, and the thought of my children attempting the same stunts makes me cringe. But this is what we did.

We took running starts.

We leapt, trusting our legs and the voices below.

We held our breath.

And then we waited for the splash.

Today, despite record-setting spring-like temperatures, no one is making that jump. There simply isn’t enough water in the depleted San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers.

The waterways around the South San Joaquin County are thirsty for rainfall … thirsty for snow in the Sierra. At certain points along the San Joaquin River, based on the water marks along the levee walls, the river has dropped approximately 30 feet.

Sand bars threaten to turn sections of the river into ponds.

Docks and abandoned boats sit atop the soft bottoms of the sloughs.

Pumps, much like the one we used to launch ourselves from as teens, stand naked and exposed without water bustling beneath them. The pump at Avenue D has watched the river recede more than 50 yards.

It’s scary.

It’s sad.

And it’s oh-my-god alarming.

If Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency drought declaration or satellite images of the Sierra baked brown by the sun or 52 days without a single drop of precipitation (as of Tuesday) weren’t enough to make you at least think about practicing water conservation, perhaps you’re due for a field trip.

Visit the river … while it’s still there.

The concern among those that live and play along the river’s edge is palpable.

On Tuesday afternoon, a fisherman shuffled along the levee near the Union Pacific train trestle with his pole thrown over his shoulder. He had come all this way hoping to net his limit, but left empty handed.

Yet again.

“No fish?” I asked.

He mumbled something about his bait of choice – anchovies – before noting it had been a rough couple of weeks.

Jay Murray, whose two-story home near the Turtle Beach RV and Camping Resort looks over the San Joaquin River, has never seen the river so low.

He spoke with eyes as big as the can – presumably of tobacco – in his shirt pocket.

Make no mistake: Murray, who spent more than three-quarters of a million dollars on his Willow Street home seven years ago, enjoys the water. He keeps a pontoon boat at his private dock and a ski boat in the garage. He says the fishing is best near the flood gates, but fears he may have to invest in other means of recreational fun if his beloved waters continue to dry up.

The kind of fun that rumbles and rolls, not coasts and floats.

“Through the flood gates, these waters put you right on the San Joaquin River. You could take it all the way to San Francisco if you have the gas and the time,” Murray said. “But it’s tough now. I’ve got a pontoon boat that will just barely make it out there.

“I imagine I’ll have to buy some dirt bikes now and ride them out there all summer long. 

He laughs not because it’s funny, but because many do when faced with a desperate or dire situation.

Murray wonders about what will happen if his well runs dry and the resale value in his home, which is tied directly to the  water line. “The water is what you pay for,” he said looking out at the slough that borders his home. “This house is maybe $400-$500,000 in any other part of town.”

Harry Valentine’s home at the Oakwood Lake mobile home park butts up against the San Joaquin River.

There, his home and water source are protected and secured by wide levees and the Oakwood Shores water district, respectively.

But he fears for those that live on the other side of the levee or where the dikes haven’t been widened.

He’s talking specifically about Murray and those that call nearby Turtle Beach home.

“If you were back behind where the levees are old (and not reinforced), like at Turtle Beach, that would be a concern,” said Valentine, who has lived along the river for the last 30 years. “I have friends that live out there and they’re concerned about how things are going.”

Right now, Harry, it’s safe to say no one is jumping for joy.