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The ripple effect of stories: Lessons from a river journey

Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness is the source of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. Photo: © 2010 Steve Dunleavy
Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness is the source of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. Photo: © 2010 Steve Dunleavy

What happens to California’s San Joaquin River after it flows from its high altitude headwaters in the Sierra Nevada toward the San Francisco Bay?

In June a CNN journalist, who had never kayaked in a river before, set out on a 400 mile journey to find out.

Why? Because in April the nonprofit American Rivers named the San Joaquin the #1 endangered river in the United States. The group is concerned that “outdated water management and excessive diversions, compounded by the current drought, have put the San Joaquin River at a breaking point.”

This designation drew the attention of John Sutter, a CNN columnist who is leading a project called Change the List to “help bring change to places and issues that need it most.” Sutter and his editors selected 20 social and environmental issues for the project and polled readers to narrow the list down to five for in depth reporting.  “America’s most endangered river” came in at #5 with just over 12,000 votes.

Sutter’s multi-week and multi-media reporting odyssey along the San Joaquin touched many lives along the way – either from the banks of the river or through CNN’s website or social media. Many curious people, including myself, followed Sutter’s journey and his candid reporting on Instagram and on Twitter.

The story also garnered the attention of environmental bloggers and other journalists including the Natural Resources Defense Council and High Country News (and the blog post you re reading now).

Do you see the ripples?

He connected with people who connect with the river, knowingly or unknowingly. Some of the people he met read him poetry, others shared scientific facts and one couple, whose kid swam in the river,  brought him a burrito for dinner.

After kayaking and about 40 miles of walking, in places where the river runs dry, Sutter finished the journey on July 4, 2014, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Recently I caught up with Amy Kober, Senior Communications Director for American Rivers, who says she is thrilled by the coverage: “He illustrated facts and touched so many lives … the images of the story stay in my mind.”

For about 30 years, the Washington DC-based American Rivers, with offices in Oregon and California, has used this annual list of the nation’s top ten endangered rivers as an organizing tool. Their goal is to make it compelling so that people will pay attention to it and act on it. They run press releases and do outreach, and after that, the list “takes on a life of its own,” says Kober. Their website offers a way for people to take action through a letter to the California Water Resources Control Board.

While Kober believes it is too soon to tell the full impact of the story, the “first step is to get people aware and curious.” Past reports have helped spur the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.

I also asked her if she could share advice for other nonprofits that seek to raise awareness and support for their causes.

“If you are trying to protect a place, it’s important to get people there in person.” One way American Rivers does that is by hosting an annual gathering on the Yampa River in Colorado. The event brings together decision makers, river advocates and county commissioners — people who don’t always agree with each other. Together they learn about the river, about each other’s perspectives, build trust, and find solutions.  “More perspectives lead to greater understanding,” says Kober.