Traveling down a river always makes for a great story. But what if your river runs dry?

CNN reporter John Sutter just finished kayaking — and walking — 417 miles down California’s San Joaquin River. This may be the hardest working river in the world: It runs through wondrously productive farmland, which depends on irrigation. Every drop of the river is sucked dry before it reaches the ocean. Sutter happened to be paddling the river in the middle of the most severe drought in California history, and so his project brought hopes and anxieties for the future of water into stark relief.

Q. How long were you out there?

A. Three weeks — 24 days, I think. So yeah, it was a long adventure.

Q. Did you love the river by the time you were done, or did you hate it?

A. No, I totally loved the river by the time I was done with it. I was also frustrated with it, and with some of the circumstances around it. This was a learning process for me. I started off not being very good at all at kayaking. I didn’t know all that much about the river at first. The more I knew, the more time I spent on it, the more details I learned, the more interesting it got. I was out there with a couple people who study birds, and learning funky things about bird calls. Little stuff like that, as goofy as it sounds, made me fall in love with the river and the character of it. It has a lot of life in it, even though it’s really struggling. And so when I got to the end, at the Golden Gate, I really was very much in love with the river, and that’s why I was frustrated — I knew that the water that started out in the Sierras, maybe three weeks earlier, hadn’t made that journey with me, and it should.

Q. It is interesting how, with nature, there’s that initial barrier where it’s hard and intimidating to learn about a place. But once you start picking up some of those details, like the bird calls, it just becomes more and more fascinating. Once you have the doorway cracked open a little, you can see more and more, and it entices you.

A. That’s something I think a lot of people forget about. I get out in the world with my job, but I’m a person who is guilty of being at a computer at a desk a fair chunk of the time. We live in this world that doesn’t value a connection to nature anymore. It’s scary to me that, because of that, we don’t understand it, and there are fewer and fewer people who can explain it, if that makes sense. But there are also the river people, as I call them, who are obsessed with rivers and know so much about them, and I was lucky that so many of them joined me at different points on the trip.

Q. Rivers do seem to be at a point of connection between humans and that natural world. They draw people. People like to swim in them, people like to boat down them — they really are an entryway into that knowledge.

A. I mean, I’m sort of arguing that our rivers have become invisible — people don’t know where our water comes from, people don’t know where rivers start, where they end. I met people who were fishing on the San Joaquin and couldn’t tell me where it had come from or where it was going. One guy told me to look on Google. I’m not saying anything bad of those people — I think it’s true of me, too, and a lot of us.

But I like the river as a metaphor. It’s true that rivers are connectors: They connect people, they connect places, they connect industries, they connect people who live in very different environments and might not have a lot of reason to think about each other. In California, rivers force these different people to negotiate. That doesn’t always go very well; the results aren’t always logical. But I do think, that force of connection, there’s something powerful there.

Q. Let’s talk about that. This project was interesting because there are really divided opinions about where the water should go. It’s different in that way from some of your other projects — there aren’t people who are going to say that rape in Alaska is a good thing, right? But there is a legitimate argument saying, this water should be going to support people, and support the economy, and here we have some of the most productive land in the world, which could be producing a lot of food and freeing up other land. I think you went into it with the perspective of, “Let’s save the river.” Did that get complicated along the way?

A. It’s written in the tone of, “Let’s save the river,” and that’s the conclusion I came to. But going out there I was really trying to keep an open mind about the policy and really tried to reach out to all different constituencies and understand their points of view. I think I reflected that. There’s one point that’s the dry point of the river, this is a river that looks like a desert, it’s so far gone, there are questions about whether — if flows actually are restored — they would go down the main river channel or go down a constructed bypass that makes right angles. Out there in the middle of that, I was very frustrated with the situation and the river, and was compelled by the argument that the farmers around there were making: that this isn’t a river that functions like a river anymore, and maybe that’s OK. I do think those are valuable arguments. Also, a lot of people making them have a lot of interest personally in their business to be making those arguments.

Q. Yes, you can’t forget that.

A. I think the place I landed — this is going to sound totally wishy-washy, but it’s a more spiritual place: This river has a spiritual value in the connections it makes between people, and I think there’s something magical and important about its natural course that needs to be respected. Or we risk losing sight of that entirely, and becoming the type of society that thinks it can engineer its way out of anything and doesn’t have respect and reverence for natural systems. I don’t think we should get rid of farming in the San Joaquin Valley, but I do think there’s gotta be a way to have both be a priority. And the way it’s gone since Gold Rush years is industry first and only. There’s a reckoning that’s happening. [People are considering] the natural systems and the consequences.

Q. And the people along the way.

A. And there are other industries. You talk to the NRDC, one argument they really hammer on, and I think it’s a good one, is that if salmon were restored in that system, that’s big money for people, and it’s part of the food industry in the same way that farming is. We’ve essentially traded one for the other. We’ve eradicated natural systems that could provide financial benefit as well as make the ecosystem healthier.

Q. One of the things that must have been frustrating was that you had to skip the most amazing, beautiful part of the river, and then settled into the sweltering, stinky, buggy part. It was fun for me to see that you followed Darin McQuoid to hike that section in the Sierras. He puts kayaking trip reports up on the web and I’ve put them to use on many weekends. I once thought that some day I’d be a good enough kayaker to run the upper San Joaquin. If you could have downloaded Darin’s skills, would you have wanted to do that part as well?

A. Absolutely. He has an amazing perspective. We met someone who works up in the national park, and she was just quizzing him: “What does this area look like? Where does the water go through this canyon?” And it just made me realize that there are only a handful of people who have seen parts of that river. It seems like there are relatively few places that are so unexplored. If I could download those skills — and a little bit of his fearlessness — I would have wanted to do that. It still wouldn’t be entirely possible to run the whole river because there are so many hydroelectric dams.

Q. The other half of that is the hot, fertilizer-filled — to put it politely — part of the river. It comes across in the piece that you find some enchantment there too. I mean, you could have just said, screw it! This river sucks, let’s just save the pretty parts. How did you come to love it, with all its problems?

A. There was that spot where I was hiking through the desert that was supposed to be a river. I was really upset about that, honestly, and it was very grueling. It was really hot, and walking through sand is always hard, even if it’s not hours and hours a day. But it helped that the river comes back. It’s not perfect — it’s runoff from farms that are fairly highly polluted.

Eventually there are tributaries that come in. I remember, in my head, I had the Merced River built up as this mighty, enormous river that was going to come solve all my problems. And once I got to the confluence it was just, like, a trickle, and I was like oh, no! Then the day heading into Stockton, which was a really long day on the water — about 30 miles and a lot of wind — but that day the river really came back to life. There were all these people in boats, and fishing with their kids, and restaurants on the water, and houses. I had been in this place where I really hadn’t seen people. I was talking to people about why they loved the river, and it was contagious. I went into it thinking this was a dead river — it doesn’t connect to the sea, you could argue it’s been engineered to death — but it’s really not. It’s very much a living thing, and it’s messed up, but there’s enough life there that it can be saved.

Q. That hits at an issue in agriculture that I think is behind a lot of the disagreements I see in my reporting. It isn’t so much about any environmental issue, but just this sense that, when you are in a place like the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, it’s kind of a desert, in more ways than one. You have these really big farms, and you don’t have a lot of people. And they are incredibly efficient at producing food, but they don’t feel like they’re thriving or even hospitable to human life. There’s this question, does it make more sense to integrate humanity and agriculture? Or does it make sense to design the environment for the thriving of a crop, even if it makes a place really unpleasant for humans? That’s a giant unfolding debate that you managed to touch on by floating — or not floating — by.

A. I think it’s a really interesting question. Several people were giving me warnings about the landowners going through this area. This seemed laughable to me in advance because I’m thinking, California equals paradise and hippy liberal people. But this isn’t an area of the state that’s traveled often, that people know or understand. It’s got a lot of poverty — it is very inaccessible. I don’t know the solution, but I do think it’s a problem that so much of our food is coming from a blank spot on the map that people don’t know much about.

Q. Yep, and it’s a problem for farmers, too.

A. I want to add, I really don’t like the farmers versus fish, or versus the environment, argument. I do think there’s nuance in the farmer point of view, and there’s more overlapping interest between these groups than they let on. They really do all care about this area, and want to do the right thing.

I don’t think there’s a lot of malice, really. There’s just a lot of competing interests and people looking at issues narrowly, whether they are just looking at one species — that they are dead set on making survive without regard to the other ecological functions — or whether they are trying to grow one crop with one water allocation, and that’s the most important thing to them. There needs to be more systems thinking, and if there were, there would be more common ground.

Q. That’s a great note to end it on. Just tell me, what’s your next project?

A. Child poverty. I don’t have the specifics — we’ll see where the approach goes.

Q. Hopefully, this time it won’t involve dragging a kayak.

A. You never know. I really do miss kayaking actually.

You can find Sutter’s river story here, and his following projects here.