Sacramento River

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The Sacramento River is an important watercourse of Northern and Central California in the United States. The largest river in California, it rises on the eastern slopes of the Klamath Mountains, and after a journey south of over 400 miles (640 km), empties into Suisun Bay, an arm of the San Francisco Bay, and thence to the Pacific Ocean. The river drains an area of about 27,000 square miles (70,000 km2) in the northern half of the state, mostly within a region bounded by the Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada known as the Sacramento Valley. Its extensive watershed also reaches to the volcanic plateaus of Northeastern California, and a tiny portion of southern Oregon.

The river has been an important transportation route since the time of the region's first inhabitants, who appeared about 12,000 years ago. Hundreds of distinct tribes sharing regional customs and traditions inhabited the Sacramento Valley, receiving little disturbance from the first foreign visitors to see the river. One of these early explorers, Gabriel Moraga, gave the river the Spanish name, Rio de los Sacramentos, which was later shortened and anglicized into Sacramento. The Sacramento's waters were once abundant in fish and other aquatic creatures, notably one of the southernmost runs of chinook salmon in North America. The natives of the Sacramento Valley drew upon the vast natural resources of the watershed, which had one of the densest Native American populations of California.

In the 1800s, the Sacramento was changed forever by the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada, which led to an enormous population influx of American settlers. Overland trails such as the California Trail and Siskiyou Trail followed the Sacramento, Pit, Feather, Yuba and other rivers, guiding hundreds of thousands of people to the goldfields and the growing agricultural region of the Sacramento Valley floor. Intensive agricultural practices, and mining activities in both the Coast Ranges and the Sierra, contributed to chronic pollution in the Sacramento and the destruction of many of its habitats. By the late part of the century, many cities had been established along the Sacramento River, such as Sacramento and Redding.

Since the 1950s the hydrologic systems of the watershed have been intensely developed for water supply and the generation of hydroelectric power. Today, large dams impound the river and almost all of its major tributaries. The Sacramento's water is used heavily for irrigation purposes and today serves much of Central and Southern California through the canals of giant federal water projects. While now providing the water supplies of over half of California's population, these changes have left the Sacramento nearly bereft of its natural state and have caused the decline of its once-abundant fisheries.

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