Major Sierra Nevada Rivers
The Sierra Nevada is the major source of water for California. Virtually all of the agriculture of the Central Valley depends upon the the annual snowmelt of these rivers. In addition, most of the cities in California depend upon Sierra runoff for their water supplies. San Francisco gets its water from the Tuolumne River at Hetch Hetchy. Los Angeles and southern California rely both on state water from the Feather River (Oroville Dam) as well as water from the Owens River and Mono Lake on the east slope of the Sierra.
As a result, a complex system of dams and aqueducts has been built to serve California's thirst for water. Of the major rivers in the Sierra Nevada, only the Cosumnes River is undammed and flows freely.
Even dammed, the rivers of the Sierra Nevada are wild and beautiful, flowing through some of the deepest and most rugged - as well as stunning - canyons in the west. Kings Canyon, Yosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy come quickly to mind.
Naturally, the rivers of the western slope of the Sierra flow into the Great Central Valley. The Kern River used to flow into Lake Buena Vista before it was drained. The Kings and Kaweah Rivers flowed into Tulare Lake before it, too, was drained and the Kings River re-directed. The San Joaquin, Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers all flow into the San Joaquin River. The Mokelumne, Cosumnes, American, Yuba and Feather rivers flow into the Sacramento River, which merges with the San Joaquin at the Sacramento Delta.
On the eastern slope, there are only two major rivers, the Truckee and the Owens River, both of which have no outlet to the sea.
Move your mouse over the map to see river names and watershed areas (the rollover images may take a minute to load).
- Average annual precipitation in the Sierra Nevada (map)
- Average maximum winter snow depth (map)
- Natural river flows (chart)