Wednesday, July 28, 2010


By Patricia McBroom          

          The farmers whose ancestors settled the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta came to plead for their future last week before a council appointed by the State to make historic decisions about water.
            They brought stories of farming the delta for up to eight generations.  Some talked of hand-written land grant contracts from the 1850s, given by the Federal Government to reclaim the swampland. They asked the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC), appointed earlier this year, to “get it right” and “put your boots on the ground.”            .
            “We made this land the most beautiful and productive in the world.  Our ancestors didn’t find any gold in the mountains, but they found it here,” said Robert Kirtlan, Jr., a resident of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. “Please do not destroy our heritage.”
              The delta community is one of the oldest established communities in California. In the mid-nineteeth century, residents would alternate between seeking gold and planting crops, depending on the season.  They transported their produce up and down the Sacramento River on barges, linking the growing urban areas, eventually constructing a landscape of dozens of islands protected by levees.  Those who stayed to farm built long-lasting delta families that intermarried over the generations.
              Today, the region of 1,000 square miles has the spirit and pace of life reminiscent of the 1930s or 40s.  Yellow drawbridges crisscross the meandering river.  Towns boast 700 residents, more or less.  People, even younger ones, like the slower pace of life.  They all know each other.  They went to school together.  They are just beginning to wake up to the fact that their way of life is endangered.
               Last week's DSC meeting was held in the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg, a former sugar beet factory, now an upscale wine tasting venue for area vineyards. (Clarksburg, a town of 110 households, is across the river from Freeport; see map.)
               It was the council's first meeting in the delta and members listened quietly to the residents who lined up to tell their stories.
            “We have taken care of this land the way God would want it,” said Gary Merwin, whose great, great grandfather bought the property which is today the town of Freeport.
           “Stewardship” means to be responsible, said Merwin. “We take pride in being responsible for this district and our little part of heaven on earth.” Merwin and his fellow farmers maintain the levees in the delta through reclamation districts established on the different islands. They provide the first line of defense against levee failure on most of the privately-owned islands.
Brett Baker
            Brett Baker, a seventh generation pear farmer on Sutter Island (named after John Sutter who first discovered gold in California), asked for assurances that riparian water rights in the delta would be respected.  “It’s absurd to say that folks here can’t divert water” that flows past their property, said Baker, adding that knowing they can continue to use the water would be “one less thing to worry about.”
            The list of things to worry about is long.
            Kirtlan worries about his property being wiped out by a proposed peripheral canal. Merwin is concerned about the huge costs local landowners must pony up to bring levees to acceptable standards in a cost-sharing program with the State.  Others were anxious that plans for new habitat would turn their property back into the ancient swamp that was reclaimed as farmland 150 years ago.
            In spite of the stakes involved, the meeting was amicable.  Delta people welcomed  the council warmly and they had plenty of time to talk.
Delta residents Nicky Suard (L)
and Robert Kirtlan 
            Council chair Phil Isenberg urged delta officials to bring forth their economic plans for the region, to be included in deliberations over the forth-coming “Delta Plan.”
            Henry Nordhoff from San Diego said he was struck by the beauty of the place, adding “The people are fantastic.” He acknowledged that delta farmers were nervous and understandably so. “We’re a little bit like the absentee landlords,” said Nordhoff, one of the seven council members appointed by the Governor and State legislators.
Council members Randy Fiorini (L);
Phil Isenberg (chair)
            Enormous powers rest on the shoulders of these seven people.  In new State laws passed last winter, they were given the power to make basic decisions about the delta’s ecosystem and water distribution, thus consolidating authority, previously widely dispersed, into one body.  In 18 months – a mere second in the long history of California’s water conflicts – the council must produce a delta plan that will be enforceable by law.  No doubt it will be hotly contested by the multiple stakeholders vying for water in California.  Council decisions will influence, if not control, determined efforts by water exporters to take water from the northern delta near Clarksburg, efforts that put delta residents at risk in multiple ways.
            Residents are hoping that the council will reconcile these competing demands in a way that will not ruin their agricultural economy or put a monstrous water intake (half a mile long and eight stories high) on their property.
           To some extent, decisions rest on the integrity of the levees which dramatically need repair.  Local engineers and members of reclamation districts know what needs to be done, as they testified last week, but do not yet agree on costs and priorities.  
           Council members made it plain that they need to get their stuff together and soon.  Otherwise, the State will do it for them.
Coming:  Urgent repair of delta levees wrapped in red tape


1 comment:

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