Tuesday, January 31, 2012


By Patricia McBroom

Many people have their eyes fixed on the Delta’s natural resources:  its water, its imperiled fish and the 750 or so species that live there or use it seasonally, like sandhill cranes. But there is another species that has lived in the Delta for 10,000 years. That would be human beings, and they also are imperiled.
            Some 2,500 souls live in the Delta today, mostly farming families. Many have been there for generations, living in a time and place that seems from another era. Freeways stop at the borders of the Delta.  So do gas stations.  Main thoroughfares from the Bay Area to Stockton and Sacramento route drivers around the territory, not through it.
Yellow drawbridges, like this one on Sutter Island, charm Delta visitors
Credit: Patricia McBroom
            The area opens a window on California history, which is immediately apparent to anyone who drives over the Antioch Bridge onto highway 160 toward Sacramento. Soaring off the urban rim and onto the first island, the driver is hit first by a sweeping view of the Delta and then by a sense of being suddenly transported into the past.  Yellow drawbridges, occasional tiny towns, narrow levee roads and green acres recall the 1950s, but in fact, the history is much older. 
Along the winding waterways are the remnants of a river culture that barged food, coal and other products from Sacramento to San Francisco for more than 50 years from 1850 to the 1930s. Before them came Native Americans, a large population who thrived for thousands of years in California’s rich Central Valley, including the Delta.
It is a history, however, that is still mostly unknown, scattered in archives throughout the state.  Efforts are now being made to bring it together and none too soon. The Delta is under increasing stress, not only from near collapse of the ecosystem, but from growing demands to turn large tracts of land back into the original marsh.  If that were done – if the few thousand people who currently live on and manage delta resources were to leave – much will be lost, not just the history, but a critical human population that maintains the water infrastructure.
University of the Pacific's Robert Benedetti
“We need these folks,” said Robert Benedetti, professor of political science at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. “If you want managed water, you’ve got to have people on the ground with the motivation to manage it. Otherwise, it’s like saying, ‘Well, we won’t have any more small business in cities. Let’s make it all residential.’ We’ve tried that. What you get is a huge crime rate because there is nobody to watch the street.  In this case, if you eliminate the livelihood of the people who live in the marinas, towns and farms, no one will watch the Delta.  Somebody who flies over every six months doesn’t have much motive to catch stuff.”
 The Dai-Loy Museum in Locke is
much like it was 70 years ago.
            Benedetti is heading up a multi-institutional effort to reconstruct stories of the Delta and its successive cultures. The 19th century river culture, for instance, that tied the coast and the valley together through water transport, was a transient one where strangers bumped up against each other and took their leisure in gambling and drinking, said Benedetti.  With the people now gone, remnants of the old towns, many dilapidated and withered, can be found along 80 miles of the Sacramento River from Clarksburg to Crockett, a picturesque town under the Carquinez Bridge.  Another theme from the Delta describes the epic struggles of humans to live in the midst of an unpredictable, often rampaging natural environment, stories that include a long Native American prehistory of 10,000 years.
            Benedetti hopes his effort with a handful of other scholars, dubbed “Delta Narratives,” will be supported by a grant in April from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I think we’ve got a shot.  The area deserves the best we can do,” said Benedetti. “This is our Jamestown.  From prehistory to industrialization, the Delta is the place that held California in its infancy.”
Proposed Delta NHA would reach from Sacramento
        to Vallejo, through the narrow Carquinez strait.
In another move to resurrect the history, local Delta leaders in January asked the National Park Service to review an application naming the place a National Heritage Area (NHA), a site designated by Congress for its cultural and historic importance to the nation. If approved, this would be the first such heritage area in California.
Delta people hope an NHA will give them much-needed leverage in the war over water. If they can “brand” the Delta, raise public awareness, attract and educate visitors, perhaps they can hold off the forces that want to turn much of their agricultural land on which their economy depends back into a marsh or – worse – a bracken back-water. 
           Meanwhile, both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives already have legislation waiting in the wings to create a similar NHA that would extend from Sacramento, down the river, and through the Carquinez Strait to Vallejo. The bills are being offered by Sen. Diane Feinstein and Rep. John Garamendi, who was born and raised in the Delta. 
An NHA could bring up to $2 million per year into the area to rehabilitate the historic and cultural artifacts; it is distinct from a national park, in that private property and the local economy are maintained.
The Chinese town of Locke is a Delta
treasure much in need of rehabilitation.
Credit: Patricia McBroom
            But, while public awareness of its history and new recreational opportunities are certainly needed in the Delta, these things alone can not counter the threats to agricultural viability there.  Agriculture is by far the most important economic engine in the Delta, and it is being challenged from several directions.  Chief among the threats are plans for an “isolated conveyance,” (aka, peripheral canal), which would take a huge gulp from the Sacramento River upstream of the Delta and channel it underground to the south, possibly causing salt water to flood inland, ruining the rich, productive land (among the most productive in the State).  Concurrent with such a tunnel are plans to turn large parts of the Delta back into a marshland. 
            Governor Jerry Brown referred to these ideas in his recent State of the State address, mentioning 100,000 acres of new fish habitat.  That equals a sixth of the Delta’s total farmed acres.  Other dark clouds on the horizon for the Delta are evolving regulations contained in the current draft of the Delta Plan, which, when finalized, will go into effect this summer. 
            According to state water law enacted in 2009, the plan is obligated to achieve two co-equal goals: (1) making water deliveries more reliable and (2)  restoring the Delta ecosystem.  The law goes on to say that these goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place.”
            Trouble is that no policies have been written yet that protect or enhance agricultural activities in the Delta, though many support the coequal goals and habitat protection. That worries the Delta people whose livelihoods are all but completely dependent on their fields. If anything is done to hobble agriculture, they will be forced to leave.
            “The plan is very heavy on the coequal goals and non-existent in regard to the second statutory requirement: protecting the Delta as a place.  It has words to that effect, but nothing solid,” said Russell van Loben Sels, head of a five-county farm bureau called the Delta Caucus.  The Caucus is one of several Delta groups calling for changes in the Delta Plan that would protect $1.5 billion in agricultural production there.
            Other complaints are coming from the reclamation districts that maintain the levees in the Delta. 
            Policies in the Delta Plan seem “clearly directed toward changing the nature of the Delta into a recreational area, with some limited agriculture in the context of large habitat,” said Erik Ringelberg of BSK Associates, who provides ecological services for about a dozen reclamation districts.
            “It’s not that Delta people want any specific new development out there, but they do want to continue the livelihood they’ve spent the last 200 years on,” said Ringelberg, adding that “none of the requirements and very few of the goals (in the Delta Plan) are associated with even maintaining agriculture in the Delta.”
            The plan is not finished yet, however, and changes are sure to come with integration of the new analysis, “Economic Sustainability Plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta," in February.  Whether those changes will be big enough to save AG in the face of the multiple forces pushing for water and habitat remains to be seen.
            If not, California will be very much the worse for losing a small, hardy band of people who’ve kept watch on Delta waterways all these years.