The Future of the California Delta, and What is Reconciliation Anyway?

Deltas, I always thought, were river sediments deposited in oceans that pushed the continental shore out into the sea. Picture the Mississippi Delta extending into the Gulf of Mexico. The California Delta (more accurately, the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta) is different – it’s actually inland of the Pacific Ocean. Picture moving eastward from the Pacific, past San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay, through a strait and then finally into the Delta itself. I was informed that the aquatic part of this system comprises the San Francisco estuary, the largest estuary on the Pacific side of the Americas.

The California Delta covers some 1153 square miles. It’s shaped like a triangle with a long side running from Sacramento in the north to a point 70 miles south with a westward vertex pointing to San Francisco Bay.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Image source)
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Image source)

Eons ago, the delta was open water. I picture it as a sort of inland sea that had an outlet to the ocean. The inland sea was fed from the north by the Sacramento River and from the south by the San Joaquin. Over time, river sediments partially filled the sea. Wetland plants colonized those sediments, with the result that the Delta had the nature of a large marsh with little dry ground, and with twisty and braided riverways. Tidal effects, as they still are today, moved a saltwater-freshwater interface landward and seaward. These circumstances set up an environment for abundant and diverse aquatic life, as well as animals that live on the land-water interface such as waterfowl and other birds.

Fast forward to the ’49 gold rush and settlement, and the rest is history. Winding riverways were an impediment to boat traffic, so channels were dug and straightened. The Swamp Act gave land to anyone who would drain it and make it productive, and so entrepreneurs ditched, drained, and leveed the marshes leaving the pattern of “islands” seen today. These islands are almost entirely agricultural, surrounded by levees to keep water out.

San Joaquim at left of the delta, “island” at right. The island is about 10 feet lower than river level. The pump at left puts water back into the Delta.
San Joaquin at left of the delta, “island” at right. The island is about 10 feet lower than river level. The pump at left puts water back into the Delta.

An aside here for just a second. As a Wisconsin guy, I’m used to seeing a levee here and a levee there. Levees are everywhere in this river and delta system! Starting above Sacramento into the delta and southward as far as we tracked the San Joaquin, there was zip – nada flood plain (and flood plain habitat), only levees.

But back to the Delta.

Mike Miller (l), Department of Water Resources tour guide extraordinaire.
Mike Miller (l), Department of Water Resources tour guide extraordinaire.

The Delta islands have now been farmed for 100-150 years. Some of the peat soils were burned off by fire, but a lot more over time by just rapid oxidation of the peat coming into contact with air. The “islands” and lots of other delta lands are now up to 15 feet below sea level. Instead of being wetlands that absorb flood pulses, these “reclaimed” lands need to be protected from floods which intensifies flooding elsewhere. The levees occasionally fail, flooding islands and requiring remediation at huge costs. My Department of Water Resources tour guide, Mike Miller, reported that a levee breach in 2004 cost $97 million in public dollars to fix. That comes to $7500 per acre of farmland, for land that will become inundated again from a future levee failure. A tacit acknowledgement seems to exist that some or all of the islands are ultimately doomed. A sound argument could be made to simply buy out owners of vulnerable land.

When it comes to aquatic challenges, the Delta suffers from almost the complete suite: water diversions, invasives (fish, plants, crabs, others), warming, rising sea level (the latter two are associated with climate change), no flood plain, saltwater intrusion, subsidence, water diversions, fish entrainment and mortality in pumping plants.

(I hope to explore the diversions in a future piece, but it’s too long to get into here.)

Land subsidence in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Yellow is 0-10 feet, orange is 10-15 feet, red is more than 15 feet. Image via
Land subsidence in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Yellow is 0-10 feet, orange is 10-15 feet, red is more than 15 feet. (Image source)

But people aren’t throwing in the towel. The feeling among government agencies, water advocacy groups, and scientists is that the Delta is too damn important to a critical list of critters. Though diminished in numbers and badly beaten-up, they have a fighting chance. Without a healthy Delta, forget restoring Sacramento–San Joaquin salmon runs.

Here’s a term I just learned when applied to fixing ecosystems: Reconciliation. Reconciliation is when it is recognized that the current ecosystem isn’t working well, but the whole system is too shot to do a restoration of natural conditions. So what can you do? Take what you have and make it functional. Restore habitat, control invasives where you can, but where you cannot, integrate them into new ecosystem. Restore flow regimes. Fix water quality.

I can picture a restored Delta. Here are a couple simple places to start: allow islands once flooded to stay flooded. Regrow wetlands on them for fish and fowl habitat. Manage diversions better. Fix water quality. It would take time and money, but ultimately it is do-able.

One thought on “The Future of the California Delta, and What is Reconciliation Anyway?

  1. I am following George’s blog as Dickens portrayed Srooge being haunted by the rattling chains of his business partner (Barnaby?) at least the ghost of Barnaby.

    In an initial blog George talked about the California salmon that once teemed and streamed from the Bay and that spectacular Sacramento/San Luis? Valley connected as they once were to the mountain melt and stream. This the salmon chapter of California history that English majors know so well if perhaps biology majors do not. The triumvirate titles of the California salmon ghosts by John Steinbeck, three delightful sensual novels; Sweet Thursday, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row; whose characters are some vintage street guys, some wonderfully fleshy whores, a particularly nice beginner whose, and a biologist who takes on the heroic role of good guy. All of these novels based on John Steinbeck’s quaint interest in the biological sciences and his friendship and apprenticeship to a real-life biologist of the Sea of Cortez. a book of the same name did follow, but was seldom noticed in English class because it really was about biology.

    George’s comment about the failed legacy of the California salmon has bothered me since I read it. To admit I am at my desk at 3 a.m. a Friday morning pursuing the thought. To note that Steinbeck’s three Cannery Row novels were written in the ’50s of the time period 1930s by which time Cannery Row and the salmon run was already extinct from a capitalistic point of view. The question was raised in my thought why it is that all our great herds, swarms, flocks … from the bison, the passenger pigeon, the cypress forest of the Missouri breaks, the Pinery of my Wisconsin, those Oregon/Washington/California salmon runs, perhaps the immense high and wet grass prairies to be included … why did they all vanish so easily? so quickly? To note the salmon runs probably ended well before the 1930s, the bison were gone when the Scots and Irish and Norwegians came who wanted just some land. The passenger pigeon was probably doomed by 1870. The famous Pinery predicted as a resource to last a thousand years barely lasted a generation. The fantastic cypress of the Missouri bottoms with trees ten feet across whose wood is as close to eternal as god itself, died in a 10 year fit of commerce following the Civil War. What could have been the best sauna posts, cabin posts money could buy replaced by a stick of Menard’s best green treated. Personally I liked creosote. As a kid I spent several layers of my personal hide applying creosote to farm gates and posts. If creosote is a carcinogen I know how I will die.

    Why is it that the flocks, herds and swarms of nature do not, did not survive. We are presently only barely coming to grips with the oceanic fishery. Even sharks are now threatened for the sake of a pricey status-bowl of soup, that in the end isn’t very good soup. An example of luxury pricing the same as Rolls Royces and Ferraris. Some mention Porsches at this juncture which isn’t true, the faithful can find their way to a Porsche if they are but true hearted enough.

    How come the native herd fails? How come there aren’t/weren’t sanctuaries early-on for the passenger pigeon Were all our ancestors that heartless and greedy? Or is there a kind of weird diametric that happens to the wild congregation that intrinsically dooms it. Is it the sheer volume of capitalism, that there were once salmon canneries on the San Francisco shore and what seemed countless wasn’t so countless when put in a can, the cans put on railroads and shipped to Kansas City and Plover for farmkids to eat. I never cared for canned salmon, still don’t. There is a perfectly good reason why Scotsmen ordained the oyster … because it’s repulsive enough not to be a favored diet pattern, and the rest of sustenance can be gained of meatloaf and a steady diet of omega-3 fatty acid by way of peas.

    Why didn’t California? Why didn’t John Muir instead of trying to save the Hetchy Hatch Valley try to save the salmon runs of the Delta? Surely the water projects could have been designed to accommodate cyclical salmon migration?

    I have never eaten a spawning-run salmon, as a fish they don’t look very becoming, rather like a priest without his frock chasing small boys. My uncle Harold did not believe killing deer in season when they were full of sex hormones was the sporting way, or tasteful way to kill a deer. Rather early October from a corn crib established at the wood edge, a fine mix of ground corn, molasses and red salt laid out on the ground. A single shot as did the trick. He saying it was altogether different venison.

    Perhaps this question of saving the herd is better put to capitalists than biologists. Can capitalism save the commercial worth of nature that cannot sustain anything like direct market force?

    It is interesting only now that the paper industry has shifted across the globe, that the daily newspaper is steadily failing, that e-books exist, that a relatively large Wisconsin paper industry no longer needs the service of the pine plantation … those townships of paper forests. Instead can rely on the steady harvest of private/public lands of a Wisconsin woods with a broad maturity.

    I would love to imagine those California waters regaining their salmons if only for the spectacle. Dams and weirs and pen-stocks and run-water reservoirs designed just for that, by-pass riverines, protected salmon genetics, and of course the holy native rainbow whose offspring do very well in my farm pond …. even in a hot summer.

    Or is California so other-minded, such the gold-coast, the Hollywood, the Silicon Valley, the Hills … to care? Is there something that sophistication does that is not aligned with saving species?

    Cannery Row wasn’t cool till Steinbeck wrote about it.

    3:45 I’m going back to bed


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