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State of the Delta

02 November 2018 Written by  By Don Huntington
Published in November 2018 Articles

Identifying the Needs and Possible Remedies for Bewildering Issues

Here are some of the things I learned from the Internet and especially from one of the foremost specialists on the topic — Mike Moran, the Supervising Naturalist at Oakley’s Big Break Regional Shoreline. 

The Sacramento San Joaquin Delta is an immense watershed, connected to all parts of the state via a complicated system of dams, canals, and pumps. Mike said that his research has led him to understand the important role that the watershed plays in every part of a healthy ecosystem — analogous to the system of heart-arteries-and-veins in our bodies. Obviously, if your heart stops beating, you will die. But if the flow of blood to your pinky finger is interrupted, the finger will eventually drop off.

In the very same way, water connects every part of the ecosystem. As you move upstream on the San Joaquin, you will not find a single farm, school, subdivision, shopping mall, or recreation center that wouldn’t fall into abandoned decay if the flow of water were to be shut off. !is confronts planners with the challenge of understanding, for example, how construction of a new road will affect a river located several miles distant. !e fact is, there will be a connection that will subsequently affect the flow of water for everything located downstream from the points of intersection.

Water resource control boards determine how much water flows down a river and how much can be taken out. Predicting and measuring the effects on environment, wildlife, and health utilizes a new science. Here are complicated issues. Rising sea levels will be an increasing problem. Mike said that they have instituted a climate resiliency initiative for Big Break park, but that it needs to be extended to the entire Delta watershed considering all available means, including creating new dams, raising existing dams, building tunnels, conserving and recharging ground water.

Mike said that the task is to apply science to land-use issues while accommodating our California culture. “This is a tough challenge,” Mike said. “But there is no other way. We need to work carefully through the various cultural views and opinions and make decisions on the basis of the best science possible.” Mike said that people need to understand that there is no silver bullet that will provide a perfectly clean solution to the problem. “Whatever we do, some people will feel they were stabbed in the back. Therefore, any plan needs to include ways to offset the harm the plan will be to people.”

When John C. Fremont stood on an East Bay hillside in the 1840s and saw where the watershed connected with the Pacific, he coined the term Golden Gate, which keyed off the Golden Horn — the name applied to the point at which the Bosporus intersected with Istanbul Harbor and through which passed the riches of the ancient East. Fremont had a vision of the corresponding significance of the Golden Gate as the intersection of the Old World, with boundaries ending at the Pacific coastline and giving way to the borders of the undeveloped new continent.

However, Mike noted that the real merge point between the Pacific Ocean and the interior continent actually exists miles to the east of the Golden Gate. Not until reaching the actual Delta waters do you come to the actual point dividing the Pacific Ocean from the rest of the state. We can’t overstate the significance of that merge point because it marks the location at which everything comes together impacting economies, climates, cultures, and politics. !e transition from coastal to Delta environment is enormous. For example, consider how much more similar Antioch is to Manteca than it is to Sausalito.

Because the Delta marks the boundaries of competing interests, emotions, cultures, historical narratives, and economies, it provides a perspective for viewing all of California — from Crescent City and the Pacific Coast Ranges in the north to teeming San Diego to the Anza-Borrego desert in the south, and from the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains in the East to the coastal growing regions in the West. Mike told me that studying the Delta never becomes dull. “!e topic is as vibrant and compelling today as it was 25 years ago when I began.”


In 1850, the federal Swampland Act transferred 500,000 acres of Delta wetlands to private owners so they could reclaim the land for farms. By the 1920s the levee system had converted most of the wetland to some of the world’s most productive farmland. The Delta became an important agrarian economy and served as the “breadbasket” for the state and later for the country. Cities sprang up and modern civilization began encroaching on the remaining wildlife habitats.

The miles of levees critically changed the way in which Delta waters flowed to the sea. They were now running to locations where people could make use of them. Wildlife habitats were destroyed. The soil, which was now cut off from the annual floods that had replenished it, was diminishing. A process called subsidence — the blowing away of peaty topsoil in the winds — has lowered the levels of the farms in some cases by more than 20 feet. the fact is, Mike noted, that we’re trying to make changes to an infrastructure that was designed for different values, times, and climate. We’re living with decisions and policies that were made a century ago before anyone could imagine such modern issues as climate change, diminishing groundwater levels, and changing societal values.

Mike said that his fascination with the Sacramento and San Joaquin watershed began when he was studying the science of river and stream restoration as a grad student in UC Berkeley’s Forestry Department. “We were learning what is required to restore a muddy ditch from eyesore to genuine amenity to the community through which it flowed,” Mike said.

His studies inevitably led Mike to the science of fisheries in general and to the condition of San Joaquin salmon in particular. He began working for East Bay Regional Parks as a naturalist in 1994. He had great interest in the subject and a genuine passion to make a difference. Mike said that he felt some confidence in his new role because of the book knowledge he had gained and the ideas he had learned in the classroom. However, as he began to encounter the wealth of wisdom and knowledge held by people from all cultures, backgrounds, and interests, he said that the job quickly taught him humility and respect.

As an example, Mike spoke of the wisdom he recently learned from a hydrologist and specialist in river restoration named John Cain. John led him to use some reverse ecology while the two of them were looking at the 1,200 sq. ft. Delta Map at the Big Break Regional Shoreline. !ey began considering the effect that diverting millions of acre-feet of water would have on populations of salmon and smelt.

Mike said that they were getting deep into the numbers and trying to come to conclusions based upon the facts. !en John had them move beyond the numbers to consider the actual impact of change on the entire ecosystem — the trends that would be altered and the impact upon both downstream farms and coastal fisheries. He said that John was helping them move out of the weeds of numbers and literal interpretations of the laws and regulations and taking a more holistic perspective on what happens when you change the flow and alter a river’s direction and timing.

John and Mike began looking at the matter from the most basic level beginning with the system itself. Mike said that, in effect, they began looking at the goose that lays the golden eggs rather than at the eggs themselves. What would be the results of altering the flow of a river upon farms in the Delta, along the San Joaquin River, and in Silicon Valley? What would be the effect on commercial salmon fishing on the coast?

Mike said that John’s approach to the critical issue of managing the Delta waters fit in nicely with the way they manage exhibits at their Big Break Visitor Center. Six years ago, when they moved into the new 5,000 sq. ft. building they were confronted with the challenge of creating exhibits to present themes and standards that would result in actual learning.

They had previously presented the themes as mere statements. For example, Mike maintained that, The Delta is the most important piece of real estate in California,” is a defensible theme. A consultant named Frank Binney pointed out the uncomfortable fact that after more than a century of issuing those kinds of statements to the public, most residents were still unable to locate the Delta on a California map. More importantly, they didn’t know that most of their water comes from the Delta and failed to realize the huge impact the Delta has upon our quality of life.

Binney pointed out the unsettling possibility that, in a subtle way, issuing themes as statements gives people permission to stop thinking about them. They imagine that the subject had been sufficiently explored. However, if visitors could discover themes for themselves, through processes of questioning and exploration, then they would feel some ownership for the particular idea. They wouldn’t simply dismiss what had been presented and real learning would take place.

Mike said that change is the foundational concept. The symbol for delta, itself, a Greek letter, represented as an equilateral triangle, is the universal symbol for change. A formula, for example, might express the elapsed time between starting and ending an action or event as AT. Mike said that the delta is an appropriate symbol for our immense watershed because it is always changing. They point out that change is universal, so the changing world will leave us behind if we ever get stuck in a single manner of thinking or way of behavior.

The visitor center at Big Break Regional Shoreline encourages people to ask themselves and each other six questions. As they begin with the first question, “What is the Delta?” and move down to the sixth question, “What can I do to help?” they begin to understand the importance of the Delta and the issues that make Delta management such a complicated challenge. For example, a Central Valley farmer wants the management of Delta waters to demonstrate more concern for his peaches and for his way of life than for a bunch of smelt. A commercial salmon fisherman, on the other hand, wants water management decisions to focus more on his ability to make his next boat payment and send his kids to college than to ensure the welfare of a bunch of peach trees.

It is important for visitors to gain some understanding of the impossibility of satisfying the various parties competing for Delta waters and to become aware of the unintended consequences that have resulted from Delta management efforts in the past.

“I’m continually enchanted by the impact that our population, culture, history, and environment have upon the big mixture of elements that is California,” Mike said. “"at’s the key for my coming to work every day.”

Come visit the lovely visitor center at Big Break Regional Shoreline. "e exhibits will help you become educated about the beauty and vulnerability of our amazing Delta.

Photos by Jo Dy Hansen and Provided

Read 1428 times Last modified on Friday, 02 November 2018 06:49
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