RYER ISLAND — Nicole Suard of Snug Harbor resort in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is quick to list the things people can do if they come to this world of rivers, sloughs and islands.
They can fish for striped bass, salmon, sturgeon and other fish. They can water ski. They can boat around the sprawling Delta, reaching one of 30 restaurants in less than a half-hour.
“In the Delta, you have somewhere between 700 to 1,000 miles to boat,” Suard said.
The eastern Solano County portion of the Delta is a place where farmers farm, sloughs meander, people fight over water and the Delta smelt struggles to survive. It is also a place to have fun.
But, just as local water officials, county officials and farmers are wary about California’s Delta rescue efforts, so is Suard. She doesn’t want recreation to get the short end as the state struggles to restore the Delta environment while keeping water flowing to 25 million Californians.
The Delta each year has an estimated 12 million visitors, mostly people who live near the Delta who go there to fish and boat, a Delta Protection Commission economic study said. The economic impact of Delta recreation is about $300 million annually, it said.
Solano County contains a relatively small portion of the western Delta and only a fraction of the Delta’s recreation businesses. But it still has places such as Rio Vista, which though mostly outside of the legal Delta still considers itself a Delta city. It has the Jepson Prairie nature preserve, a half-dozen marinas and boat launches and miles of Delta roads where people can bicycle.
The county also has Snug Harbor on Ryer Island.
To reach Snug Harbor, one takes the two-lane country road that is Highway 84 from Rio Vista to the Real McCoy II ferry. The ferry takes motorists across Cache Slough every 20 minutes, making this one of the lazier state highways. The ferry attendant on a recent day talked as the vessel made its short voyage, mentioning that visitors come to Ryer Island to rent cabins and fish for sturgeon.
From the ferry, motorists take a narrow levee road. On one side is the waters of Miner Slough and then Steamboat Slough, on the other the acres and acres of crops in the vast, bowl-like expanse of Ryer Island.
Snug Harbor is on a small peninsula protruding into Steamboat Slough. It includes rental cottages and rental homes and a marina.
Suard first saw Steamboat Slough in 1971, when she lived in Southern California. She took a trip there with the Sea Scouts.
“I’m a lifetime boater,” Suard said.
The Napa attorney came back to Ryer Island in the mid-1990s looking for a second house in the Delta so she could boat there. She and her husband ended up buying Snug Harbor.
A history fan, Suard has done research on the history of Ryer Island and Snug Harbor. She found that Ryer Island in 1873 may have been called Schoolcraft Island or Merrill Island until Dr. Ryer from San Francisco started a major reclamation project there.
Steamboats heading to and from Sacramento and San Francisco during the Gold Rush plied the waters of Steamboat Slough. The Martin family, which owned the peninsula, began selling off sites to friends for summer homes in about 1949 and a camping resort evolved. The name “Snug Harbor” came about in the 1960s.
Steve Urquhart and his wife Kelly of Lemoore in the Central Valley came to Snug Harbor on Veterans Day for some eastern Solano County Delta recreation. They stayed in a cottage, boated to a good fishing spot under the Rio Vista Bridge, caught stripers and enjoyed the sunny, cool weather.
“You lose all track of time when you come up here,” Urquhart said.
He described how a two people waved from an ultralight plane that flew overhead in the evening, following the waterways. He remembered how the steam rose from the Delta waters on the cold mornings.
Delta recreation interests want to get the word out and apparently for good reason. Urquhart said when he tells people he is going to the Delta, they ask him where it is.
That’s the rub. A 2008 state Delta plan summed up the region’s public relations problem.
“The Delta is one of the state’s most distinct regions, combining a unique physical geography of island and river channels with a cultural heritage as enduring as any in California,” it said. “The Delta possesses natural, historical and recreational resources of statewide and even national significance.
“But despite this fact, it is little known or recognized by most Californians, including many of millions living in the cities just outside the Delta’s boundaries.”
Suard agrees that Delta recreation could use a promotional boost. She wondered aloud why it has no big-name hotels.
“I believe California should recognize it as its own unique tourism area,” Suard said.
For now, she’ll have to settle for studies. The state in 2011 released two major Delta studies that look at the recreation issue in some depth, one by California State Parks and one by the Delta Protection Commission.
Rio Vista could be designated a Delta gateway, California State Parks suggested. That would help tourist know that this town of about 8,000 along the Sacramento River is a place to get a jump on their Delta vacations.
Those vacations could include kayaking at a possible park-to-be along Barker Slough in rural, eastern Solano County. They could include hiking on the evolving Great Delta Trail.
“Millions of Californians and travelers are looking for these outdoor adventures,” the study said.
Yet the Delta presents a marketing challenge, the Delta Protection Commission economic study said. Rather than being focused on a single natural feature – think of Lake Tahoe – it is a mosaic of sloughs, rivers, islands and small towns scattered amid a flat area stretching 50 miles north to south.
“For those who do not already know and visit the Delta, it can be a place that exists in name alone,” the study said. “Many people drive through the Delta without a clear sense of being in it and less notion of where it begins and where it ends.”
No “Delta brand” or overall marketing strategy exists. An organization should be designated to promote Delta recreation and tourism and economic development, the study said.
Suard is worried that the state’s efforts to reshape the Delta will create a new Delta less friendly to recreation. She expressed concern that less fresh water will flow down the sloughs and rivers, leading to such problems as barnacles growing on boats moored in increasingly salty waters. She talked about the need for Delta residents and businesses to have a bigger voice the state’s Delta efforts.
An 1895 bicycle tour map shows routes between Sacramento and San Francisco, Suard said. A route goes along Ryer Island.
Recreation in the Delta is nothing new. Suard and others want to make certain it has a bright future.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.
Source: Delta Protection Commission