DIXON — Rancher Tom Schene stopped his pickup on a dirt road overlooking a green field of clover that gets irrigated with water from Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta sloughs.
“This is brand-new pasture right here,” he said. “We put it in three years ago.”
The Schene family has created a livestock paradise on 3,000 acres it leases near Duck and Hass sloughs on the western edge of the Delta. Lambs and cows graze here during the spring and summer. These flatlands are as remote as it gets in Solano County, apparently far from development pressures, seemingly a place where people are left alone to forge their own visions.
But this region is a potential paradise for the Delta smelt and other rare fish. As such, the state has put a target on it. Breaching levees to create tidal wetlands might help save from extinction a fish at the center of California’s water wars, as well as other rare species.
Solano County’s eastern Delta farm country could become Delta smelt country, depending on the availability of money, willing sellers and other variables. It’s a possibility met with enthusiasm in some quarters and wariness in others.
Schene drove his pickup on a levee holding back Hass Slough and contemplated what would happen if the levee got breached. Water would probably flood for several miles, he said.
“There’s just a lot of good farmland,” Schene said.
A Bay Delta Conservation Plan map shows cross-hatching covering a large part of the Cache Slough area and Suisun Marsh in Solano County. The markings don’t depict anything precise, just general locations where tidal wetlands restoration is possible.
More tidal wetlands are key to California plans to reshape the Delta and improve water delivery to 25 million Californians and Central Valley farms. The state is exploring the idea of building twin tunnels to take water exports under the Delta for 35 miles, rather than through it. But it must comply with federal Endangered Species Act requirements to preserve rare Delta creatures.
Before pioneer days, the Delta smelt had vast spawning grounds where it could find the proper salinity levels, gravelly substrates and currents that it needs. Then humans starting about 150 years ago put up hundreds of miles of levees and confined rivers and sloughs to channels. They had no Endangered Species Act to hinder them in those days.
“We’ve pretty much lost most of the historic spawning habitats,” said Peter Moyle, a fish biology professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at UC Davis and associate director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
Today’s Delta bears only a resemblance to the untamed, historic Delta of yore. California is trying not to restore the historic Delta, but to create a Delta that meets both human and environmental needs.
So researchers are looking for places in the Delta where tidal wetlands could be restored. Such spots are limited, in part because much of the Delta lands behind levees have subsided up to 20 feet. Breaching the levees wouldn’t recreate the Delta of old, but an inland sea.
The 49,000-acre Cache Slough area is different, with far less subsidence. Bay Delta Conservation Plan drafts list this part of the county as a restoration “opportunity area.”
“When you look at a map, you can still see the historic drainage patterns are there,” Moyle said. “It’s just huge potential for being restored as tidal habitat.”
This potential Delta smelt country is also Solano County farm country, though for the most part the soils aren’t as fertile as the prime soils in the nearby Dixon Ridge area.
A 2007 UC Davis agricultural report lists the Cache Slough area as part of the Elmira and Maine Prairie region, where the annual value of agriculture production is about $41 million. Alfalfa, wheat and corn are among the major crops, along with using pasture for cattle and sheep, the report said.
Though Solano County officials have expressed concern about losing farmland and property tax money to wildlife habitat in Cache Slough, they have yet to release specific numbers describing potential losses.
That may change. Solano County is launching a study of its own, paid for by $100,000 from the state Resources Agency. This study, among other things, is to look at the economic impact of habitat restoration on farmland. Water contractors also want the study to look at the economic benefits of recreation in restored habitat areas.
Mike Hardesty is general manager of Reclamation District 2068, which covers the Yolo Bypass and part of the proposed Cache Slough restoration area.
“The Cache Slough region is some of the oldest irrigated agriculture area in Solano County,” he said.
Farmers are concerned the proposed habitat restoration areas could affect water supplies and flood control and add new complexities to regulations affecting such things as agricultural runoff, Hardesty said. He called the issue “an octopus” with lots of tentacles.
“All of those things are kind of like piling on, if you will,” Hardesty said.
Habitat restoration could attract more blackbirds, which in turn would affect the ability to grow sunflower in the Cache Slough area, Solano County Agricultural Commissioner Jim Allan said. Blackbirds can be devastating to sunflowers, he said.
The Schene family has grazed livestock in the Cache Slough area since 1976 during the summer months. They have their ranch headquarters in a wooden building on stilts.
Schene recently drove along Cache Slough region levees in his pickup and stopped at the place where sugar beets several decades ago were brought for shipment by barge. He showed where the old Liberty Island post office and store were located. He showed his ranching operation today, on land where people have farmed for a century.
Moyle, for one, doesn’t foresee eastern Solano County farmland being transformed into tidal wetlands habitat overnight.
“Nobody is in a great hurry to breach levees out there, because it’s always so controversial and hard to do,” Moyle said.
Whether and how some degree of habitat restoration can coexist comfortably with farming in the Cache Slough region remains to be seen. But there may be time to search for answers.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929, or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.
Proposed habitat restoration facts