RIO VISTA — Robert Malcolm looked at the swamplands of Liberty Island in eastern Solano County in 1917 and decided to reshape the landscape.
Little did he know that Liberty Island would someday become an example of what Solano County has to both gain and lose in California’s water wars. In the early 1900s, there was no hand-wringing about farming versus wildlife habitat. The idea of draining bogs to dry out fertile soils met with widespread enthusiasm.
Up went some 20 miles of levees. Tules were disced and burned. Liberty Island went from being a wildlife hotbed to a farming hotbed.
The rich soils of the 5,000-acre island grew spinach, broccoli, potatoes, celery, cucumbers, garlic, sunflowers and tomatoes. By 1952, about 300 people lived near the island and the Liberty Farms operation rated its own post office. A ferry linked the island to the Rio Vista area.
Malcolm died in 1951, but farming continued on Liberty Island for decades. No longer. The 1998 storms breached levees and flooded the island, a fairly common occurrence. This time, the owner sold the bulk of the land to become wildlife habitat and Liberty Island stayed flooded.
All of a sudden, Liberty Island’s future looks a lot like its past, before Malcolm came and saw its farming potential. Most of the island is owned by the state Department of Fish and Game and could become a crown jewel in the habitat restoration effort under way in Solano County’s Cache Slough area.
“Liberty Island already supports significant existing wildlife and has outstanding potential for restoration, flood plain management and endangered species recovery,” a 2011 state report said.
Tules and cattails are once again growing on Liberty Island. Part of the island is open water. The Delta smelt, beavers, muskrats and waterfowl are found there, a California Wildlife Foundation report said.
The state Department of Fish and Game is working on a management plan for the proposed Liberty Island Ecological Preserve. A few hundred acres not owned by the agency is being used by Wildlands Inc. as a conservation bank, where developers in other areas can pay to preserve habitat to comply with endangered species laws.
Solano County is wary about seeing more farmland in the Cache Slough area go the way of Liberty Island. Farming is an economic powerhouse for the county – $291.7 million for all crops and commodities, according to the 2011 Solano County Crop and Livestock Report. Farmland also provides property tax for county coffers.
Liberty Island these days shows few signs of its farming past. But its tules and waterways could be a sign of the future for the Cache Slough area of eastern Solano County.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929, or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.