RIO VISTA — Spanish explorers Pedro Fages and Father Fray Juan Crespi gazed upon the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in April 1772 and saw water, water, water.
The vast spring runoff was under way. Historically, 40 percent of California’s water runoff – about 30 million acre feet – drained annually from the Sierra Nevada, ran down such rivers as the Sacramento and San Joaquin to the Delta, then passed on to the region’s bays and ultimately to the sea.
Fages and Crespi stood on a hill near today’s Antioch and looked at the Delta in one direction and Suisun Marsh, Suisun Bay and the estuary in the other.
“Below the pass, we beheld the estuary we were following and saw that it was formed by two large rivers,” Crespi wrote to Spanish officials in 1775.
Even three years later, Fages was trying to take it all in.
“Toward the sea there is another range, from the foot of which another estuary runs northeastward from the mouth of the river; it is so large that though I climbed the highest hill which I could, I was not able to see the end of it on a clear, bright day,” Fages wrote in a 1775 report. “So it is not known whether it terminates inland or has finally another outlet to the sea, in which case the latter range would be an island.”
Crespi and Fages wrote the first known descriptions of the Delta, a 550,700-square-mile area of sloughs, rivers and islands that is the focus of today’s California water wars. But they and other early explorers saw a very different Delta and San Francisco Estuary than exists today.
Edwin Bryant wrote about this wild, untamed Delta after he journeyed through California in 1846.
“The sloughs wind through an immense timbered swamp and constitute a terraqueous labyrinth of such intricacy, that unskilled and inexperienced navigators have been lost for many days in it and some, I have been told, never finding their way out,” he wrote.
George Yount visited what would become Benicia in 1833 and wrote about the estuary and Delta to the north. He described waterfowl in the millions that darkened every bay and rose to fly with their wings making a sound like distant thunder. Rivers “literally crawled” with salmon.
Pioneers saw that the rich Delta soils would be good for farming, if only the islands didn’t flood. Congress in 1850 gave to California the region’s swamp and overflow lands and the state sold these lands to private parties to be cleared of tules and drained. Hundreds of miles of levees went up and farms were created.
Over the decades, the now-dry peat soils on the Delta islands subsided, as much as 20 feet in some locations. People driving down Highway 12 through the Delta today can see that the waters of sloughs and rivers on one side of levees are much higher than the subsided land on the other side.
Humans also wrought a huge change in the flow of the Delta’s very life blood – its water.
Farmers along the San Joaquin River upstream from the Delta began diverting water in the 1850s. Farmers upstream of the Sacramento River did the same. This meant less fresh water flowed through the Delta and salty ocean water could push up through the bays farther inland.
Delta diversions in subsequent decades picked up at a far greater pace, leading to salt water intrusion that would help kill the grain and asparagus farms and dairies that had sprung up in Suisun Marsh. The federal Central Valley Project of the 1930s and the State Water Project of the 1960s created vast systems of reservoirs, pumps and aqueducts to move Delta water far to the south and allow California to develop into an economic powerhouse.
The story of what followed can be seen graphically in a Marin County warehouse, part of the Marinship shipyard in Sausalito where Liberty ships and tankers were assembled during World War II. Here the Army Corps of Engineers displays its Bay Model to the public.
This scale model depicts the region’s waterways from the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco to local bays to the Delta as far east as Stockton. It is the size of two football fields and uses pumps to control water in such a way as to simulate tidal action. It was built in the 1950s, originally to see in a pre-computer age how a proposal to turn San Pablo and San Francisco bays into freshwater reservoirs by erecting dams might fare.
As Bay Model exhibits show, no longer does 40 percent of the state’s runoff simply flow through the Delta as the seasons dictate. The state and federal government store runoff in places such as Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, then release water to the Sacramento River at certain times. Pumps near Tracy in the south Delta suck up the water to be exported to Central and Southern California. Fifty to 60 percent of the Delta’s historic fresh water flows get diverted to farms and cities.
The Delta that explorers such as Crespi and Fages saw is gone for good. Simply tearing down hundreds of miles of levees to flood subsided lands would create not the marshes of old, but rather a huge inland lake. Dismantling California’s system of dams, pumps and aqueducts would leave some 25 million residents and thousands of farms without water, eliminating a key water source not only for Southern California, but the Bay Area and Solano County as well.
California’s never-ending water wars have reached a crucial point. Many scientists say the Delta ecosystem is in crisis. Meanwhile, water exports get disrupted amid court decisions tied to environmental laws.
California is amid a multiple-year effort to reshape the Delta, not to a historic, natural state, but to something that will work for today. It has pledged to treat water supplies and the ecosystem as co-equals. Such groups as the Delta Stewardship Council meet regularly as the state and federal governments work on a Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Meanwhile, Solano and other Delta counties fret about the possible results.
Amid all the complexities is a puzzle posed at a Bay Model interactive display. Visitors try to divvy up the water supply that historically rushed through the Delta among three segments – the environment, agriculture and cities. The catch, of course, is there’s not enough water to go around.
It seems like a children’s game. But whoever comes up with an answer that satisfies advocates for all three competing interests will have solved California’s water wars.
To learn more about the Bay Model, go to http://www.spn.usace.army.mil/bmvc or call 415-332-3871.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.
Source: Delta Protection Commission