Issue 485

The Future of the Bay Delta

Opportunities for megaregional open space

Urbanist Article

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is known for many things. It is simultaneously the state’s largest freshwater supply, the heart of the largest estuary on the West Coast, and the home to several critically endangered fish species. These three facts have combined to plunge the Delta into crisis, as the conflict between the needs of water export operations and endangered fish have escalated.

But the Delta has another identity that fewer people recognize: It is a major open space in the center of a Northern California megaregion stretching from the Golden Gate to Folsom Dam. Hemmed in by the Bay Area, Stockton and Sacramento metropolitan areas, the Delta is an increasingly indispensable refuge for wildlife and recreationalists throughout Northern California. Already one the prime locations in the state for boating, fishing, wildlife viewing and hunting, the Delta will provide even more open space uses for more people in the coming decades due to its unique landscape of ecosystems.

This is partly due to the simple fact of continued population growth in Northern California. But planning efforts underway to address the Delta’s complex ecosystem and water supply crisis may also greatly enhance the Delta’s open space values in two ways.

First, efforts to bring populations of fish such as smelt, salmon and splittail (a large minnow native to the Delta) back from the edge of extinction likely will require the restoration of large amounts of tidal marsh. Before the Gold Rush, the Delta contained more than 1,000 square mile of sea-level marsh that was washed over by tides twice daily. Very little of that original marsh remains today. More remarkably, very little of that land even remains at sea level today. A century of farming on the peaty soils has resulted in most of the Delta subsiding as much as 20 feet below sea level, too low an elevation for tidal marsh restoration.

Only a few large patches of non-urbanized sea level land remain around the edges of the Delta, primarily in the eastern portions of Solano County. Large-scale tidal marsh restoration – essential to restoring the fish – has nowhere else to go. Once planning efforts are complete, these lands may become the site of one of the most extensive ecosystem restoration projects ever undertaken, and could become a wildlife habitat of global significance – directly in the heart of the megaregion.

Second, the Delta is also one of the most flood-prone landscapes in the United States. This is a matter of great importance to the state, not only because of the people who live there, but because of the threat that floods pose to the security of the water projects that export water to the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles Basin.

Protecting the Delta from floods means more than just raising levees. It also means conserving floodplains in open space uses such as farming, parks and habitat. Large areas of the Delta, especially in the floodplains of the San Joaquin, Mokelumne and Cosumnes rivers, would be deeply inundated by any flood that overtopped the local levees. Maintaining these areas in open space will enhance public safety, reduce the state’s flood liabilities, and help protect the water projects and other infrastructure. But it also will provide yet more opportunities for large-scale recreational and habitat landscapes in the center of the megaregion.

Efforts already are underway to capitalize on these possibilities. The California Department of Parks and Recreation, for example, is planning to create a new Dos Rios State Park at the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers on lands too flood-prone for development. The Delta Protection Commission is deeply engaged in the planning of a Great Delta Trail that will link the Bay Area trail network to the Sacramento region. And Central Valley Joint Venture, a consortium of public and non-profit wildlife protection organizations, has identified numerous sites within the Delta for ambitious habitat restoration projects.

But there are also even broader efforts underway. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a multispecies habitat conservation plan for the Delta, will map out a large-scale ecosystem restoration strategy that will likely include tens of thousands of acres of marsh restoration. The state’s Central Valley Flood Protection Plan will help identify needed upgrades to the valley’s aging flood control system, potentially including floodplain conservation opportunities in the Delta and elsewhere. Finally, the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force last year offered a comprehensive series of recommendations to the governor and Legislature to achieve long-range sustainability for the Delta, including the recommendation to form a Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy to carry out regional landscape conservation and open space planning efforts. As the budget crisis recedes, the Legislature is expected to begin acting on Delta Vision’s recommendations later this year.

The Delta is an indispensable economic and environmental resource for the state. But as steps are taken to protect those values for the state as a whole, it is the megaregion that may gain unexpected benefits as a new Delta landscape takes shape.

Bill Eisenstein is the Executive Director of the Center for Resource Efficient Communities at UC Berkeley. He was formerly Director of the UC Berkeley Delta Initiative and a consultant to the Delta Vision process.