Californians ask a lot of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where the state’s longest rivers meet and deliver snowmelt from the mountains. Water suppliers want to reconfigure the Delta’s plumbing via the ever-contentious Water Fix project, which Governor Gavin Newsom just sent back to the drawing board. State wildlife officials want to boost restoration in the region, and the 2019 Delta Conservation Framework outlines their latest plan. And people in the Delta want to live and farm there as they have for generations.
may not be a way to give everyone what they want from the Delta. But there are
ways to restore ecosystems while preserving local communities. This is true
even along State Route 160, which traverses the most populated and most intensively
farmed part of the region. The highway follows the Sacramento River into the
Delta, twisting and turning around leveed islands between Freeport and Rio
the North Delta and it’s a spectacular drive. The river beckons as farms ― vineyards,
pear orchards, cornfields ― and charming towns roll by. Take a side road,
however, and you’ll find there’s even more here to appreciate. The North Delta
is vital for birds migrating up and down the Pacific Flyway as well as for
Central Valley salmon migrating to and from the ocean.
most North Delta land is privately owned, some is protected. The Stone Lakes
National Wildlife Refuge, nestled on the eastern edge of the region, has grown
to about 6,500 acres since its creation 25 years ago. Now the focus is on
the forests that grew along our waterways were up to a mile wide,” says
Beatrix Treiterer, the refuge’s assistant manager. “They’re hugely
important for migrating songbirds.” Riparian woodlands provide nest sites
and food for ash-throated flycatchers, blue grosbeaks, and other songbirds that
summer here and winter south of the U.S.
restoration, the land was farmed for field crops like alfalfa and tomatoes.
“They used as much of the land as possible,” Treiterer recalls.
“They didn’t leave much edge habitat.” In partnership with the
Sacramento Tree Foundation, the refuge has reforested more than 80 acres along
waterways in the last decade. Volunteers planted nearly 10,000 trees including
Valley oaks, Fremont cottonwoods, and box elder maples, as well as understory
benefits to birds were swift. “Even when the trees were small, we
immediately saw birds,” Treiterer says. “Before there were hardly
any.” Some of the first trees that were planted are now 30 feet high,
forming a leafy canopy over a dense understory of native grasses and shrubs
like wild rose and elderberry. Today more than 120 bird species use the refuge,
which is part of a wildlife corridor system that links riparian habitats in the
farms near the refuge also play a key role in conserving sandhill cranes, which
winter in the Central Valley. “Farmers are hugely important to
cranes,” Treiterer says. “We can’t supply all their energy
needs.” The refuge provides roosting habitat while farmers provide
foraging habitat, explains Russell van Loben Sels, whose family has farmed the
Delta since 1876 and who has farmed the land himself for half a century.
minimum-till corn on about 70 acres right by the refuge, a practice that leaves
about five percent of the kernels after harvest. “The kernels are all on
top, sandhill cranes love it,” he says. “All they have to do is hop
across the levee and into the field.” Before the refuge was established,
he only saw a few cranes in his field; now he sees around 100.
van Loben Sels enjoys the cranes, he points out that farming practices must
make economic sense. “Farmers are governed by one hard rule of
thumb,” he says. “You’ve got to produce or you won’t be farming
long.” Many North Delta farmers have converted from corn and other row
crops where sandhill cranes forage to high-value crops like wine grapes.
van Loben Sels believes “there will always be some row crops” due to
the Delta’s terrain. Permanent crops do best on the island edges, where the
elevation is relatively high. In contrast, row crops are suited to the island
middles, where the elevation is lower and the groundwater is higher.
interests of North Delta residents and conservationists can also align in other
ways. Elk Slough, a winding nine-mile waterway between Clarksburg and
Courtland, was once connected to the Sacramento River at both ends. This gave
salmon and green sturgeon an alternate migration route through the Delta. Today
the slough is leveed at the top, blocking fish that go up it, and open at the
bottom, potentially causing floods during big storms.
in a plan to remove the levee at the top and put gates at both ends include
affected reclamation districts, which are responsible for flood control. The
gates would be open most of the time to allow fish passage, and closed as
needed to control floods.
most waterways in the Delta, Elk Slough has a remnant of mature riparian
forest. Tall trees shade the water, keeping it cool enough for salmon. In
addition, woody debris from the forest helps fish in several ways: it slows
water down so they can rest; offers places where they can hide from predators;
and decomposes into organic material, ultimately boosting their food supply.
“It’s great habitat,” says Doug Brown, an environmental consultant on
the project. “You don’t need to do much for fish except provide
potential for outside conservation planning to disrupt flood control is a major
concern for local farmers and landowners. “The system has adapted and
developed over generations in a way that works,” says Erik Vink, director
of the Delta Protection Commission. “Anything that changes that could have
an adverse impact.”
favors focusing restoration efforts on public land, and following the Good
Neighbor Checklist developed by the California Department of Water Resource’s
Agricultural Land Stewardship Workgroup. Checklist guidelines include involving
all neighboring landowners in project planning, and protecting landowners from
endangered species-related liability.
planning efforts can also overwhelm Delta residents. “You could go to
meetings about plans all day long,” says Anna Swenson, a graduate of the
Delta Protection Commission’s Delta Leadership Program and co-leader of North
Delta Cares. “It’s like a full-time job.”
would like to see official local representation in conservation planning for
the Delta. “Each island has an elected governing board for the reclamation
district,” she says. “I think they should have more of a voice on
has a different idea of what they want us to be,” Swenson continues.
“I want us to be what we already are.”
Robin Meadows is an independent science journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She covers water and climate change adaptation for Estuary News, is the water reporter for the Bay Area Monitor, and contributes to Bay Nature, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, PLOS Research News and Water Deeply. Robin also enjoys hiking and photography.