The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
(Delta) is California’s most crucial water and ecological
resource. The Delta is formed by the Sacramento River flowing
south to meet the north-flowing San Joaquin River just south of
Sacramento, where the rivers mingle with smaller tributaries and
tidal flows, and move out into San Francisco Bay.
More than a century ago, farmers began building a network of
levees to drain and “reclaim” what was then a marsh. The lands
were pumped dry and the marsh was transformed into productive
island farms, mostly below sea level.
Today, the Delta is a 700-mile maze of sloughs and waterways
surrounding more than 60 leveed tracts and islands. It is the hub
of California’s two largest surface water delivery projects, the
State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project.
The Delta provides a portion of the drinking water for 25
million Californians and provides the $36 billion agricultural
industry with irrigation to 4.5 million acres.
The Delta estuary is the largest on the west coast of North
America with more than 738,000 acres in five counties. An
estimated 80 percent of the state’s commercial fishery species
live in or migrate through the Delta, and at least half of its
Pacific Flyway migratory water birds rely on the region’s
Full of cold, fresh rainwater and snowmelt from the Sierra, the
San Francisco Bay is in a strikingly different place than it
was last summer. Water gushing out of the delta is
flushing out pollutants and contaminants and giving endangered
baby salmon a helpful push into the ocean. Longfin smelt and
yellowfin gobies are spawning in the usually swampy southern
end of the bay, and sediment coming in from mountain streams is
replenishing the structure of its basin. Just eight months ago,
the bay was murky brown and its perimeters were piled with dead
fish. Unprecedented in known Bay Area history, a harmful algae
bloom that followed three years of drought killed off thousands
of long-lived sturgeon and smaller fish.
The Water Education Foundation has
interactive online tour of the Sacramento-San
Joaquin Delta that offers viewers and readers a broad overview of
the heart of California water – its history and development, its
importance as an ecological resource and water hub and the array
of challenges it faces.
Titled “Exploring the Heart of California Water,” the online
tour, built as a story map, guides readers and viewers through
different facets of the Delta. It includes the Delta’s history
and the people – including the Native American tribes – who have
lived there, the fish and wildlife that depend on its waters and
its role as a crossroads for federal, state and local water
In the vast labyrinth of the West
Coast’s largest freshwater tidal estuary, one native fish species
has never been so rare. Once uncountably numerous, the Delta
smelt was placed on state and federal endangered species lists in
1993, stopped appearing in most annual sampling surveys in 2016,
and is now, for all practical purposes, extinct in the wild. At
least, it was.
This beautifully illustrated 24×36-inch poster, suitable for
framing and display in any office or classroom, highlights the
Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, its place as a center of
farming, its importance as an ecological resource and its
vital role in California’s water supply system.
The text, photos and graphics explain issues related to land
subsidence, levees and flooding, urbanization, farming, fish and
wildlife protection. An inset map illustrates the tidal action
that increases the salinity of the Delta’s waterways.
Radically transformed from its ancient origin as a vast tidal-influenced freshwater marsh, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem is in constant flux, influenced by factors within the estuary itself and the massive watersheds that drain though it into the Pacific Ocean.
Lately, however, scientists say the rate of change has kicked into overdrive, fueled in part by climate change, and is limiting the ability of science and Delta water managers to keep up. The rapid pace of upheaval demands a new way of conducting science and managing water in the troubled estuary.
The islands of the western
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are sinking as the rich peat soil
that attracted generations of farmers dries out and decays. As
the peat decomposes, it releases tons of carbon dioxide – a
greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere. As the islands sink, the
levees that protect them are at increasing risk of failure, which
could imperil California’s vital water conveyance system.
An ambitious plan now in the works could halt the decay,
sequester the carbon and potentially reverse the sinking.
Summer is a good time to take a
break, relax and enjoy some of the great beaches, waterways and
watersheds around California and the West. We hope you’re getting
a chance to do plenty of that this July.
But in the weekly sprint through work, it’s easy to miss
some interesting nuggets you might want to read. So while we’re
taking a publishing break to work on other water articles planned
for later this year, we want to help you catch up on
Western Water stories from the first half of this year
that you might have missed.
One of California Gov. Gavin
Newsom’s first actions after taking office was to appoint Wade
Crowfoot as Natural Resources Agency secretary. Then, within
weeks, the governor laid out an ambitious water agenda that
Crowfoot, 45, is now charged with executing.
That agenda includes the governor’s desire for a “fresh approach”
on water, scaling back the conveyance plan in the Sacramento-San
Joaquin Delta and calling for more water recycling, expanded
floodplains in the Central Valley and more groundwater recharge.
Bruce Babbitt, the former Arizona
governor and secretary of the Interior, has been a thoughtful,
provocative and sometimes forceful voice in some of the most
high-profile water conflicts over the last 40 years, including
groundwater management in Arizona and the reduction of
California’s take of the Colorado River. In 2016, former
California Gov. Jerry Brown named Babbitt as a special adviser to
work on matters relating to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and
the Delta tunnels plan.
Former Interior Secretary and
Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt will be the distinguished speaker
2019 Anne J. Schneider Lecture on April 3 at the Crocker Art
Museum in downtown Sacramento.
Babbitt’s talk is titled “Parting the Waters — Will It Take a
The event begins at 4 p.m. in the Crocker Art Museum’s Setzer
Auditorium. The lecture will be followed by a conversation with
Ellen Hanak, director of the Public Policy Institute of
California’s Water Policy Center, and a reception. Here
is where to sign up for the event, which is free.
The growing leadership of women in water. The Colorado River’s persistent drought and efforts to sign off on a plan to avert worse shortfalls of water from the river. And in California’s Central Valley, promising solutions to vexing water resource challenges.
These were among the topics that Western Water news explored in 2018.
We’re already planning a full slate of stories for 2019. You can sign up here to be alerted when new stories are published. In the meantime, take a look at what we dove into in 2018:
In the universe of California water, Tim Quinn is a professor emeritus. Quinn has seen — and been a key player in — a lot of major California water issues since he began his water career 40 years ago as a young economist with the Rand Corporation, then later as deputy general manager with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and finally as executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. In December, the 66-year-old will retire from ACWA.
The Colorado River Basin is more
than likely headed to unprecedented shortage in 2020 that could
force supply cuts to some states, but work is “furiously”
underway to reduce the risk and avert a crisis, Bureau of
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told an audience of
California water industry people.
During a keynote address at the Water Education Foundation’s
Sept. 20 Water Summit in Sacramento, Burman said there is
opportunity for Colorado River Basin states to control their
destiny, but acknowledged that in water, there are no guarantees
that agreement can be reached.
Farmers in the Central Valley are broiling about California’s plan to increase flows in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems to help struggling salmon runs avoid extinction. But in one corner of the fertile breadbasket, River Garden Farms is taking part in some extraordinary efforts to provide the embattled fish with refuge from predators and enough food to eat.
And while there is no direct benefit to one farm’s voluntary actions, the belief is what’s good for the fish is good for the farmers.
For more than 100 years, invasive
species have made the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta their home,
disrupting the ecosystem and costing millions of dollars annually
The latest invader is the nutria, a large rodent native to South
America that causes concern because of its propensity to devour
every bit of vegetation in sight and destabilize levees by
burrowing into them. Wildlife officials are trapping the animal
and trying to learn the extent of its infestation.
Deep, throaty cadenced calls —
sounding like an off-key bassoon — echo over the grasslands,
farmers’ fields and wetlands starting in late September of each
year. They mark the annual return of sandhill cranes to the
Cosumnes River Preserve,
46,000 acres located 20 miles south of Sacramento on the edge of
the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Along the banks of the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Oakley, about 50 miles southwest
of Sacramento, is a park that harkens back to the days when the
Delta lured Native Americans, Spanish explorers, French fur
trappers, and later farmers to its abundant wildlife and rich
That historical Delta was an enormous marsh linked to the two
freshwater rivers entering from the north and south, and tidal
flows coming from the San Francisco Bay. After the Gold Rush,
settlers began building levees and farms, changing the landscape
and altering the habitat.
John Callaway, the incoming lead scientist of the Delta Science
Program, was forthright in describing his initial reaction to the
idea of his new job.
“When I saw the position, I guess I can say my first reaction
was, ‘No way, I don’t want to get involved with all the crazy
overwhelming issues of the Delta,’” he said. “But I thought about
it more and thought it would be a great opportunity to get more
involved in the science/management interface.”
Understanding the importance of the Bay-Delta ecosystem and
working to restore it means grasping the scope of what it once
That’s the takeaway message of a report released Nov. 14 by the
San Francisco Estuary Institute.
The report, “A
Delta Renewed,” is the latest in a series sponsored by the
California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). Written by
several authors, the report says there is “cause for hope” to
achieving large-scale Delta restoration in a way that supports
people, farms and the environment. SFEI calls itself “one of
California’s premier aquatic and ecosystem science institutes.”
California should take immediate actions to save the endangered
Delta smelt from extinction, a top fish scientist said recently.
Peter Moyle, distinguished professor emeritus in the Department
of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at the University of
California, Davis, has been studying the health of California’s
native fish since 1969. He told an audience in Sacramento that
it’s time for stepped-up actions to save the Delta smelt, the
population of which has dropped to a historic low level.
In wet years, dry years and every type of water year in between,
the daily intrusion and retreat of salinity in the Sacramento-San
Joaquin Delta is a constant pattern.
The cycle of ebb and flood is the defining nature of an estuary
and prior to its transformation into an agricultural tract in
the mid-19th century, the Delta was a freshwater marsh with
plants, birds, fish and wildlife that thrived on the edge of the
The Pacific Flyway is one of four
major North American migration routes for birds, especially
waterfowl, and extends from Alaska and Canada, through
California, to Mexico and South America. Each year, birds follow
ancestral patterns as they travel the flyway on their annual
north-south migration. Along the way, they need stopover sites
such as wetlands with suitable habitat and food supplies. In
California, 90 percent of historic wetlands have been lost.
This 25-minute documentary-style DVD, developed in partnership
with the California Department of Water Resources, provides an
excellent overview of climate change and how it is already
affecting California. The DVD also explains what scientists
anticipate in the future related to sea level rise and
precipitation/runoff changes and explores the efforts that are
underway to plan and adapt to climate.
15-minute DVD that graphically portrays the potential disaster
should a major earthquake hit the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
“Delta Warning” depicts what would happen in the event of an
earthquake registering 6.5 on the Richter scale: 30 levee breaks,
16 flooded islands and a 300 billion gallon intrusion of salt
water from the Bay – the “big gulp” – which would shut down the
State Water Project and Central Valley Project pumping plants.
30-minute DVD that traces the history of the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation and its role in the development of the West. Includes
extensive historic footage of farming and the construction of
dams and other water projects, and discusses historic and modern
Water truly has shaped California into the great state it is
today. And if it is water that made California great, it’s the
fight over – and with – water that also makes it so critically
important. In efforts to remap California’s circulatory system,
there have been some critical events that had a profound impact
on California’s water history. These turning points not only
forced a re-evaluation of water, but continue to impact the lives
of every Californian. This 2005 PBS documentary offers a
historical and current look at the major water issues that shaped
the state we know today. Includes a 12-page viewer’s guide with
background information, historic timeline and a teacher’s lesson.
Water as a renewable resource is depicted in this 18×24 inch
poster. Water is renewed again and again by the natural
hydrologic cycle where water evaporates, transpires from plants,
rises to form clouds, and returns to the earth as precipitation.
Excellent for elementary school classroom use.
This 24×36 inch poster, suitable for framing, explains how
non-native invasive animals can alter the natural ecosystem,
leading to the demise of native animals. “Unwelcome Visitors”
features photos and information on four such species – including
the zerbra mussel – and explains the environmental and economic
threats posed by these species.
This 24×36 inch poster, suitable for framing, explains how
non-native invasive plants can alter the natural ecosystem,
leading to the demise of native plants and animals. “Space
Invaders” features photos and information on six non-native
plants that have caused widespread problems in the Bay-Delta
Estuary and elsewhere.
The 28-page Layperson’s Guide to
Water Rights Law, recognized as the most thorough explanation of
California water rights law available to non-lawyers, traces the
authority for water flowing in a stream or reservoir, from a
faucet or into an irrigation ditch through the complex web of
California water rights.
The 20-page Layperson’s Guide to Water Marketing provides
background information on water rights, types of transfers and
critical policy issues surrounding this topic. First published in
1996, the 2005 version offers expanded information on
groundwater banking and conjunctive use, Colorado River
transfers and the role of private companies in California’s
developing water market.
Order in bulk (25 or more copies of the same guide) for a reduced
fee. Contact the Foundation, 916-444-6240, for details.
The 24-page Layperson’s Guide to Integrated Regional Water
Management (IRWM) is an in-depth, easy-to-understand publication
that provides background information on the principles of IRWM,
its funding history and how it differs from the traditional water
The 24-page Layperson’s Guide to Flood Management explains the
physical flood control system, including levees; discusses
previous flood events (including the 1997 flooding); explores
issues of floodplain management and development; provides an
overview of flood forecasting; and outlines ongoing flood control
The 24-page Layperson’s Guide to California Water provides an
excellent overview of the history of water development and use in
California. It includes sections on flood management; the state,
federal and Colorado River delivery systems; Delta issues; water
rights; environmental issues; water quality; and options for
stretching the water supply such as water marketing and
conjunctive use. New in this 10th edition of the guide is a
section on the human need for water.
The 24-page Layperson’s Guide to the Central Valley Project
explores the history and development of the federal Central
Valley Project (CVP), California’s largest surface water delivery
system. In addition to the project’s history, the guide describes
the various CVP facilities, CVP operations, the benefits the CVP
brought to the state and the CVP Improvement Act (CVPIA).
The 24-page Layperson’s Guide to the Delta explores the competing
uses and demands on California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Included in the guide are sections on the history of the Delta,
its role in the state’s water system, and its many complex issues
with sections on water quality, levees, salinity and agricultural
drainage, fish and wildlife, and water distribution.
A new look for our most popular product! And it’s the perfect
gift for the water wonk in your life.
Our 24×36 inch California Water Map is widely known for being the
definitive poster that shows the integral role water plays in the
state. On this updated version, it is easier to see California’s
natural waterways and man-made reservoirs and aqueducts
– including federally, state and locally funded
projects – the wild and scenic rivers system, and
natural lakes. The map features beautiful photos of
California’s natural environment, rivers, water projects,
wildlife, and urban and agricultural uses and the
text focuses on key issues: water supply, water use, water
projects, the Delta, wild and scenic rivers and the Colorado
Travel across the state on Amtrak’s famed California
Zephyr, from the edge of sparkling San Francisco Bay,
through the meandering channels of the Delta, past rich Central
Valley farmland, growing cities, historic mining areas and into
the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
This issue of Western Water looks at the BDCP and the
Coalition to Support Delta Projects, issues that are aimed at
improving the health and safety of the Delta while solidifying
California’s long-term water supply reliability.
This printed issue of Western Water features a
roundtable discussion with Anthony Saracino, a water resources
consultant; Martha Davis, executive manager of policy development
with the Inland Empire Utilities Agency and senior policy advisor
to the Delta Stewardship Council; Stuart Leavenworth, editorial
page editor of The Sacramento Bee and Ellen Hanak, co-director of
research and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of
This printed issue of Western Water examines the issues
associated with the State Water Board’s proposed revision of the
water quality Bay-Delta Plan, most notably the question of
whether additional flows are needed for the system, and how they
might be provided.
The San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem
needs freshwater to survive. How much water and where it comes
from is a longstanding debate that is flaring up as the state
embarks on an updated water quality plan for the Bay-Delta.
This printed issue of Western Water examines science –
the answers it can provide to help guide management decisions in
the Delta and the inherent uncertainty it holds that can make
moving forward such a tenuous task.
If there is one constant in all the turmoil surrounding
California’s water, it is the pivotal role of science in
decision-making. It is science that seeks to tell us what’s
happening in the natural world and the possible actions that can
be taken to affect change for the better.
This printed copy of Western Water examines the native salmon and
trout dilemma – the extent of the crisis, its potential impact on
water deliveries and the lengths to which combined efforts can
help restore threatened and endangered species.
This printed copy of Western Water examines the Delta through the
many ongoing activities focusing on it, most notably the Delta
Vision process. Many hours of testimony, research, legal
proceedings, public hearings and discussion have occurred and
will continue as the state seeks the ultimate solution to the
problems tied to the Delta.
This issue of Western Water looks at the political
landscape in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento as it relates to
water issues in 2007. Several issues are under consideration,
including the means to deal with impending climate change, the
fate of the San Joaquin River, the prospects for new surface
storage in California and the Delta.
There are multiple Delta Vision processes underway and a decision
on the future of the Delta will be made in the next two years.
Unlike past planning efforts that focused primarily on water
resource issues and the ecosystem, these current efforts are
expanding to include land use planning, recreation, flood
management, and energy, rail and transportation infrastructure.
How – or if – all these competing demands can be accommodated is
the question being considered.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is faced with many major
challenges: land subsidence, deteriorating levees and flood
risks, agricultural sustainability, increasing urbanization,
water supply reliability, ecosystem health, sea level rise,
climate change, and water quality. Confronted with the question
of how to sustain the multiple values/uses of the Delta, federal,
state and local officials, Delta residents, environmentalists,
water agencies and others are working to craft a vision of the
Delta 100 years from today.
This issue of Western Water examines the Sacramento-San
Joaquin Delta as it stands today and the efforts by government
agencies, policy experts, elected officials and the public at
large to craft a vision for a sustainable future.
The Delta has been in the spotlight recently, with a cascade of
tumultuous events that have spotlighted the importance and
fragility of a unique resource that is mostly out of sight and
out of mind to most Californians. Issues of sustainability,
governance, water quality, ecosystem health and levee stability
have reached the forefront in recent months, punctuated by
congressional inquiries and even discussion of revisiting the
proposed peripheral canal that was trumped at the polls more than
20 years ago.
This issue of Western Water discusses the CALFED Bay-Delta
Program and what the future holds as it enters a crucial period.
From its continued political viability to the advancement of best
available science and the challenges of fulfilling the ROD, the
near future will feature a lively discussion that will play a
significant role in the program’s future.
The issues surrounding the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento- San
Joaquin River Delta are as complex and varied as the ecology of
the estuary. Start with the fact that water is a valuable
resource in California that more often than not is in short
supply for the many competing demands. Combine that with a
growing urban sector and the need to maintain an agricultural
industry that is a significant part of the state’s economic
engine. Finally, recognize the environmental impacts from the
development of California, including the diversion of water, and
the obligations to preserve species diversity and water quality.
This issue of Western Water analyzes northern California’s
extensive flood control system – it’ history, current concerns,
the Paterno decision and how experts are re-thinking the concept
of flood management.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has been described as the
“switching yard” of California ’s water delivery system, moving
billions of gallons that supply the drinking water and irrigation
for millions of people. When stakeholders signed the 1994
Bay-Delta Accord, it was a dual-purpose deal designed to
preserve, protect and restore the ecosystem and increase water
This issue of Western Water examines the extensive activity
associated with the projects and issues related to the Napa
proposal – from increasing the state’s pumping capacity to
improvements in the south Delta to the creation of a lasting
Environmental Water Account to addressing water quality concerns.
As of press time, the proposal was far from finalized, undergoing
review and possible revision by government agencies and
The release of the CALFED Record of Decision in 2000 marked a
turning point in the multi-year effort to craft a Delta “fix”
that addressed both environmental problems and water supply
reliability. How to finance the many components within the plan
and ensure the plan is implemented over the next 30 years is a
The Bay-Delta comprises just 1 percent of California’s total
area, yet is at the heart of the state’s water supply system and
controversies. The CALFED Bay-Delta Program was formed in an
effort to replace conflict and controversy with a common vision
and a plan to “fix” the Delta. For the past two years, CALFED
agencies and stakeholders have begun to initiate many studies and
implement many projects and programs called for in the 2000
Record of Decision and Framework Agreement.
Balance between ecosystem restoration and water supply
reliability is key to a Bay-Delta solution. Everyone agrees on
this concept. But the demands of the competing interests can tilt
the scales. So, too, can the member agencies’ conflicting
missions. For more than three years, the joint state-federal
CALFED Bay-Delta Program has been searching for equilibrium among
the Delta’s complex problems and its contentious stakeholders. In
December, it released its latest blueprint for resolving the
Delta dilemma — the Revised Phase II Report.