Saturday, January 28, 2017

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta people amid water wars

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a region where two of California’s largest rivers naturally meet and feed into the San Francisco Bay. The network of creeks, tributaries, and irrigation channels from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers provide water to about 25 million people, well over half the state’s population.

Amid anthropogenic climate change and natural weather fluctuations, demands on the water running through the Delta have increased. The past few decades’ competing uses for water supply and habitat have jeopardized the area. Fights over water in the Delta have been framed as northerners versus southernersenvironmentalists versus business, and small farmers versus large conglomerates. The latest shift prioritizes habitat preservation and restoration above all other concerns. Indeed, Delta Smelt and Chinook Salmon are subjects all people familiar with the region are well-informed of and opinionated about.

Where parties representing farm, municipal, and environmental interests are heard in fluctuating volumes, the local Delta community is largely under-consulted relative to their geographic centrality in the issues. As it is used here, the Delta community is those people who live in the statutorily-defined Delta. The statutory Delta is a smaller area than the true watershed stretches. Indeed, the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Tulare watersheds that feed the Delta stretch over half the state's geographic area.  Despite being low in population, the Delta communities are surrounded by vast and expanding rings of urbanization which leaves them unnamed and largely unconsidered in large debates over how to manage the Delta.

The Delta is composed of 57 islands formed by a network of levees about 1,100 miles long that divert the 700 miles of waterways that feed it. These islands are largely uninhabited farmland and wetland reserves. Touching parts of Alameda, Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Solano, Yolo and portions of Rio Vista counties, the total population of the Delta is 515,000. Only about one-tenth of the Delta is considered urbanized, meaning the vast majority of the population is dispersed widely over the 738,000 acres.

According to the main Delta community website,, there are a handful of small towns but “[f]rankly, some of these places are just too small to find much about them online!” These communities have names like Snug Harbor, French Camp, and Bird’s Landing. Stockton and Antioch, cities on the edge of the Delta border, are bedroom communities for Bay Area and Sacramento commuters. Of cities in the central Delta, the largest is Walnut Grove. It is a Census-Designated Place that the government recognizes as a concentration of population but has no legal status. Its population is just over 1,500. The next largest town, under a mile away, is the historic city of Locke, built by Asian immigrants seeking refuge from Walnut Grove’s racist sentiments in the early 20th century. It has fewer than 80 residents. About 30 minutes from Sacramento and just over an hour from San Francisco, these communities are a short distance from some of the state’s largest metropolitan areas.   

Scholars have struggled to provide a clear definition of “rural.” Geographic markers, public sentiment, and daily subsistence are useful indicators of what is “rural.” Each index remains problematic for the Delta communities. If we were to apply a geographic analysis to these populations, their proximity to large cities like San Francisco and Sacramento overshadow any claim to being remote and unconnected. Locke is a designated National Historic Place with a series of shops and bars that attract tourists year-round. Further, the desolate islands only accessible by boat juxtaposed against population pockets of recreational boat marinas, shops, diners, and docks, shorten any claim that the population is rural. One San Francisco blog described the area as “undeveloped and quirky” where the little towns blend into each other. Essentially, these Delta communities are not traditional rural landscapes qualifying them for distinct consideration. Nor are they connected enough to the metropolitan strong arms to have a meaningful voice in Delta management.

The presence of many voices in the debate over management of the Delta is understandable. The water supply running through it supports California’s stronghold as the fifth largest economy in the world, including a $27 million agricultural industry. Indeed, because of the conflicts over the Delta, California’s water system has been one of the most observed in the world. With this, the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force observed in 2008, “[t]he Delta is a regional, state, and national treasure. Its unique combination of estuary, water supply, recreation and tourism, aesthetics, lifestyle and rural character make it a special place that we must recognize and protect.” Indeed, this goal demands inclusion of all voices.


Anne Badasci said...

Great article! I really appreciate your take on this idea of "juxtaposition" and even the "battleground" type attitude, because it is evident to me through my time living in a small farming town that this idea of "it's MY water, why is it always getting sent away to X place?" Is a really predominant sentiment. The Delta sees so much of its water flow to other locations, and small farmers in that area can often feel unfairly left out of the "who gets enough water" equation. The environment versus agriculture argument always seems like such a false and unnecessary construct to me; there are absolutely ways in which farm and environmental interests intersect, and being aware of those intersections and working on compromising rather than going to war is a much more efficient way of handling these issues.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your article! I had not heard of the rural communities living on the Delta islands before. It's true, that they don't fit into the geographic definition of rural, but from your description it appears that they have many of the characteristics associated with other rural areas. I can see how their voices may be drowned out by the larger farming communities to the south in the fight for water. I look forward to reading your next post about their role in the water debate. I hope that you will discuss how their views might differ from those of the larger farming communities, especially on the environmental aspects of the water debate. Comparing different rural perspectives on such an important issue is a very interesting topic!

Kyle Kate Dudley said...

This is a very informative post. A close family friend lives on one of the islands in the Delta accessible only by boat, and his experiences and lifestyle can be characterized as rural without a doubt. There are a great number of concerns of Delta folks have that are amplified by tensions regarding water use, businesses, and the environment. I often wonder about the lack of infrastructure that would undoubtedly prevent my friend from getting medical care and police services when he needs them --indeed he's had a lot of difficulty in those realms. Whose responsibility would it be to make the Delta safer or more 'accessible' for services such as those? Is this an obligation of state or local governments? Or are small Delta communities required to "fend for themselves" and be self-sufficient the way many other rural spaces have been forced to be?