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The Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, where five major waterways converge, steps forward thanks to a new National Heritage Area designation.
On August 29, 2005, the world saw what happened when a levee failed. A Category 3 hurricane slammed the Gulf Coast, 169 linear miles of federally constructed levees collapsed, and nearly 80 percent of New Orleans flooded, killing almost 1,000 people, the majority of them African American and over the age of 65. It was a wake-up call not just for New Orleanians but for lawmakers 2,000 miles away in California, who worried about their own state’s intricate system of ancient levees, which hold back the waters of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta.
Covering an area the size of Rhode Island, the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta is an inland delta formed by the confluence of five major waterways, including the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. It stretches from just east of the San Francisco Bay north to Sacramento and south to Stockton and drains more than 50 percent of the state of California. It is also a highly engineered landscape, made up of winding canals, earthen levees, and terraced agricultural fields. Roads follow the sinuous levees, forming what, from the air, appears as a convoluted puzzle pieced together over eons by a deranged dissectologist.
The delta’s present-day morphology is the product of one of the largest land reclamation projects in U.S. history. In the late 19th century, farmers and land speculators drained more than 500,000 acres of wetlands in the delta, using the dredge material—much of it the spoils of industrial gold mining—to build human-made islands. In the 20th century, water conveyance projects such as the California State Water Project further severed the relationship between delta wildlife and its unique hydrology. “There is nothing about the delta that is like what it used to be,” explains Brett Milligan, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of California, Davis, and a cofounder of the Dredge Research Collaborative. “The way water flows through it is entirely different. The channels have been widened; all the dendritic channels have been cut off. There’s no floodplain at all.”
The years after Hurricane Katrina saw an abundance of scientific studies, task forces, and blue ribbon reports measuring the susceptibility of the delta’s infrastructure to earthquakes and other natural disasters. Soon, there was consensus: The region was under imminent threat from a potentially catastrophic combination of land subsidence, urbanization, rising sea levels, and aging levees. In many cases, the levees that encircle the delta’s constructed islands are all that prevents many of them from being returned to marshland. In fact, the term “island” is somewhat misleading. Decades of subsidence have left many of these landmasses lying well below sea level. One breach and entire communities could disappear. Some islands are already underwater owing to levee failures in the mid-20th century.
Alex Westhoff was a first-year graduate student in the landscape architecture and environmental planning program at the University of California, Berkeley, when Katrina hit in 2005 and caused widespread alarm. In response to lawmakers’ growing concerns for the delta’s future, in spring 2006, UC Berkeley organized a design symposium called “ReEnvisioning the Delta.” Westhoff participated as a graduate researcher, using GIS to map all proposed development in the delta, and he discovered that there was more to the delta than typically made it into official reports. He spent increasing amounts of time there. “I started visiting historic sites, seeing the historic bridges, the levee system, all the historic towns,” recalls Westhoff, now a senior preservation planner with the City of San Francisco. He visited towns like Locke, one of the only communities in the United States built exclusively by and for Chinese immigrants and today listed as a National Historic Landmark. He learned that thousands of Chinese, and later Japanese, immigrants settled the delta in the late 19th century, drawn to the region by the need for labor. They helped build the levees and worked as tenant farmers and built Chinatowns up and down the Sacramento River, many of which remain intact. Westhoff realized that what was often talked about as an unpopulated, infrastructural landscape—a “plumbing fixture” for the state—had a history and culture that was unique, not just in California but in all of the United States.
At the time, he says, the delta often was characterized either as the state’s water supply, a diffuse reservoir managed for the benefit of residents hundreds of miles away (two-thirds of California’s population gets its potable water from the region), or else an imperiled ecosystem that should be managed for the benefit of species such as great blue heron and delta smelt. “What was missing was any discussion of the actual people of the delta and the fact that it is a landscape that people live in,” he says. “It has this rich cultural heritage and human history that was being overlooked in this broader planning process. I started thinking, if you can showcase these unique facets of the delta, you can build intrinsic value and people would want to preserve and protect it more.”
Today, almost 15 years after Westhoff’s initial visits to the delta, the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta is federally recognized as a National Heritage Area (NHA). It is California’s first NHA, and delta residents and advocates hope that federal designation, which provides federal funding to the region for education, historic preservation, and economic development, will give the region a stronger identity and a platform from which to advocate, particularly as its future continues to exist at the center of debates about California’s water supply.
The Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area is also notable among its NHA brethren. Among the National Heritage Area’s five interpretative themes is the experience of the delta’s immigrant populations and their influence on the rural landscape, making the delta one of the few NHAs to explicitly interpret themes of multiculturalism and racial identity.
The National Heritage Area program got its start in 1984 with the creation of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Area in northeastern Illinois. In the years since, a total of 55 NHAs have been established throughout the United States. Some, like the Cache la Poudre River National Heritage Area in Colorado, cover just a few square miles. Others, like the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, cover entire states. The program is overseen by the National Park Service (NPS) but is managed locally by a coordinating entity, either a government agency or a nonprofit organization. Though less well-known than the country’s national parks, NHAs have played an important role in helping funnel federal funding to small, often struggling communities to aid with historic preservation and economic development. In Yuma, Arizona, for instance, NHA status helped secure $10 million in federal funding over a 15-year period for extensive wetland restoration and redevelopment of the town’s historic riverfront.
According to the sociologist Alan Barton, the NHA program represents an evolution in the role of public participation within the NPS, which before the middle of the 20th century rarely solicited direct input from the public. “NHAs,” Barton wrote in a 2016 article in Natural Resources Journal, “represent a twenty-first century approach to public administration, emphasizing collaboration, partnerships, and sharing costs and responsibilities through federal–local cooperation. They expand the National Park Service’s role as guardian not only of American heritage, but also of American democracy.”
Advocates of the NHA program say that this emphasis on collaboration and local governance makes it unique among federal programs. “One of the hallmarks of this program is that it’s grassroots-based,” says Linda Stonier, who oversees the NHA program for the Pacific West Region of the NPS. But deference to local boosters can also result in a rather narrow definition of “American heritage.” The website for Iowa’s Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area, for instance, makes no substantive mention of the Indigenous peoples who lived in the state as late as the 1850s. Instead, the NHA, which covers a quarter of the state, interprets themes such as “Higher Yields: The Science and Technology of Agriculture” and “Farm to Factory: Agribusiness in Iowa.” Stonier says certain NHAs do a better job than others, but she admits that “proponents of these projects have a dominant narrative, a story they want to tell.”
Along with other recently established NHAs, such as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which recognizes the distinct culture of the Gullah Geechee people, who descended from West and Central African slaves, the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area aims to tell a more inclusive story about the American landscape.
Although dozens of others eventually took up the banner, the idea to pursue federal recognition for the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta began with Westhoff, who as a part of his master’s thesis recommended that the Delta Protection Commission (DPC), a state agency created in 1992 to maintain the economic and environmental viability of the delta, study the feasibility of seeking National Heritage Area status. Initially unfamiliar with the program, Westhoff says he recalls reading the official NHA definition—places where “natural, cultural, historic, and recreation resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape”—and feeling that the delta “fit the definition to a T.”
Westhoff’s recommendation eventually made its way into California’s 2009 Delta Reform Act, which directed the DPC to evaluate the idea’s viability. By then, Westhoff was working for the DPC as an environmental planner. He spent the next five years working with the NPS and community leaders to inventory historic and cultural resources. The NHA team met with hundreds of delta residents as part of a community engagement process and presented the heritage area concept to local chambers of commerce, historical societies, farm bureaus, even yacht clubs. Still, when Congress voted to establish the NHA in 2019, “It kind of came as a surprise,” Westhoff says. “I had doubts it would ever happen.”
The Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area has existed for less than two years, and yet the region already has benefited from increased visibility. California Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced establishing legislation five times before the concept was rolled into the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which also established five other heritage areas—two in Washington, one in Arizona, one in Pennsylvania, and one that stretches across the border of Maryland and West Virginia. While Feinstein lobbied in Congress, the DPC moved forward with a number of heritage-related initiatives. It developed a brand identity for the delta region, including a logo (a WPA-style illustrated vignette depicting a metal-truss bridge, an aquamarine canal, and a pair of silhouetted ducks) and website, which lists hundreds of activities, attractions, and special events taking place throughout the delta. It organized the first annual Delta Heritage Forum, a free, one-day conference (now in its fourth year) that explores various aspects of delta history. And it developed a fourth-grade curriculum to help children better understand the importance of the region. The projects predated NHA designation but were initiated in response to a key bit of guidance from the NPS. “Their advice,” Westhoff says, “was, if you want to become a heritage area, start acting like a heritage area.”
The most significant of these early initiatives was the Delta Narratives project, a collection of essays commissioned by the DPC that covers everything from the role of the delta in art and literature (among others, Joan Didion, a Sacramento native, wrote extensively about the place) to the invention of the clamshell dredge, which was manufactured to allow for more rapid levee building. Before the Delta Narratives project, there were very few histories of the delta. “A lot of people would point to a dissertation written back in the ’50s as sort of the history,” says Blake Roberts, Westhoff’s successor and the current manager of the delta’s NHA program.
Deeply researched and available to the public for free, the Delta Narratives project provides a more nuanced history of the region, particularly with regard to its legacy of multiculturalism and the impact of public policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited immigration from China and opened the door to Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, Filipino, Sikh, and Mexican laborers, each of whom went on to shape the delta in their own unique ways. As Jennifer Helzer writes in her contribution to the Delta Narratives project, “Throughout history the Delta has been a crossroads, a place of environmental change and agricultural fortune, and a destination for newcomers.… The region’s unique rural landscape has multiple meanings. It can be interpreted as symbolic of prosperity and success, and it can equally reveal labor conflict, inequality, and exclusion.”
The collected essays have since informed various interpretative plans, including one for a circa 1927 gakuen, or Japanese school, in Clarksburg, California. They will also provide a foundation for the commission as it begins to develop an overall management plan, something every NHA is required to have. Roberts expects economic development to feature heavily in future discussions. The delta has been particularly hard hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic, as boaters and fishers and heritage tourists largely stayed away in 2020, leaving many small businesses without customers. The NHA designation—and the federal appropriations that come with it—could provide much-needed investment, Roberts says. Although funding for individual NHAs generally tops out at $1 million per year, the program has a proven economic track record. An independent study conducted in 2012 found that NHAs contribute roughly $12.9 billion to the U.S. economy annually and generate $5 in local investment for every $1 spent by Congress.
Milligan, of the Dredge Research Collaborative, sees designation of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta as an NHA as a positive step toward recognizing the vulnerable and often-forgotten communities that exist there, and as a potential funding source for further design and planning work. “Facilitating planning around cultural history and cultural use now is huge,” he says. Among the kinds of projects that could benefit from future NHA funding, he says, are landscape restoration projects that include cultural or recreational components, such as one Milligan currently is working on for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The project, undertaken with the environmental consultant ESA and a group of UC Davis landscape architecture students, involves the creation of a new landmass and tidal marsh on a former delta island known as Franks Tract State Recreation Area. Located in the southern delta near the community of Bethel Island, Franks Tract was once 3,000 acres of agricultural land. In 1938, the levees failed, turning the site into a shallow lake. Since then, it has remained submerged, and today Franks Tract is a popular bass fishing and boating destination. The sunken island presents a risk to the delta, however. Invasive aquatic weeds have taken hold, forming dense mats that diminish water quality and impede boat access. More worrying, as sea levels rise, Franks Tract will likely act as a funnel for more brackish water, causing increased salinity in the delta and potentially compromising the state’s irrigation and drinking water systems.
Milligan’s project seeks to address concerns of degraded water quality and habitat loss while retaining or even improving recreational access. It was initiated by California Fish and Wildlife after early plans for a giant wetland “plug,” which would have cut off access to the lake, were met with community opposition. “It was basically a green infrastructure solution, if you will, at thousands of acres. But where they sited it would have put all of these marinas out of business,” Milligan says.
Following a year and a half of public meetings and community outreach, the students and the consultant team delivered a series of landscape scenarios that balances boat access with environmental remediation. Based on student-created maps of the tract’s most popular fishing spots and the routes used to access them, the preferred plan, according to public input, calls for a central landmass and tidal marsh cut through with channels to provide access across the lake. Appropriately, the mechanisms for this transformation would be dredging and reclamation, continuing the long history of earthworks in the delta. The proposed scheme would use more than 37 million cubic yards of dredge material from Franks Tract to create 1,370 acres of marsh, tidal channels, and upland habitat, and 1,000 acres of deep open water. It would also facilitate the repair of adjacent levees and the creation of at least five new public beaches.
Completed in September 2020, the new proposal for Franks Tract has been met positively. “We were able to come up with designs that were more popular than the status quo, which is the opposite of where we started,” Milligan says. California Fish and Wildlife has not announced a timeline for the project, or if it will build it as proposed in the final report. (The consultant team estimated that the project would cost roughly $560 million, with a construction timeline of four to nine years.)
The delta’s challenges reach far beyond Franks Tract. Throughout the region, levees remain vulnerable to earthquakes and overtopping, and in 2020 California Governor Gavin Newsom advanced a plan for a tunnel that would convey water from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta to Southern California, with unknown consequences for the region’s fragile ecosystem —or its communities. Many residents oppose the tunnel project on grounds that range from environmental protection to racial justice. By themselves, the activities and appropriations that come with NHA designation are not enough, even cumulatively, to reverse the economic and environmental forces at the root of the delta’s current precarity. But federal recognition already has made this obscure, out-of-the-way landscape more visible. Westhoff says this should give the people of the delta an incrementally taller platform on which to stand and speak. “I have already started to hear people say, ‘Now we have something to grasp onto,’” Westhoff says. “Having the designation gives the area some legitimacy. It puts it on the map.”
CORRECTION: The print version of this story incorrectly identified the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta as the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. It has been corrected here.
Timothy A. Schuler is a Honolulu-based writer and a contributing editor to the magazine. His work has appeared in Curbed, Bloomberg CityLab, Places Journal, Metropolis, and FLUX Hawaii.