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Water at a crossroads

July/Aug. 2007 California Country magazine

Farmers join together to save imperiled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region.



Farmers join effort to save imperiled delta region


Because the delta plays a role in the lives of all Californians, Clarksburg farmer Mark Wilson says it's important for everyone to learn about the issues.

Ask people who live or work in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta about their favorite places and the answers will be as diverse as the delta itself. Mark Wilson, whose family has farmed in the delta since 1922, will tell you it's the graceful bend in Elk Slough, just south of Clarksburg in Yolo County.

That's where his winegrape vineyard starts from a V and fans out to meet miles of fields of alfalfa, safflower, tomatoes and wheat. Along the slough are mature oaks and native plants, habitat for a variety of animals that call the delta home.

Ask Linda Fiack, executive director of the Delta Protection Commission, and she has a quick answer. It's not a place. It's a thing. It's the historic cable ferries that connect delta islands to the mainland, carrying cars and farming equipment to areas that otherwise would be difficult to reach.

For Chris Scheuring, managing counsel of California Farm Bureau Federation's Natural Resources and Environmental Division, it's the delta's quaint towns--Isleton is his favorite, but he says he finds Rio Vista, Walnut Grove, Courtland and Clarksburg great places to escape the summer heat and drink in the famous delta breeze.

There is a laid-back, Huck Finn aspect to the delta, where farming, fishing and boating are a way of life. But there also is the realization that the delta is under increased pressure to do more, to be more for all the people of California. Growing needs and sagging infrastructure have brought this fabled region to the point of crisis.

Citizens, scientists, engineers, politicians and agriculture leaders currently are involved in developing a strategy to help guide decisions about the delta into the future. Planning for the future of this vital resource is not an easy process. The issues are complex and solutions hard to find.

The delta is the very heart of California's vitality, Scheuring said. The water flowing through it sustains agriculture, provides wildlife habitat, offers spectacular recreation opportunities and serves as a conduit for shipping and transportation activities.

Its value, however, is most pronounced when the more than 23 million Californians-from Sacramento to San Diego who depend on the delta for fresh water-turn on the faucets in their homes to cook, wash clothes and bathe babies.

Of grave concern is that the levees protecting the land, homes and infrastructure are highly vulnerable to natural disasters--floods, earthquakes and subsidence. Experts say in the western delta a 6.5 earthquake would trigger an immediate break of 30 levees and flood at least 16 islands.

That would result in the inundation of 85,000 acres of farmland, and water shipments from the delta to Southern California cities potentially could be disrupted for months, even as long as several years.

"Water has become the delta's most valuable crop, and as such deserves a lot of attention," said Wilson. "But, one of my concerns is that lots of information about the delta and the water that flows through it comes from those in government. In reality there are many people, particularly farmers, who understand how the delta works and how to maintain its resources. These are the people that need to be included in discussions about the delta's future."

Wilson said that's why he volunteers his time to participate with more than 40 others in Delta Vision, a diverse group of stakeholders appointed by Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman. Delta Vision's goal is to help find a strategy for managing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as a sustainable ecosystem that will continue to support environmental and economic needs critical to the people of California.

"One of the concerns I have right now is that the vision process is being driven by arbitrary deadlines," Wilson said, referring to key decisions that state officials say must be made by year-end. "I'm afraid that, because of the complexity of the issues, the deadlines could result in hasty or ill-conceived decisions.

"Californians everywhere know we need to increase the amount and reliability of our water supply to support future growth and vitality. That's why it's so important that we all take the time to fully understand the issues," said Wilson, a Farm Bureau member whose grandfather, George Wilson, served as the organization's state president in the 1950s.

Not only does water from the delta, which is formed by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, provide the lifeblood for the state and federal water projects, is also brings water to many agricultural and municipal water systems.

Delta communities are still farming communities. The majority of the region's 738,000 acres is devoted to agriculture. Its fertile peat and mineralized soils produce a wide variety of crops, including asparagus, pears, corn, grain and hay, along with tomatoes and, increasingly, winegrapes.

Farm production in the region totals more than $500 million a year, supporting those who work the farms, but also many smaller companies that provide agricultural support services.

The region also is a major transportation hub. Railways, highways and utilities crisscross the delta. Ships, traveling up and down deepwater channels to Sacramento and Stockton, transport millions of tons of cargo to busy ports.

It's a recreation mecca. Boats of every description can be found using the waterways and exploring the labyrinth of channels and sloughs. The winds that whistle into the delta at Rio Vista produce world-class windsurfing conditions.

Added to this are a wealth of sightseeing destinations--historical spots like the town of Locke, a Chinese settlement once known for its culture and entertainment, and the Ryde Hotel, rumored to have a speak-easy past in the days of Prohibition.

"One message we'd like to get across is that real people live, work and play in the delta," said Fiack, who noted that legislation passed by the state Legislature in 1992 recognizes that the delta is a natural resource of statewide, national and international significance.

"We are working to bring diverse interests together to work for the common cause of protecting this resource," she said. "Signs are now posted on the roadways entering the delta to let people know that it extends beyond the water itself to the surrounding farmlands and counties. It's a much bigger area than people think."

With 1,000 miles of waterways, the delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast. And it faces challenges that match its size.

"The delta is being asked to do too many things by too many people," Scheuring said. "It's a water conveyance system, a working agricultural landscape, habitat for endangered species and it's home to more than 500,000 people--with increasing development pressures. All these uses are forcing us to look closely at this resource and make some decisions.

"Farm Bureau's role is to protect agriculture so that farmers and ranchers can continue to produce the food we need," Scheuring said. "We want to make sure that farms are not forced out of business by changes in laws and regulations that don't take the value of working agricultural lands into account."

In the delta, Scheuring said it's imperative the water transfer infrastructure continues to function to provide water, not just for farms and ranches, but also for the many millions of families who count on clean, reliable water to live their daily lives.

"We want the delta to continue to be a viable agricultural region and we want to see public investments made that will modernize the infrastructure, protect wildlife and ensure it remains a healthy resource for the people of California," he said. "Farm Bureau is actively participating in the statewide decision-making process that's currently going on."

Scheuring said if he had just one thing to say to California Country readers, it would be to urge them to learn more about the delta. "Go and see this incredible resource. Get acquainted. Go online, read up on the issues. The delta is at a crossroads and we all have to join in making smart, responsible decisions about its future."

For online information about the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the debate going on about its future, go to www.delta.ca.gov or www.water.ca.gov. Visitor information is available at www.californiadelta.org or www.deltaloop.com.

Kate Campbell is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or kcampbell@cfbf.com.


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