Water Resource Collections and Archives


Making the Delta: Development of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Levee System

Making the Delta: Development of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Levee System

About the 2008 Calendar

The images illustrated in Making the Delta represent the historic development of the Sacramento-San Joaquin levee system.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the largest estuarine habitat in the Western Hemisphere, the hub of California’s water management system, a conduit for critical infrastructure of all types powering the Bay Area and Central Valley economies, and the home to a unique regional culture that dates from the Gold Rush. This critical region--the size of Rhode Island--that provides so many services to all of California also confronts crisis on many fronts: fish approaching extinction, water deliveries facing interruption, urbanization gathering on its edges, and--most ominously of all, perhaps-- the risk of a Katrina-style levee catastrophe that mounts with each passing year.

These systemic risks to the Delta have reached unacceptable levels. The 1100-square-mile mosaic of water channels and subsided islands is held together only by an aging system of agricultural levees, depicted in the images in this calendar. Earthquakes, river floods, continued soil subsidence, and sea level rise now threaten that historical levee system, which transformed the Delta from a vast tidal wetland to a system of navigable channels interspersed with below-sea-level farmland. Failure of these levees would not only imperil human life and property, but would also degrade aquatic habitat and water quality, as well as endanger the water conveyance system upon which 23 million people, millions of acres of irrigated agriculture, and numerous key industries rely for their fresh water.

By 2007, business-as-usual in the Delta was failing. Habitat loss, deteriorating water quality, invasive species, and water diversions throughout the watershed continue to subject the delta smelt and other fish species to serious risk of extinction. A nine-day shutdown of the State Water Project during the spring was merely a foretaste of the massive economic consequences that could result from the need to manage these species back to health, unless major changes are made in the way that water is conveyed through the Delta and managed and used throughout the state.

Over the years, the State of California has responded to these issues with innumerable initiatives, including the 1992 Delta Protection Act and the San Francisco Estuary Project Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan. Moving beyond the political limitations of the most recent initiative--the CalFed process, begun in 1994--the Delta Vision now seeks to articulate a sustainable future for the Delta. Unlike other previous Delta planning efforts, Delta Vision is grappling comprehensively with all aspects of this valuable region, placing the concerns of local economies, land use, and recreation right alongside the "traditional" concerns of water supply, ecosystem, and flood risk management. At the same time, the Delta Risk Management Study has quantified the likelihood and consequences of various levee failure scenarios over the next 100 years. In addition, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is striving to create a long-term species recovery and ecosystem management plan in conformance with state and federal environmental laws.

With all that is at stake in the Delta, these efforts cannot be permitted to fail. Numerous and diverse Delta stakeholders believe that 2008 will indeed be the "Year of the Delta," a once-in-a-generation opportunity to resolve long-standing risks and conflicts. Throughout the year, the Delta Vision will be creating a strategic plan to implement its vision recommendation made to the Governor and Legislature at the end of 2007. Already the Delta Vision has yielded constructive political engagement between stakeholders and policymakers, and has deliberated on some promising ideas for the region’s future. As the Governor and Legislature digest these studies and visions to make decisions for the future, as stewards of the public trust, we must all ensure that the values of the Delta are preserved for future generations of Californians.

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Produced by WRCA

Calendar Images

Dredge Gwynn, constructed 1879

Aerial photo of levee break, 1955

Crews work to reinforce, c1920

Straddle ditch dredge, 1918

Maps of the Delta before and after levee development

The Isleton ferry, c1930

Dredge Atlas, constructed 1892

Ferry boat crossing Sacramento River at Isleton, [n.d.]

Grading off top of levee, c1922.

Dredge Thor, constructed 1907

Survey crew, 1925

Dredge Jupiter, constructed 1909

Last modified: 4/26/2011 3:08 PM by S. Haren

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