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California’s Mixing Bowl: The Delta’s Crucial Role in a Thirsty State

On July 25, Gov. Jerry Brown of California and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a $23.7 billion plan to divert the Sacramento River’s flow underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the California Aqueduct. Courtesy: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

The sediment, the rocks, the vegetation and the fish of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: Study these, and they offer a history of the state of California, of American ambition, of pioneers and politicians, of businessmen and industry, of conservationists and farmers — men and women getting things done.

Click on the image to view KQED’s interactive map that traces the ecology, geography and history of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

And “I want to get s— done,” is how Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown put it when PBS NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels talked to him last week. Michels had asked him if he believed any more studies were needed before pushing forward with his plan to build two 35-mile underground tunnels for transferring water from the state’s north to the farmland of the state’s center and the cities of the southern California.

“We’re going to take into account the opposition, but we’re not going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs and stare at our navel,” Brown said. “We’re going to make decisions, and we’ll get it done, and if we have to fight initiatives and referendums, we’ll fight those, too. But somehow, before I’m ready to turn in my payroll card, I expect to get some very important things done, and this is one of them.”

But Brown won’t be the first to dig in this delta. Sediment from the mining operations of the 1850s-1880s in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, around the era of the gold rush, is still found in the delta’s river tributaries. And before 1900, farmers had begun diverting water from the delta’s source rivers, the San Joaquin and Sacramento, to irrigate their rice fields.

Burt Wilson of Sacramento protests the plan to move water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to farmland and cities. Courtesy: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

But as farmers and other California interests diverted and dammed this fresh water, Pacific salt water flooded in its place. The federal and California governments built two huge public works projects to control the fresh water flow: the Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project, begun when Gov. Brown’s father was governor. California children studied these in school as critical American achievements.

Meanwhile, despite the benefit this century-and-a-half of water diversion has given south and central California, it has also destroyed the natural state of the delta and caused the near-extinction of many of its native fish, including the Chinook salmon, a migratory fish that can weigh dozens of pounds and that, after leaving its freshwater birthplace and spending years at sea, returns to its inland home to mate and die. State and federal agencies are looking now to restore this natural habitat, at least partially.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, also known as the San Francisco Bay Delta — and which the U.S. Geological Survey calls the “sinking heart” of California — was all marsh until Californians started paying Chinese laborers to build a system of levees there in the 1860s, turning marshland into farmland.

The delta, fed by California’s two largest freshwater rivers, as well as by the salty San Francisco Bay, is mapped below in an interactive history, produced by KQED QUEST, the San Francisco Estuary Institute — Aquatic Science Center and the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. The map offers a geological, ecological and historical look at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

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