Mending the Broken Heart of California


by John Hart

On March 30, 1772, Spanish explorer Pedro Fages was traveling east along the south shore of Suisun Bay, looking for a land route around the seemingly endless chain of bays extending inland from the Golden Gate. Mounting to Willow Pass, the rise of land between present-day Concord and Pittsburg, he found himself staring at a new obstacle: an enormous expanse of marshland, threaded with bright channels. He had “discovered” the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The Delta is a flat, watery region of roughly a thousand square miles–covering nearly as much territory as San Francisco Bay, San Pablo Bay, Carquinez Strait, and Suisun Bay combined–radiating inland to the Central Valley. Its natural boundaries are fuzzy and its nature double. In one aspect it is a river delta; in the other it is the innermost region of that vast intrusion of tidewater into the continent called the San Francisco Estuary. (An estuary is a tidally influenced aquatic system with a range of salinities; this one is the largest on the west coast of the Americas.)

However defined, the Delta is the meeting point of rivers that drain 40 percent of California’s landmass and carry just under half of the runoff from California’s mountains. It is a crossroads on migratory routes extending in the air from the arctic to the tropics, and in the water from the Sierra out into the Pacific. It is also a rich-soiled farm region and, directly or indirectly, the source of drinking and farming water for the majority of the state. And it is, as the whole state now knows, in several kinds of trouble.

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