by J. Greenberg
It has been the
stardust behind every California Dream. It made the Gold Rush possible,
and turned the Central Valley into one of the most productive regions
on earth. Today, the opportunities it offers for growth and recreation
make California one of the most appealing places to live in America.
If water is the
lifeblood of the Golden State, then the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
is figuratively and literally its heart -- the nexus of all the major
river systems in California, and our single most important resource.
Some 22 million
Californians rely on it, but the Delta provides much more than drinking
water; it is the fuel for an agricultural industry worth 30 billion
dollars. Although vital to the health of our population and our economy,
until recently the Delta itself was in critical condition.
Today, there is
a strong consensus that we must resist all pressure to build on the
Delta's waterfront. But the Delta still suffers hangovers from the development
binges of the past -- and is beset by problems that often start well
In many ways the
Cosumnes is typical of the rivers that feed the Delta. Its headwaters
lie midway up the Sierra, and its name -- meaning "people of the
salmon" -- comes from the Miwok Indians who once fished in its
waters. But today, it is the sole survivor of the Valley's original
watershed: the last un-dammed link between the Sierra Nevada and the
Protecting all 80
miles of the river's course is a tall order, but for the last 15 years,
the Nature Conservancy and its partners have maintained a 13,000-acre
preserve between Walnut Grove and Galt. Serendipity led them to this
location, when a farmer fixed a levee breach...but left alone the silt
and debris that had been deposited by the river waters. A few years
later -- seemingly out of nowhere -- a forest of cottonwoods and willows
sprang up next to the breach.
These riparian forests
once covered much of the Valley's floor, but today 95% of them are gone.
In recent years, the preserve staff has used controlled levee breaches
to try to encourage more riparian growth. You might think that local
farmers would object to deliberate flooding so close to their land.
But the Preserve has made allies of its neighbors -- and even brought
in more, like Allen Garcia, to farm directly on preserve land.
Garcia works with
the preserve to time his crops precisely, harvesting his organic rice
just before thousands of waterfowl -- most notably the sandhill cranes
-- migrate south to the Cosumnes. He then floods his fields deliberately
to provide a habitat, and the birds repay him by digesting the straw
left on his farm, turning it into fertilizer for next year's crop. A
mutually beneficial relation that proves, in Garcia's words, "We
can have our environment and eat it too."