California

Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta


Delta Map

Map of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta.

The Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, the heart of the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas, is widely acknowledged to be on the verge of collapse. More than 750 species of plants and wildlife, as well as 55 species of fish, rely on Delta waters for survival.

The Nature Conservancy has released a set of recommendations to save this beautiful and unique region. Here we answer some of the key questions about why the Delta is important and what we need to do to protect it.  

Q:

What is the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta?

A:

The Delta is part of the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. It’s made up of nearly 1,000 miles of waterways forming a complex maze of tributaries, sloughs and islands, covering 800,000 acres.

Q:

Where is it?

A:

The Delta is east of San Francisco and stretches nearly 50 miles from Sacramento south to Tracy.

Q:

Why is the Delta important?

A:

The Delta supports an amazing array of plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else on Earth. The region is also a source of clean drinking water for more than 25 million Californians and provides water for farmland that produces about 45 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

Q:

Why should I care about the Delta?

A:

Many of the Delta’s aging levees are just one earthquake or major flood away from collapse. In addition to the environmental impacts of a natural disaster, such an event would disrupt water supply for millions of California residents for months or years and could have a catastrophic impact on the California economy.

Q:

Why is the Delta in crisis?

A:

Farmland and housing developments have replaced most of the Delta’s wetlands, as well as the lush vegetation that grows alongside the region’s waterways. Invasive species and declining water quality have hurt Delta species. And what little habitat remains has been degraded by exporting water from the Delta to other parts of California in such a way that prevents the ecosystem from functioning as it should. As a result, the Delta is now largely operated as a freshwater lake rather than the estuary it once was, and several species, such as the Delta smelt, are now facing extinction.

Q:

Why is there so much fuss about the Delta smelt? Isn’t this just about fish vs. people?

A:

The drastic decline in the Delta smelt population and other fish species, while distressing in its own right, is a strong indicator that other species are in peril and an urgent sign that the ecosystem is failing. It’s important to remember that, according to a September 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Interior, 75 percent of decreased water allocations are due to California’s extended drought conditions. Only 25 percent of the reductions are related to court-mandated actions to protect the endangered Delta smelt and Chinook salmon. In fact, California is closer than ever before to a solution that will create a healthier and more prosperous California — for both people and nature.

Q:

How is The Nature Conservancy protecting the Delta?

A:

Over the past 20 years the Conservancy has restored nearly 25,000 acres of wildlife habitat in the Delta. We’ve also managed land in the Delta for nearly 10 years. In addition, the Conservancy is deeply engaged in Delta planning efforts and studies including major efforts like the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and Delta Vision — all of which seek solutions to the Delta crisis as quickly as possible.

Q:

What is the Conservancy’s strategy for the Delta?

A:

The Conservancy has released a report that provides recommendations for restoring large areas of Delta habitat, as well as more natural water flow through the Delta to promote a healthy ecosystem. We are working with our partners to turn those recommendations into action.

Q:

If California would curb its water use, would that solve the problem in the Delta?

A:

While it is important for California to continue to conserve water and develop ways to be more efficient with water use, water conservation alone will not solve the problem in the Delta. A comprehensive solution is needed that includes habitat restoration, more natural flow conditions and a governance structure that will ensure the Delta will be sustainably managed to support both nature and people.

Q:

Why not just stop exporting water from the Delta?

A:

Completely eliminating water exports from the Delta will hurt California. Farming plays an integral $3.6B role in California’s economy. And, even with better water conservation and efficiency, southern California is decades away from deriving sufficient water from other sources.

Q:

Can’t we just shore-up the levees?

A:

The Nature Conservancy agrees with the broadly held view by scientists, public agencies, legislators and others that it’s virtually impossible (financially and structurally) to reinforce certain levees to a degree which ensures public safety — especially as climate change causes sea levels to continue to rise. Unless we upgrade California’s ailing water infrastructure and restore the Delta ecosystem, we will destroy one of the largest estuaries in the western United States and our access to clean drinking water is at grave risk.

Q:

How can you guarantee that new infrastructure, such as a peripheral canal or underwater conveyance, will be regulated to protect the Delta ecosystem?

A:

Our current water management system is already destroying the Delta, as well as fish populations and the commercial and recreational fishing interests that depend on them. This is not the same water battle we experienced in the 1980s. The State’s Delta planning process includes provisions which mandate that any new infrastructure help recovery of species and support environmental objectives.

Q:

Does The Nature Conservancy believe a solution to the Delta crisis is possible?

A:

The circumstances are daunting, and success will require that all involved in this effort are dedicated to ongoing conservation and monitoring of Delta habitats, sufficient funding and the establishment of an effective governance mechanism. We believe that, by working together, we can find solutions to the Delta crisis.


 

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