Restore The California Delta! To What, Exactly?
By: Lauren Sommer
In California, state officials are planning a multibillion-dollar environmental restoration of the inland delta near San Francisco Bay. There's only one problem: No one knows what the landscape used to look like. Ninety-seven percent of the original wetlands are gone, so the state is turning to historians for help.
This detective story begins on a sunny day in a dry field of corn, about an hour east of San Francisco.
Alison Whipple and Robin Grossinger are looking through a pile of maps, trying to piece together the path of William Wright, a man who got hopelessly lost somewhere nearby.
This happened 160 years ago. Whipple and Grossinger are historians — historical ecologists, more precisely — with the San Francisco Estuary Institute. They dig up old photos and hand-drawn maps that provide clues about what this landscape once looked like.
In this case, they're relying on a tattered, yellowing notebook. They're pouring over Wright's writings from duck hunting expeditions around 1850.
Here's what he wrote about a long, cold night lost in a damp marsh: "On all sides stretched a vast wilderness of tules from 10 to 15 feet in height. The driving storm of sleet was bad, but the pitchy darkness was infinitely worse."
When Whipple and Grossinger read this, they knew they'd struck gold. But not because of the dramatic story, with declarations like, "Our situation was so miserable that no words can do justice to it."
Rather, they uncovered clues in other passages: "The lakes proved to be from 100 to 300 yards in width, as near as we could judge." These details, Grossinger says, reveal a landscape that hasn't existed for some time.
"The delta is probably one of the most intensively transformed parts of California, and it was also changed really early on because of such fertile land," he says.
As the Gold Rush boomed, farmers came to California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for the rich soil. Land went for $1 an acre and settlers drained the wetlands, turning it into dry farmland. That meant the loss of fish and other wildlife.
"We have here maybe one of the most important parts of the state's ecosystem, and we don't actually know how it used to work," Grossinger says.
That's why they've stitched together thousands of historical documents that reveal lost lakes and floodplains. There once were hundreds of miles of tidal channels that branched out like capillaries.
Published 7 months, 2 weeks ago under Rivers to Oceans