On the West Coast, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has no equal. It is the largest estuary to drain into the Pacific Ocean, and the largest single source of California's water supply.
And yet for many who live nearby, access is limited, and the Delta's charms unknown.
That shortcoming will be partially addressed with this weekend's official dedication of the Delta Science Center's new visitor center at the Big Break Regional Shoreline in the Contra Costa County city of Oakley.
The center completes an $11 million project to build a research, education and recreation facility in the Delta that has been decades in the making. It is the first official facility to shine an intensive light on the Delta's unique ecosystem and diverse wildlife.
Operated by the East Bay Regional Parks District, the center offers a key public portal to the Delta's 1,150-square-mile web of channels, levees and islands.
And it offers as much for the walker and hiker as it does for the boater. Much of the Delta's land is agricultural property behind "No Trespassing" signs, and public areas often are reachable only on small, winding levee roads.
The center's opening is also seen as a crucial building block to the eventual completion of a Great Delta Trail. Legislation in 2006 by then-Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, charged the Delta Protection Commission with planning an ambitious multiuse trail system. That system, still incomplete, aims to link San Francisco Bay Area trails to Delta and Sacramento region trails, with the system reaching east to the Sierra foothills, and south to Stockton.
"The opening is timely because its focus is giving people a better understanding of the importance of the Delta," said Mike Machado, executive director of the Delta Protection Commission. "For the public, that understanding has been a challenge because most of the land in the Delta is privately owned."
Recreational small-boat users may have the most intimate knowledge of the Delta, given its 635 miles of waterways served by 95 marinas. A recent study by the Department of Boating and Waterways found that by 2020 there are expected to be 8 million boating-related visitor trips a 25 percent jump over 2000.
Although the Delta Science Center's location on the Big Break Shoreline makes it an ideal launching point for kayakers (there is also a marina nearby for boaters), the center is equally geared to those interested in exploring the Delta on foot. Adjacent to it is a novel 30-by-50-foot map of the Delta that visitors can stand on or walk over. Various trails can be accessed nearby.
"For people in the Valley it will be an interesting outing because of the relief map of the Delta," said Machado. "Because most people drive through the Delta, but they do not necessarily see it."
Hikers have access to flat, paved trails that travel along the south end of Big Break to March Creek. Bicyclists can ride all the way to Dublin.
The science center's opening brings to fruition years of planning and fundraising, said Mike Moran, supervising naturalist with the East Bay Regional Park District.
"We've been doing programs here for the last 20 years, and we've slowly been building up to get to this point," Moran said. "But over the years contributors came and went. People fell off, and their interest turned elsewhere."
Funding for the new 5,500-square-foot visitor center was partially provided by a $2.5 million state grant from Proposition 84, a bond measure that passed in 2006.
"The Big Break Regional Shoreline itself is a beautiful public access area that really gets you into the heart of the Delta," Moran said. "Folks in the Sacramento area are well aware that those are few and far between."
Moran said the science center is akin to a living textbook. Many Delta issues of import such as both invasive and endangered species, water politics and the benefits the region offers can be gleaned with a visit.
"All of that is here in microcosm," Moran said.
The center also adds a piece in the large, uncompleted puzzle that is the thousand-mile Great Delta Trail.
When the trail eventually winds through the Delta, users will likely have to travel by kayak or boat at some points, since right of way will be tricky to secure on private land.
"It's a very exciting eventuality to be able to go all the way through the Delta to the foothills and follow the trail of that water," said Moran.
The visitor center at Big Break Regional Shoreline is open weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For information, go to www.ebparks.org/parks/big_break or call 888-EBPARKS.