California Sketches: Tangled Delta's tides ever shifting

08/26/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:38 AM

Second in a series

The air is hot, still, silent. The water's surface flawlessly mirrors sky and tules, a dual image of calm that conceals a world of conflict. From the west, tides flow in and out, pushing and pulling – salt water vs. fresh, exotics species vs. native.

The Sacramento River watershed in the northern Central Valley and the San Joaquin in the south merge in a labyrinth of water and islets. A vast tangle of sloughs and canals embodies the confusion as to how water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta should be used and by whom. From the water's surface, monotonous and fragile levees hide sinking farmland and navigational landmarks. With 1,100 miles of waterways that would stretch to Kansas, it's easy to get lost.

The Gold Rush irrevocably changed this estuary. Before man harnessed the value of the Delta, it was tidal and seasonal wetland. An old map reveals what resembles a lung-heart system, and that is how I began to think about the Delta. A shifting zone between ocean and rivers, breathing in and out on every tide, twice a day, it was an incubator, a safe haven for plants and animals. With ominous irony, that breath of tide brings salt from the ocean, ruinous to crops and drinking water. Fresh water exhaling from our rivers is paramount to a healthy system.

Now, forever altered, the Delta functions as a gigantic circulatory system with ever- smaller arteries that also sustain the Central Valley and cities farther south. Water flows into or out of the estuary from and to thousands of man-made dams, pumps, canals, and treatment, reservoir and management facilities all over California. Politics and law have created a shifting tidal zone between policy and science. Delta water is divided between the ocean, agriculture, urban and industry, and those in Southern California. It's more valuable than gold.

The people who live in this world of water, near it and on it, speak about a sense of community, a lifestyle. The bountiful market in Courtland is a vital symbol where neighbors meet and bond, old families with new. Farmers and fishermen, boaters who dock and those who anchor, all share a passion. It is a place of intensity, from harvest colors to light sparkling on water to opinions as to where this precious resource is diverted.

To comprehend this deceptively serene place, walk into a field, smell the earth. Go out on the water, jump in. Listen to the birds and the breezes. Watch the sun set and the moon rise as darkness shrouds both silence and chaos.

The Central Valley Project's pumps and fish screens near Tracy are my southernmost stop on the Delta. Here, water quality is constantly monitored and flows adjusted for levels of fresh water. Conscientious humans rescue smelt and the salmon that have lost their way. Inside, massive pumps lift water to the Delta Mendota Canal, and gravity pulls it south.

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