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The crucial work of restoring Delta habitat is accelerating

Scientists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife tag and measure Chinook salmon captured in Wallace Weir in the Yolo bypass last December.
Scientists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife tag and measure Chinook salmon captured in Wallace Weir in the Yolo bypass last December. Sacramento Bee file

As promised a year ago, the state is at work restoring wildlife habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Suisun Marsh, with six projects targeted for groundbreaking in 2016.

Through the Natural Resources Agency’s California EcoRestore program, state, federal and local interests are restoring tidal wetlands, blocking salmon from straying into dead-end irrigation channels and reconnecting rivers to their floodplains.

In all, the program aims to start restoration of 30,000 acres of habitat in the Delta over the next three years to support the long-term health of native fish and wildlife.

The goal is ambitious given the complexity of the projects, but modest compared to how much has been lost in the estuary that drains almost half of California to the Pacific Ocean.

The Delta was once one of the continent’s largest wetlands, but only 5 percent is left. Despite widespread support for habitat restoration, the pace of effort has been too slow. Fortitude and conviction have been missing at times, so I am thankful for Gov. Jerry Brown’s direction, which has accelerated our pace of restoration.

Ecological borderlands tend to be exceptionally rich in species and productivity, and our Delta was no exception. It once boasted waterfowl and shorebirds in fabulous numbers; a variety of native minnow and perch, otter, badger, beaver, grizzly bear, tule elk; and the iconic species that survive today – salmon, steelhead and sturgeon.

Key to the Delta’s productivity was water on the land – of different salinities and depths, stagnant or flowing, rising and falling in channels big and small with tides and seasons – and the marsh plants and riparian forest that grew to impenetrable density.

Today most of the Delta is farmed and deeply subsided. Levees block rivers and streams from their natural floodplains. Hundreds of species from other states and nations, including largemouth bass and Brazilian waterweed, dominate the ecosystem. The water systems that supply most Californians and much of its farmland divert water from rivers either before they reach the Delta or directly from Delta channels, altering the volume and timing of flows.

Much is lost, but there are places and ways we can return water to the land, curb introduced species and give rivers room to roam.

Cal EcoRestore has already helped fix long-running problems. A $2.5 million project at the 100-year-old Knights Landing Outfall Gates, for example, will keep salmon from straying into the Colusa Basin Drain, which carries runoff from the western Sacramento Valley.

Some of the other projects we hope to launch this year include Tule Red, a restoration of 610 acres of tidal wetlands in the Grizzly Bay region of Suisun Marsh; Twitchell Island, a relocation of a stretch of San Joaquin River levee; Dutch Slough, a restoration of tidal marsh, woodland and upland habitat over almost 2 square miles in the city of Oakley; McCormack-Williamson Tract, a restoration of tidal marsh and habitat where the Mokelumne and Cosumnes rivers and Dry and Morrison creeks converge; Wallace Weir, a replacement of an earthen weir to help keep salmon from straying into a drainage channel; and Hill Slough, the breaching of levees to restore 750 acres of tidal marsh and wildlife habitat on the northern edge of Suisun Marsh.

There are many regulatory, political and financing hurdles, but with continued cooperation among governments and our other partners, we’ll make steady progress on these projects and more. For the vitality of the Delta ecosystem, we must.

Charlton H. Bonham is director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He can be contacted at director@wildlife.ca.gov.

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