During a journey to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1772, the explorers Pedro Farges and Father John Cresspi wrote to the Spanish Crown of their sighting of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from Mount Diablo. They described the Delta as a “great inland lake that stretched farther than the eye could see abounding with game, fish and fowl of all kinds.” However, Spanish explorers were certainly not the first to know about the natural abundance within the region.
The Bay-Delta Native American Population neared 50,000 prior to the arrival of the Spanish, but dwindled within 100 years of the Delta’s European “discovery” as a result of the spread of diseases like measles. It was also within this time that Delta wildlife began supporting the fur-trade industry. Noted North American adventurer Jedediah Smith trapped Delta beaver, otter, and mink, and told tales of the wealth of the animal pelts found within the Delta during his visits to outposts and forts.
Toward the end of the era of California gold, miners became farmers and settled throughout the Delta. Federal Laws in combination with the Delta’s rich soil served as the incentive for settlers to begin draining and reclaiming marshland. Under the constant threat of flooding, farmers hired Chinese laborers, who began the unending task of building and maintaining Delta levees.
New technology developed in the later part of the 19th century, including pumps and mechanical dredging, converted the Delta into a prime agricultural area. By 1900, 250,000 were reclaimed for farming. By the mid 20th century, nearly 500,000 acres had been converted into farmland – all being accomplished by local interests.
During this time, commercial fishing flourished within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Striped bass, shad, and white catfish were introduced to the Delta and flourished along with salmon and the native Delta smelt. Until the early 20th century, nearly two dozen canneries processed 5 million pounds of salmon annually from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
During the 1930s, after Californians authorized the Central Valley Project (CVP), a plan to supply water through state reservoirs and a hydraulic barrier to repel seawater intrusion into the Delta, the federal government altered the plan and constructed the CVP without features for salinity control. Instead, the CVP was built for flood control and navigation, water supply for Central Valley agricultural purposes, municipal water supplies throughout the state, and hydroelectric power generation. During the 1950s, the state then authorized the State Water Project (SWP), which provides water to the North and South Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, and urban centers in Southern California. By 1996, the combined total of water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via the CVP and the SWP reached about 9.7 million acre-feet annually, transforming the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into a primary water source for over 20 million Californians.
These water diversions, however, have dynamically altered the Delta’s water quality, increasing the salinity of water used for irrigation by Delta farmers. Current scientific findings also show that pumping from the Delta has contributed significantly to the decline in Delta fish populations, especially during the last seven years.
Leaders with Restore the Delta want to see water exports reduced to levels that will protect Delta agriculture and restore fisheries in order to protect the region’s natural heritage and economy. Restore the Delta seeks to promote water conservation by all groups throughout California so that water shared from the Delta is used efficiently. Restore the Delta is seeking assurances from government agencies that enough fresh water will be returned and left within the Delta to preserve and improve the ecosystem for future generations.