UC Berkeley News


The case for immediate action against Delta urbanization
There's still a basis for hope, say Delta Initiative principals, if political will and resources can be mustered

| 21 March 2007

Urban development in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta poses a major threat to the Delta's health and sustainability, according to a report released last week by the Berkeley-based Delta Initiative.


The report argues that urbanization is occurring so quickly, and is so harmful to the Delta, that the state should form a Delta land trust immediately to begin acquiring parcels and flood easements at fair market value.

ReEnvisioning the Delta: Alternative Futures for the Heart of California details the rapid urbanization that, given current trends, could add as many as 3.8 million people - more than the entire current population of Connecticut - to the five-county Delta region by 2050.

Even now, ahead of this projected growth, development proposals are bumping up against the Delta's "primary zone," a nearly 500,000-acre area where development has been limited since the 1992 Delta Protection Act.

Mapping the risks

The report presents the first comprehensive map of urbanization risk in the Delta. It shows widespread development pressure that could place tens of thousands of people and homes in the path of potential floods, reduce Delta water quality (including that of water exported to the rest of the state), severely limit flood-control options to protect the existing urbanized areas, increase flood risks in the central and western Delta, and greatly reduce long-term management flexibility for the area's ecosystem.

"The Delta is in a state of crisis, and now is the time to take action," says Bill Eisenstein, director of the Delta Initiative, a multiyear campus research-and-planning effort to understand regional and statewide consequences of Delta urbanization and to explore alternatives. "Local planning has failed to protect the Delta from the negative impacts of rapid urbanization, and these impacts will exacerbate the existing problems with ecological health, water-supply reliability, and levee stability."

Despite the rapid pace of urbanization, "there is still reason for hope," says John Cain, a member of the Delta Initiative and director of restoration programs for the Natural Heritage Institute. "Other similarly difficult resource problems were successfully resolved in the past. Achieving a solution will require political will, resources, and perhaps new institutions."

A well-funded Delta land trust could make substantial progress in protecting the Delta through the acquisition of easements, even without any regulatory authority, Cain adds.

Recreation and open-space potential

The report also presents a number of positive visions of the Delta's future. Drawing on case studies of land and resource conservation from around the United States, including the Santa Monica Mountains, the Everglades, Lake Tahoe, and even Central Park in New York, the report argues that the Delta has enormous potential as a recreational and open-space asset for Northern California.

The winning entries from the 2006 Thomas Church landscape- architecture design competition at Berkeley are described in the report and present compelling visions of the Delta's future.

"The long-term vision for the Delta should include more than the water supply and ecological problems," says Matt Kondolf, associate professor of environmental planning and a Delta Initiative member. "The Delta encompasses critical transportation and infrastructure corridors and is an equally important agricultural, recreational, and open-space asset. We need to re-envision and redesign the Delta to balance a host of competing social, economic, and ecological needs."

Release of ReEnvisioning the Delta followed Delta Initiative experts' testimony before a hearing of the California Assembly Environmental and Toxics Committee, the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, and the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.

Testimony centered on four alternative visions for the Delta that resulted from "The Great Delta Charrette," an October 2006 design workshop hosted by the Delta Initiative. That event drew together 19 key Delta experts to develop land-use, infrastructure, and levee configurations intended to make the region resilient to threats posed by earthquakes, river floods, and climate change.

The four plans share critical features, including:

. Prevention of urbanization in the Delta's primary zone.

. Restoration of wetlands and riparian corridors throughout the Delta, especially among the western Delta islands and along the main stems of the Delta's rivers.

. Creation of a flood bypass on the San Joaquin River and expansion of the Yolo Bypass.

. Preservation of agriculture as the region's dominant land use.

. Expansion of recreational and tourist assets to diversify the regional economy.

The charrette clearly demonstrated the value of spatial visioning by focusing attention on specific spatial-planning options and dilemmas that can be the subject of stakeholder dialogue, according to Eisenstein. The Delta Initiative is discussing the possibility of holding another charrette this May as part of the state-led Delta Vision process.

Assemblywoman Lois Wolk (D-Davis), who chairs the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and is a member of the Delta Protection Commission, says she welcomes the Delta Initiative report: "The impact of urbanization is one of the most critical threats facing the Delta. The more information we have, the better equipped policymakers will be in charting a course. The academic community has an important role to play on this issue."

ReEnvisioning the Delta and "The Great Delta Charrette" are both online at landscape.ced.berkeley.edu/~delta.