UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Conference to explore new ideas for Delta

– The rapid urbanization of flood-prone lands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta - the water supply for nearly 23 million Californians and habitat for over 30 fish species - will be the focus of an upcoming conference at the University of California, Berkeley.

While conferences and meetings about the Delta are commonplace, this symposium on Delta land use is the first in over a decade at which experts will examine the implications of development in the region, said John Cain, director of restoration ecology for the Natural Heritage Institute and a conference participant.

The March 16-17 event, "ReEnvisioning the Delta: The Hub of California's Future," will feature expert presentations and discussion about the region's unique characteristics and history, development pressures, lessons learned from the New Orleans levee breaks, urban runoff, and student proposals for alternative futures for the Delta. It is free and open to the public.

The conference also will look at other regions, such as that of Lake Tahoe, San Francisco Bay and the Santa Monica Mountains - all once threatened by development, but eventually protected by public-private partnerships.

In addition to Cain, speakers will include:

  • Ray Seed, a UC Berkeley civil engineering professor who has been critical of levee reconstruction in New Orleans
  • A representative of the California Building Industry Association
  • The chief of planning and policy for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • The executive director of the California Bay-Delta Authority, the largest water management and ecosystem restoration project in the country
  • A former Rio Vista mayor and member of the Delta Protection Commission
  • The author of the Delta Protection Act
  • A member of the Delta Risk Management Strategy Board.
  • Engineers, professors and emergency services representatives

The Delta is facing "very nuanced problems" as it experiences rapidly accelerating urbanization and faces proposals to build large developments on lands that are below sea level or were under water during the floods of 1997, said Matt Kondolf, a conference organizer and UC Berkeley associate professor of environmental planning and geography. He also is a member of the Environmental Advisory Board for the chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"The Delta is all over the news right now, and the governor thinks he has the answer," said Kondolf. "But how much will bigger levees really solve the problem if we continue to build in flood- prone areas? We hope this conference will shed some light about how to solve the very complex and pressing problems the Delta faces in the wake of Hurricane Katrina."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency over needed Delta levee repairs. He and other politicians are appealing for a similar federal declaration, along with a massive infusion of federal aid, to strengthen the region's levee system to prevent flooding and subsequent disruption or destruction of a major state water source in event of disaster.

"The situation in the Delta is urgent, and the stakes are high," said conference speaker Jane Wolff, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Washington University and author of "The Delta Primer," a book designed to teach different audiences about the region's landscape.

Delta land is sinking and the water is rising, she said, and widespread flooding - a constant threat - could harm farmland, endangered plants and animals, and tens of thousands of homes, she said. Wolff is the Beatrix Farrand Distinguished Visiting Professor at UC Berkeley this spring. She is teaching a studio course about the Delta and will talk about its landscape at the conference.

Her students will be among those entering the Tommy Church Design Competition, named after a UC Berkeley alumnus and influential modernist in landscape architecture. It offers a $5,000 first-place prize for the best potential new strategy to protect the Delta as a major water supply as well as open space, recreation and farmland for the metropolis between San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton that is expected to completely ring the Delta by 2033. The contest's theme is "The California Delta: A Once and Future Park."

Winning entries will be presented at the conference.

The idea, said Kondolf, is for interdisciplinary teams of students - from fields such as economics, urban planning, political science, environmental science and landscape architecture - to develop plans for a Delta of the future that offer alternatives to the construction of additional homes that would be vulnerable to flooding.

"We can hope that students' fresh, creative thinking can jolt some people into understanding the dire threats not just to the Delta's levees, but to numerous systems throughout the entire area," Kondolf said. "And we hope that students can offer new solutions to those problems."

The value of the Delta as open space cannot be underestimated, Kondolf said, suggesting that the Delta could become Northern California's version of Central Park in New York City - but on a much larger scale. When Fredrick Law Olmsted designed Central Park, it probably seemed as improbable to residents of Lower Manhattan as a Delta park might seem to San Franciscans today, he said.

Also at the conference, organizers will present maps showing how the Delta was urbanized very little from the 19th century to the 1980s, but how it has undergone rapid development of its land below sea level in the last two decades.

The conference also will present a detailed map of areas in the Delta where development is proposed, where it's already under construction or approved or within an existing city's sphere of influence and potentially annexable, and what areas are likely to flood in the future under sea level rise.

"Implementing alternatives to the juggernaut of development won't be easy," said Cain. "But the Delta's natural beauty, recreation potential, and importance for California's infrastructure and environment make it essential to find alternative futures for this important, fragile region."

The conference will be held in Room 112 of Wurster Hall on campus, near the intersection of Bancroft Way and College Avenue.