I stand in flooded farmland on a dead end dirt road in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Overhead, dozens of greater sandhill cranes make a jagged line against the gray winter sky, descending into the beige fields with an eerie clatter. Snowy egrets and great blue herons stalk the shallow water, while flocks of starlings launch from the roadside and coalesce into great swarms.

The wild avian display here on Staten Island – one of 60 islands scattered across the Delta’s waters – is a jarring contrast to the human drama unfolding across the region. For most people outside this watery region, where the state’s two largest rivers end and its greatest water engineering projects begin, the Delta is typically seen through a veil of conflict – one pitting endangered fish against the needs of water-starved farms in the Central Valley and cities in southern California.

Today that conflict has escalated, as the state faces its most severe drought on record and Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Department of Water Resources push ahead with an ambitious $25 billion plan to re-plumb the Delta, known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP.

And yet, as the Delta’s future hangs in the balance, few Californians seem to grasp what is at stake. Though water from here irrigates some three million acres of farmland and supplies drinking water to over 25 million people, three out of four Californians don’t know where or what the Delta is, much less how it functions in the state’s highly engineered water systems.

Sandhill cranes fly in over Staten Island, an important stopover on the Pacific Flyway in the path of the proposed Delta tunnels.

Can California possibly make good decisions about the fate of this 1,100-square-mile estuary when it remains terra incognita to such a large proportion of its citizenry?

Indeed, from the very first European expedition into its dark heart, the Delta has perplexed travelers. Though I live near its western margin and have visited the watery region numerous times over the years, it still remains a difficult place for me to fathom – a place of maze-like channels, clipped sightlines and mists that seem to emanate from the imagination of Carl Sandburg himself. Last December, in hopes of further allaying my own ignorance, I traveled to the Delta once again, this time to see a small swath of its landscapes and its species, and to speak with a few residents who depend on the integrity of its land and water for survival.

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Like most of the Delta, Staten Island has been reclaimed by way of an intricate system of levees. A “working landscape” acquired in 2001 by the Nature Conservancy, the sanctuary occupies 9,000 acres of intensively cultivated land made habitable for birds through systematic floods meant to mimic natural winter floods that took place before the levees were built.

In addition to being an important migratory stopover, the island also happens to be situated in the proposed path of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s centerpiece twin water delivery tunnels. Each capable of siphoning 75,000 gallons of water per second out of the Sacramento River, the tunnels would deliver the water some 35 miles to pumps in the southern reaches of the Delta.

Touted by Gov. Jerry Brown as a solution to the state’s intractable water conflicts, the BDCP seeks “co-equal” goals: restoring the Delta’s aquatic ecosystems while also enhancing the state’s water supplies.

But there also lies the rub. Critics of the plan, such as local activists Osha Meserve and Erik Ringelberg, question the plausibility of a plan to “restore” the Delta while simultaneously shunting large volumes of water under it. “The whole Delta ecosystem is in bad shape,” says Ringelberg, who works as a biologist with a Sacramento based consultancy firm. “And if you take more water out of a system that is already stressed, you exacerbate the problems.”

The island is an important migratory stopover and is also situated in the proposed path of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s centerpiece twin water delivery tunnels. 

In addition to the tunnels’ great volume, Meserve, an attorney with Sacramento-based firm Soluri Meserve, points out that construction will require the use of massive tunneling machines that will create significant land impacts. “There’s going to be a heck of a lot of disturbance associated with ten years of construction,” she says. “It will sweep through the area with noise, light and glare and create millions of tons of muck that will displace birds and damage what is now good habitat.”

According to the Department of Water Resources, however, a mere one percent of Staten Island would be disturbed by the tunneling and  “the BDCP would implement stringent avoidance and minimization measures year round.” Among these measures are barriers to isolate roost sites from construction zones. The DWR also says the plan would protect an additional 7,000 acres of new crane habitat elsewhere in the Delta.

The triangular summit of Mt. Diablo rises beyond the flooded fields of Staten Island, an important sanctuary for California’s Sandhill cranes

But Ringelberg says it’s not as simple as designating suitable habitat. Each winter, the cranes return to within a few feet of their previous years’ roost sites, he says, and even if tens of thousands of acres of habitat for the birds are protected, there’s no guarantee that they would use it. He points out that it took several years after the establishment of the winter marshes for birds to come to roost on Staten Island. “The construction of the tunnels on Staten Island will be 24-7. With that kind of disturbance, there’s little doubt the birds will leave,” says Ringelberg. “This habitat is simply incompatible with massive industrial activity.”