The Sacramento-San Joaquin deltas of 1772 and today

Remembering explorers past of this California water source.

  • The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which consists of 16 rivers and hundreds of creeks, has proven challenging for 18th century explorers and modern-day water policymakers alike.

    Max Whittaker/Prime

When Padre Juan Crespi first sighted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 1772, he thought he would be able to walk around it.

The Spanish missionary and his party of 15 soldiers had been dispatched to find a land route from Monterey to Point Reyes, where Spain hoped to build a port. But 10 days into their journey, in the heart of Alta California, Crespi and his men encountered a maze of water, mud and swamp, instead of solid ground. It was the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

Crespi expected the estuary to function like others he had seen, fragmenting into dozens of small braided channels fanning out toward the sea. Upstream, he figured, they would find a single channel to cross.

But this estuary did the opposite. As Crespi traveled upstream, the water spread out, and his hopes thinned. On foot and horseback for three days in March, he and his companions searched fruitlessly for a way through the tangle of channels.

"Crossing these rivers by boat or canoe would be apt," a chastened Crespi wrote in his diary. "Because if you do not, it's (necessary) to climb the mountains to the southeast and seek the path of the large river. To climb such a high pass certainly requires a greater number of soldiers and more provisions, which is why I withdrew."

Crespi was the first European to glimpse this odd California landscape, and the first of many to be confounded by it.

Sixteen rivers and hundreds of creeks converge from all over California on the Delta's vast central plain – all mud, tules and marsh – finally forming one mighty river that drains the state's whole churning belly. It's called an "inverted" estuary because its waterways unite before reaching the sea. The only place comparable is the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

When Crespi encountered the estuary, its floodplain extended 100 miles north and south, filling the Central Valley with a wealth of snowmelt, all of it destined to squeeze through the land gap later called Golden Gate. Within a century of Crespi's expedition, European settlers were trying to engineer their own logic into the place, trenching new channels and building levees to create some of the world's richest farmland. Today, the Delta is crossed by three state highways and hundreds of miles of railroad tracks and county roads. There are 1,100 miles of navigable channels, and 72 islands ringed by levees. Modern charts detail where to anchor, where to catch the best striped bass, where to find the most convenient bridges and ferries.

But the levees may be vulnerable to earthquakes. If they fail, the water supply would be compromised by a flood of salty water from San Francisco Bay. And rising sea levels could taint the water supply permanently.

The Delta, which still covers an area the size of Rhode Island, provides half of all the freshwater consumed by a thirsty state, serving 3 million acres of farmland and 25 million Californians from Silicon Valley to San Diego. Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to better serve them by spending $15 billion on a new water-diversion system. If approved this year, it would shunt a portion of the Sacramento River out of the estuary into two giant tunnels, 30 miles long and 150 feet underground. The intent is to divert freshwater in a way less harmful to imperiled native fish species, while protecting those diversions from floods, earthquakes and a rising sea. The tunnels would serve existing state and federal canal systems that begin in the south Delta, near Tracy, and divert water to cities and farms, mostly in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Another $10 billion would go to wildlife habitat improvements, in part to breach levees and restore tidal action to some islands. The state believes the proposed tunnel intakes would be far enough upstream to protect the water supply from disaster, at least under present climate-change scenarios. The intakes would also include modern fish screens, potentially preventing the extinction of the native Delta smelt, spring-run chinook salmon and other species that are being killed by the current water export system.

But after seven years of study, state officials acknowledge that removing so much freshwater upstream may cause "unquantifiable" water-quality changes. Meanwhile, critics say taking so much freshwater from the estuary could harm Delta farms and perhaps concentrate pollutants in a way that hurts the same fish that state officials hope to restore. The Delta continues to confound.

Forty-five years after Crespi turned back, Padre Narciso Durán came through with two small boats on an expedition led by Lt. Don Luis Arguello. They left the Spanish presidio, or fort, at San Franciso, which was established three years after Crespi's visit. Their trip through the watery maze began on May 13, 1817, and lasted two weeks. Durán, who kept a journal, came along to baptize Indians.

His party had a hard time from the start: They set out in a storm, and the boats became separated at the confluence. The storm blew Arguello onto the shore of the San Joaquin River, near its mouth. Durán and a second padre, in the other boat, took refuge for the night on a soggy mound of tules in the middle of the Sacramento.

When the storm finally quit and the boats were reunited, another challenge arose. It was snowmelt season, and the downstream current in the Sacramento River was so strong that it nearly halted their progress. Without wind, days of brutal rowing followed, with little upstream progress to show for it.

On top of that, the men experienced a condition that plagues Delta visitors to this day: They became disoriented.

Seeking to remain on the Sacramento River, the party soon encountered a variety of branching side-channels. They could not be sure which one was the river itself. Because the Delta was in flood, the true riverbanks and many of the natural islands were submerged. A gap in the trees that looked like a river channel might turn out to be a flooded island where a boat would quickly run aground. "The thick leafiness makes the whole river like a tree-lined promenade," Durán remarked.

The next day, May 16, they traveled only four leagues upriver. They also took a wrong turn and left the Sacramento on a side channel – a serious mistake, as any detour meant more labor for the rowers. Eventually, though, they got lucky and recovered their course.

Familiarity with this labyrinth benefitted the locals, who fled on rafts as soon as they spotted the expedition boats. The Europeans found two villages vacated, either because of the spring flood or because word had spread that the Indians might be conscripted as laborers in the Spanish missions.

Occupants of a third village "fled at the noise of the launches, leaving only two old women, more than 60 years old."

Durán felt obliged to baptize both women, "because it seemed to us that they could die before Divine Providence could arrange another convenient time when we could baptize them in one or another of the missions."

Durán, who was no naturalist, made no effort to identify important land features or tree species, and does not mention sighting any animals. But the Delta was teeming with wildlife in a way that is difficult to imagine today: Vast herds of elk and pronghorn antelope roamed here, hunted by wolf and grizzly bear. Giant tidal marshes, packed with tules and cattails, hosted millions of waterfowl. The maze of curving sloughs was a nursery for one of the world's most productive fisheries.

The Delta remains the most important salmon fishery on the West Coast, producing most of the wild-caught king salmon in the Lower 48 states. Yet it may not survive. There are 57 endangered species here, including steelhead trout and two runs of salmon.

Modern-day Californians are as oblivious to the region's natural wealth as Durán seemed to be. A January 2012 survey found that 78 percent of California residents don't know where the Delta is, or even what it is.

The day after baptizing the two women, Durán and his party reached their turnaround point. They hoped to find a place to erect a cross, "and there to end our quest and retreat downriver." After rowing upriver three more leagues, they pulled ashore to rest, where, by chance, they spotted some rafts in the tules and a village of Natives, "who came out at them armed with their customary fierce clamor."

Arguello mustered his soldiers to confront the Indians, who "calmed down, to everyone's relief, and said they had armed themselves believing we were hostile people." The travelers were invited to visit a larger village one league upriver, where they were promised fish.

But Durán and his cohorts, possibly disoriented, never found the second Indian village, and never got the promised fish. Exhausted and frustrated, they were ready to turn back. Amid the flood, they could find no solid ground to erect a cross. So they carved one on an oak tree.

The exact location of that cross is unknown today. But according to Durán's diary, they carved it about 80 miles upstream from the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, or approximately near today's state capital, Sacramento, where Gov. Brown weighs the fate of the Delta today.

Matt Weiser covers environmental issues for The Sacramento Bee and has written about the Delta and California water for 15 years.

The contemporary translation of Crespi and Durán's journals is by Alexa Mergen.

M/M Warren Anderson
M/M Warren Anderson Subscriber
Feb 19, 2014 03:33 PM
"Vast herds of elk and pronghorn antelope roamed here..." This is balderdash. Pronghorn Antelope are creatures of the western sagebrush steppe. Their historic range and the extent of western giant sagebrush, artemesia tridentata, are the same. They were all over the west, even in California, EXCEPT in habitats like the Sacramento delta. They were never in swamps. Anybody that knows anything about pronghorns knows that this is BS.
Jonathan Day
Jonathan Day Subscriber
Feb 21, 2014 07:04 PM
"The Delta remains the most important salmon fishery on the West Coast, producing most of the wild-caught king salmon in the Lower 48 states."
Do you have a source for this claim? I find it very hard to believe...
M/M Warren Anderson
M/M Warren Anderson Subscriber
Feb 24, 2014 07:38 AM
Didn't the HCN have an article recently saying that the commercial fishermen didn't fish two years ago and caught a handful of fish last year to make a symbolic gesture to pretend that the commercial fishery for king salmon still exists?
Matt Weiser
Matt Weiser
Feb 24, 2014 05:52 PM
Pronghorn antelope may not be generally known as swamp dwellers. But there is no doubt that herds of pronghorn frequented the edges of the California Delta -- near enough to make them an important food source for explorers and immigrants. Numerous historical accounts reference this. Keep in mind, the Delta was a giant floodplain, meaning vast areas flooded in winter would be dry in summer. Pronghorn were often seen in large numbers in these areas. Witness this Sept. 15, 1848, diary entry by Edwin Bryant, who rounded the southern edge of the Delta, near present-day Stockton, with an immigrant party: "Large tracts of the land are evidently subject to annual inundations. About noon we reached a small lake surrounded by tule. There being no trail for our guidance, we experienced some difficulty in shaping our course so as to strike the San Joaquin River at the usual fording-place. This afternoon we saw several large droves of antelope and deer. Game of all kinds appears to be very abundant in this rich valley."
Matt Weiser
Matt Weiser
Feb 24, 2014 05:54 PM
I should have clarified that my statement about salmon refers to the ocean catch for Chinook (king) salmon, and in that department the Sacramento River is clearly king. First, when it comes to wild-caught Chinook produced in the lower 48 states, there are really only two players: The Columbia River and the Sacramento River. One basic idea to understand about these species is how they travel in the ocean. Lots of Sacramento River fish tend to travel north and are caught off Oregon's coast. But Columbia River salmon also mostly travel north and, therefore, compose a relatively small share of the Oregon catch. In California, the 2013 ocean commercial and recreational catch of Chinook salmon was an estimated 410,687 fish, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The catch in Washington and Oregon combined was 264,461. (These are "landings" of fish caught offshore and recorded as brought to port in each state.) Keeping in mind that the latter figure includes some Sacramento River fish caught in Oregon, the difference is actually even greater. The numbers vary wildly each year, but in most years, the California ocean catch exceeds Oregon and Washington. Let me add a couple more notes of clarification. I'm talking only about ocean harvest. The Columbia includes a substantial in-river commercial fishery, and a good share of this is a tribal fishery, whereas only recreational fishing is allowed in the Sacramento River. Also, many Columbia River fish head north in the ocean and are caught and landed in Canada and Alaska. If you add these components, the Columbia River fishery is larger.

Also, it is correct that the California salmon fishery was closed for the first time ever, in 2008 and 2009, due to a population crash in the fall-run Chinook species. The allowed catch was gradually ramped up thereafter, and has exceeded pre-crash levels for the past two years. I’m not aware of any instance in which salmon were caught merely as a “symbolic gesture.” A commercial salmon fishery definitely still exists in California.
Liana Aker
Liana Aker Subscriber
Feb 27, 2014 01:04 PM
Take a chill pill Mister Anderson.
Liana Aker
Liana Aker Subscriber
Feb 27, 2014 01:11 PM
I am currently reading Battling the Inland Sea: Floods, Public Policy, and the Sacramento Valley by Robert Lloyd Kelley so this is a timely story for me as I educate myself on the seriously-complex California fresh water issues. Unfortunately, not too many success stories from the looks of it so far and it's a wonder how we never seem to learn from others' past mistakes...or atleast, our legislators don't.
Brian Holt
Brian Holt
Feb 27, 2014 01:16 PM

A thought that has been kicking around my mind of late - What did John Muir think of the Delta?


Muir's preservation legacy in the Sierra is profound and I can't imagine any one questioning the importance his efforts to save Yosemite. However, from an ecologic and biodiversity point of view, one has to wonder what Muir, the naturalist, felt about what was occuring in the Delta during his treks to the mountains. Not to diminish the awe of Yosemite, but the Delta was a far greater powerhouse of natural wonder that witnessed it's dawn long before Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Muir married into the Strentzel family and moved to Martinez, CA on the Carquinez Straits in 1880. His trek's to the Sierra surely traversed lands actively being reclaimed throughout the Delta. He must ahve witnessed the decline of waterfowl, diminished salmon runs, and channelization of once free flowing Delta tributaries. Perhaps he arrived too late, but an argument could be made that if Muir demonstrated the same reverence and passion for the Delta and fought for it's natural state it may not be in the condition we find it today.

I have not been able to find any of his writings that address the Delta. Perhaps another installment in the series remembering explorers past of this California water source?
Matt Weiser
Matt Weiser
Feb 27, 2014 02:26 PM
Liana: "Blattling the Inland Sea" is an important book. Not easy reading at times, but essential to understand how the Central Valley landscape was shaped to serve man.

Brian: Excellent question! I have not come across any writing by Muir about the Delta. He does mention the southern periphery in one of his books, perhaps it was "My First Summer in the Sierra", where he talks about walking across the hills around Altamont Pass on his way to the Sierra, then down into the northern San Joaquin Valley, where he catches a ferry across the San Joaquin River. He mentions, as I recall, that the entire valley at that time was carpeted in wildflowers and high grass as far as he could see. You don't see that anymore!