Report: Rapid Urbanization Threatening Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta's Health

Urban development in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta poses a major threat to the delta's health and sustainability, according to a report released on March 15 by the University of California, Berkeley-based (UC Berkeley) 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.

The document, "Re-envisioning the Delta: Alternative Futures for the Heart of California," details the rapid urbanization that current trends suggest could add up to 3.8 million people -- more than the entire current population of Connecticut -- and affect the five counties that contain the delta (Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Solano and Yolo) by 2050.

Even before this massive growth, development proposals are bumping up against the primary zone of the delta, approximately 500,000 acres where development has been limited since the 1992 Delta Protection Act.

The report presents a comprehensive map on the 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," said Bill Eisenstein, director of the Delta Initiative, a multi-year 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," said 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 added.

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 report and additional information can be accessed at http://landscape.ced.berkeley.edu/~delta.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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