Delta History in Summary
Back to Snug Harbor
The following information was gleaned from many different resources.
I'd like to thank the volunteers of the Rio Vista Museum for allowing me
to spend time in their private library, which holds very interesting
copies of various government summaries and documents, and local history
essays by the people living in the Delta at the time.
Pre 1772 - this watery area of California was home to native
Indian tribes. Some Chinese historians claim
that the Chinese arrived in this particular area
well before Columbus even sailed to the New World.
1772 - First recorded sighting of Delta by
Fray Juan Crespi and Captain Pedro Farges
1776 - San Carlos -first ship to enter San
1849 - Settlers begin arriving in the
Delta to farm its rich soils while others pass
through on their way to strike gold in the Sierra
foothills. Transportation is by boat, using the Old
Sacramento River and/or Steamboat Slough, depending
on the season and water levels. The town of
Rio Vista begins to be built at the south confluence
of Steamboat and Cache Sloughs, just north of the
Old Sacramento River, at the location of the Ashley
Ferry landing to Ryer Island.
1850 - Congress passes the Federal Swamp
and Overflow Act, which provided for the title of
wetlands to be transferred from the Federal
Government to the states. California, as owner
of the Swamp and Overflow lands, allows for SALE of
the lands to the families already farming the area,
and to other interested investors.
- California accepts surveys and sells off parcels
on island that are already farmed. Ryer Island
(northeast of Rio Vista) which is bordered by
Steamboat Slough, Cache Slough and Miners Slough is
one such island.
California sells the land ON CONDITION that the
buyer must invest in reclaiming the land for farming
and other beneficial uses.
1861 - California Legislature authorizes
the Reclamation District Act, allowing drainage of
Delta lands and construction of sturdier levees.
By this time, there were already natural river-made
levees in some areas (Steamboat Slough one example)
and there were low lying man-made levees that tended
to flood in wet winter months. One of the first waterway improvements in in
California, completed by an agency that later became
the US Army Corps of Engineers, was to create a very
sturdy wood with metal bracing sea wall at the north
end of Steamboat Slough so the steamboats coming
down the Sacramento River could nose up to the sea
wall, tie off and swing their stern around so that
the vessel was heading into Steamboat Slough, and
then go ahead and untie to go on their merry way.
(There are some really funny and fascinating stories
about steamboat passage in the Delta during this
1869 - Sherman Island is the site of the
first coordinated levee system in the Delta,
according to some government documents.
However, natural and privately-made levees are found
all over the Delta. As the various islands
receive improved levees, the neighboring islands
find they need improvement as well, so the farmers
will not be inundated by flood waters bouncing off
the neighboring island with a higher levee.
1879 - Prized by fishermen, the striped
bass is brought by rail from the East Coast to the
Delta. Two more shipments are required before the
fish is established.
- By this time, much of the Delta has been reclaimed
using dredges developed to build levees quickly and
inexpensively. Farmers and landowners build
their own levee systems. Most of the
lands have been sold by the state to private
landowners, for farming and recreational uses.
(By 1930, all but minor areas of
swampland had been leveed and were being farmed.)
1884 - Federal Circuit Court decision in
Woodruff v. North Bloomfield, et al., requires
termination of mining-debris discharges into
California rivers. Hydraulic mining had deposited
tons of silt and sand in Delta channels and upstream
1900 - California's population is
estimated at 1.5 million.
1902 - Congress passes the Reclamation Act
for development of irrigated lands in the western
1911 - The Reclamation Board is created by
the California Legislature to implement a
comprehensive flood-control plan for the Sacramento
and San Joaquin rivers.
1914 - California Legislature passes bill
to revise water-right law regarding appropriation of
1930 - State completes comprehensive
investigation of Delta salinity and its control, and
the State Water Plan (now the Central Valley
Project) to transfer Northern California water
throughout the Central Valley. Levee integrity
becomes important to the State when the legislature
decides to begin transferring Delta water to the
central valley and southern area of the state.
Some of the natural waterways, like Steamboat
Slough, are almost unuseable for boat passage in
summer months because they have silted in with
mining debris discharges.
1933 - Corps of Engineers dredges Stockton
Deep Water Ship Channel to Port of Stockton.
Note that there are "project levees" and
"non-project levees" defined on Delta maps starting
after the Federal Government funds the building up
or raising of levees deemed important to flood
protection. Project levee upgrades are
completed by the early 1950's, but most of the work
was done in the 1930's as part of the "new deal".
- Congress authorizes the Central Valley Project
1933 to 1951 - Dredging of key navigation
rivers of the Delta, like the Sacramento River, San
Joaquin and Steamboat Slough. Project levees
are raised and strengthened to protect the area from
flooding. Federal funding used for these
projects in cooperation with state agencies.
1940 - Export of Delta water begins with
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) completion of the
Contra Costa Canal, the first unit of the CVP.
1944 - Shasta Dam and Reservoir is
completed as a key feature of the CVP; adds water to
Delta channels during low-flow periods, thereby
limiting salinity intrusion.
1951 - Delta export increases with
completion of the Delta-Mendota Canal, another unit
of the CVP.
- USBR constructs the Delta Cross Channel to aid
in transferring water from the Sacramento River
across the Delta to the Tracy Pumping Plant, which
serves the Delta Mendota Canal.
1959 - State Legislature passes the Delta
Protection Act and the Burns-Porter Act to assist in
financing the State Water Project, including Delta
facilities. The SWP, which would increase Delta
exports, was approved by California voters in 1960.
1960 - California voters approve the
Burns-Porter Act (also called the State Water
Project Development Bond Act) authorizing the sale
of $1.75 billion of general obligation bonds to help
finance the SWP. California's population is 15.7
1963 - Corps of Engineers dredges the
Sacramento Deep Water Channel to the port of
1965 - Interagency Delta Committee, formed
in 1961, completed its report recommending various
Delta facilities, including the Peripheral Canal, to
offset adverse effects of increasing Delta exports.
"Adverse effects" of increasing Delta exports
includes many of the same issues the Delta and state
face in the 21st century.
1967 - Oroville Dam and Reservoir is
completed as a key feature of the SWP, and the
Feather River Fish Hatchery is opened to replace
spawning areas lost as a result of the dam.
- The first stage of the Harvey O. Banks Delta
Pumping Plant is completed along with the John E.
Skinner Fish Facility.
1971 - State Water Resources Control Board
(SWRCB) adopts its Delta Water Rights Decision 1379
establishing Delta water quality standards to be met
by the Central Valley Project (CVP) and SWP.
1973 - California Aqueduct completed to
- Legislature passes Senate Bill 541 (also known
as the Way Bill) to provide State financial
assistance for maintenance and improvement of
certain Delta levees.
- Delta Environmental Advisory Committee (DEAC)
concludes that a federal-State Peripheral Canal,
properly designed and operated, is necessary to
protect the Delta. 1978 SWRCB issues Water Right
Decision 1485 updating Delta water-quality standards
and establishing water-quality standards for Suisun
1980 - State Legislature passes Senate
Bill 200 specifying the Peripheral Canal as the
Delta water-transfer facility, requiring staged
construction and fish-screen testing but without
requiring federal participation.
1982 - California voters defeat
Proposition 9, which includes the Peripheral Canal,
the SB 200 package of statewide facilities, and
Delta protection, by a 3-2 margin. 1986 Congress
passes DWR and USBR historic accord, the CVP-SWP
Coordinated Operation Agreement.
- California Supreme Court affirms State Court of
Appeal ruling (Racanelli Decision) strengthening
SWRCB powers to protect the Bay/Delta system. The
Racanelli Decision covered eight cases challenging
SWRCB's Decision 1485, issued in 1978, and its Water
Quality Control Plan for the Delta and Suisun Marsh.
The decision recognizes SWRCB's broad authority and
discretion over water rights and water-quality
issues, including jurisdiction over the federal CVP.
- DWR and the Department of Fish and Game sign
the Delta Pumping Plant fishery mitigation agreement
for direct fish loss.
1987 - DWR installs Middle River Weir as
part of an agreement with the South Delta Water
Agency to improve water conditions for local
agricultural diverters. It is the first component of
a temporary program designed to provide data for a
more permanent solution.
1988 - DWR completes pumping plant for
North Bay Aqueduct and the Suisun Marsh
1988 - Legislature passes Senate Bill 34,
which provides $120 million over a l0-year period
for DWR to rebuild Delta levees, enlarge channels,
and help reclamation districts make levee
- An engineering study by the California Urban
Water Agencies examines options for improving
drinking water quality for users of Delta water.
1990 - California's population is now 29.8
million. (1990, U.S. Census)
1991 - Construction completed on four
additional pumping units at the Banks Pumping Plant.
1992 - The Legislature passes the Delta
Protection Act of 1992 establishing the Delta
Protection Commission. The commission is to develop
a comprehensive, long-term resources management plan
for the Delta by July 1, 1994.
- Congress passes the Central Valley Project
Improvement Act (PL 102-575), which allows water
transfers from CVP contractors to other water users,
reforms water pricing, and commits up to 800,000
acre-feet annually to fish and wildlife purposes.
- Governor establishes Bay-Delta Oversight
Committee for long-term Delta planning.
1993 - The Delta Smelt is listed as a
threatened species, and actions are defined (such as
pulse flows on the Sacramento River and limitations
on certain flows within the Delta) to improve
conditions for the smelt and the winter-run salmon.
2000 - Salmon, striper and Delta Smelt
populations are in decline according to F&G
estimates. One of the growing problems is the
invasion of non-native species of water plants or
weeds beginning to clog the delta waterways.
Another problem is the introduction of a non-native
crab that is aggressively eating the native clams
and crawdads thereby removing the natural food
sources for the native fish.
Southern California looses at least 15% of its
water rights from the Colorado River, so farmers and
communities begin to ask for additional water
resources from the Delta system.
2001- DWR begins requiring marinas,
campgrounds, resorts and restaurants in the Delta
area (and all over California) to chlorinate their
wells to provide "safe" drinking water.
However, no consideration is made for the effects to
the ecosystem from all the chlorinated water runoff
assumed as a result of the new requirements.
2004 - After years of legal battles with
environmental groups, Department of Boating and
Waterways is finally allowed to treat Delta
waterways in an attempt to eradicate plant species
that are clogging the waterways and are not original
area vegetation. In the meantime, there is a
"sunny day" flood in June in the Delta....but it was
for a study of the effects of flooding Delta islands
to use the islands as in-Delta water storage.
The media makes a big deal about the flood, ignoring
the real reason for the field study on surface
storage in the Delta. Note that there are also
several different proposals to divert more
Sacramento River water before it ever gets to the
Delta, which will also reduce Delta freshwater flow.
Seventeen years ago, environmentalists sued the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation, accusing the
agency of violating state
law by not letting enough
water flow to maintain the
historic salmon population.
In October 2004, a
federal judge in Sacramento
agreed. Angrily protesting,
farmers, mayors and
businesspeople pointed out
that their towns, jobs and
crops have relied on San
Joaquin River water for
decades, and that some of
the state's fastest growing
cities are in the Central
competing claims will be
central when trial on how
much water should be
released begins in U.S.
District Court in Sacramento
in February 2006.
2005 - Due to numerous floods from levee
breaks in Louisiana caused by Hurricanes Katrina and
Rita, California begins to refocus on the condition
of the deteriorating levees of the Delta region.
Many bills, bonds and other proposals are put before
- Export of water from the Delta is limited due to
the tremendous decline in the fish and natural
environment of the Delta, directly attributed to
excessive water exports. However the state
continues to plan how to divert more water from the
Delta. A very large landowner of the
lower Central Valley area makes a big medial deal
about getting less water, even though the farmers of
the west side of the San Joaquin valley only have
secondary water rights, and the governor decides to
declare the state is "in a drought" as defined by
the governor...not a true drought based on
historical precipitation in the state, but a
political drought to drum up political support for
CalFed and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan which
creates a "central canal" through the middle of the
Delta, basically splitting it east and west.
- Legislation is passed by the state creating a huge new and
additional level of bureacacy to further manage water in California.
The stated goal is to balance the export of Delta water with ecosystem
restoration...legislating conflicting goals, and assuring legal funding,
legal battles and further decline of the Delta as everyone argues over
what the legislation will allow and who gets to decide. Authority
to do whatever he/she/they want is given away by the state
representatives and put into the hands of non-elected officials.
In the meantime, newspaper media owners in California go through a huge
transition where 2/3 of the newspapers go through bankruptsy and end up
being owned by their "lender" or unclear buyers...the online media
resources take over in time for the elections. BofA had been
bought by a North Carolina banking family, and BofA had been the lender
of record for some of those major newspaper companies. The
"publisher" of a paper used to mean the owner. These days
"publisher" means "manager" and its pretty hard to find out who owns and
controls the overall content of the news source! One thing for
sure, the California media has a united voice against the Delta as it is
today, and in favor of diverting more water away from the Delta!
- Central Canal construction continues (called the "Preferred
Alternative" in the 2000 CALFED Record of Decision) which creates a
canal through the center of the Delta, splitting the Delta region east
and west. The conservation portion of planning gets delayed...the
BDCP committees are said to have stopped meeting for many months once
the new governor took office. However, a commission called the
Delta Stewardship Council continues to meet.
- Delta farmers, businesses, marina/RV resorts, land owners are
all inundated with hundreds of thousands of planning reports and several
"local" eir/eis planning projects all happening at once. In
addition, Senator Feinstein is pushing to make the Delta a National
Heritage Area, which the majority of Delta land owners are against, at
least according to local talk.