New-Look Lowlands : Delta Development Raises Concerns About Wildlife and Potential Floods


In all of California, there is no more remarkable area than the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta--1,100 square miles of waterways, rich agricultural lands and historic towns--where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers converge before emptying into San Francisco Bay.

Some of the Delta has not changed in 100 years--small towns like Clarksburg or Isleton or Rio Vista on the Sacramento River south of the capital, for example, or the peaceful, empty islands that make up much of the Delta’s land mass.

Generations of Californians have raised corn and pears, sugar beets and asparagus in the rich Delta soil, or have enjoyed boating or fishing on the rivers and sloughs that meander through the region.

But today the environmentally sensitive, flood-prone Delta--the transfer point for water flowing from Northern California to thirsty Central California farms and Southern California cities--is undergoing massive development that may change its character forever.


Thousands of new residents are moving into cities on the edge of the estuary and even onto Delta islands below sea level, as median housing prices in the San Francisco Bay Area climb well past $200,000 and buyers look eastward for something they can afford.

Cities like Stockton and Tracy are exploding with new housing tracts, while in the Delta itself, rickety fishing shacks belonging to “river rats” are giving way to $500,000 waterfront homes.

Although precise figures are hard to come by, at least 75,000 new housing units are well along in the development pipeline in the five-county area that touches on the Delta. The State Department of Water Resources estimates that about 330,000 people now live in the Delta.

New subdivisions are springing up north and south of Stockton, on the eastern side of the Delta. The “Fat City” of John Huston’s 1972 movie, a city of bums and boxers willing to risk their lives for small paychecks, is just barely visible beneath the new housing tracts and the downtown redevelopment projects.


Additional thousands of new dwelling units have been approved by Contra Costa County, at the western end of the Delta, on levee-protected islands that have flooded frequently in the past.

So far there has not been much new development in the Delta portions of Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties, but real estate brokers and other local sources say many large new projects are being planned.

“A big blob of development is encroaching on the Delta from all sides,” said Dwight Sanders, director of planning and research for the California State Lands Commission.

Jan S. Stevens, a deputy state attorney general, added: “A public estuary is turning into a series of private waterfront developments.”

County planners in the region say they would prefer not to approve new housing tracts in the flood-prone Delta, but rapid population growth--coupled with the desire of many Delta property owners to develop their land--leaves them little choice.

In Contra Costa County, the planning commission has approved construction of 5,000 new dwelling units on Bethel Island and adjacent Hotchkiss Tract--both of which lie largely below sea level.

“We have historically left that area alone,” said Karl Wandry, deputy director of the Contra Costa County Community Development Department, referring to Bethel Island and Hotchkiss Tract. “But some people in the Bethel Island community are pushing pretty hard for development. It isn’t just a bunch of developers marching in and taking over. There’s a pretty hard push from within the community, too.”

But Claire T. Dedrick, former executive officer of the State Lands Commission, called this encroachment on the Delta “the most important environmental crisis that is around right now.”


In addition to the usual difficulties that accompany urban development anywhere--traffic snarls, reduced air and water quality, inadequate sewers and overcrowded schools--the Delta presents unique problems.

Environmentalists say Delta wildlife, which includes 200 species of birds and 45 kinds of fish, would be adversely affected by urban development.

Several species, including the giant garter snake, the Swainson’s hawk, the sandhill crane and a bird called the black rail, already are on the state’s endangered list. Delta development also poses a threat to migrating waterfowl.

“We’re concerned about the increasing loss of migratory wildlife habitat,” said Dick Daniel, assistant chief of environmental services in the Department of Fish and Game.

“Waste grains and insects are very important food supplies that help to prepare the birds for the rigors of migration to their breeding grounds in Alaska and Northern Canada. . . . When you cover the feeding areas with cement, the birds don’t come there any more,” Daniel said.

When the Department of Fish and Game tried to persuade Stockton developer Alex Spanos to set aside 600 acres of a proposed 1,300-acre development north of the city to preserve three nests of the rapidly disappearing Swainson’s hawk, both the developer and the city rejected the request. The state agency did not sue to protect the hawks, one official said, because “We didn’t have our act together. We just have too many projects to consider, and some things slip by us.”

Daniel said Delta development also poses a threat to striped bass, salmon, Delta smelt and other species that have made the region a fisherman’s paradise.

Other environmental problems are presented by the Delta’s role as the key transfer point for Northern California water headed south. About 40% of all of California’s fresh water supply flows out of the Sierra into the Delta.


In 1986, the California Supreme Court ruled that existing standards for Delta water salinity, temperature and toxic pollution were inadequate and ordered the State Water Resources Control Board to set new standards.

But after more than three years of studies and hearings, the board has been unable to agree on policies that both protect the Delta and also ensure an adequate flow of water through the huge state and federal aqueducts that take water south.

But the most dangerous problem presented by large-scale development in the Delta is flooding. Most of the 1,100 miles of levees in the region are aged structures built of peat and other unstable materials.

“Virtually every island in the Delta has failed (been flooded) in the last 100 years, some of them several times,” said Curtis L. Fossum, senior staff counsel for the State Lands Commission.

Karl Winkler, chief of the Delta planning branch in the Department of Water Resources, said there have been 24 levee breaks in the Delta since 1980, costing more than $100 million to repair.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the national flood insurance program, says the only levees in the entire region that meet federal standards are those at Discovery Bay.

Breaks are not the only danger. The old peat levees, many built by Chinese laborers in the 1800s for agricultural purposes, are subject to subsidence (that is, they sink into the soft peat below) and to “over-topping” (floodwaters simply rise too high and jump the levee banks, as they did in many Delta areas during the fierce winter storms of 1986).

To strengthen all Delta levees would cost at least $1 billion, said Ray Lenaburg, who oversees the national flood insurance program in FEMA’s San Francisco office.

And if even the most cautious estimates of the effect of “global warming” are correct, then the flood danger in the Delta becomes more acute.

Studies indicate that “the existing problem of protecting low-lying lands in the Delta are going to be increased substantially, even if the lower range of the estimates of sea-level rise are used,” said Phillip Williams, a consulting hydrologist from San Francisco.

Technically, it is possible to protect Delta lowlands against floods, but it would require “a huge investment,” Williams added.

Developer L.E. (Bud) Weisenburg, who wants to breach a levee on Bethel Island and build 550 expensive waterfront homes, said the Delta flood threat has been exaggerated.

Weisenburg plans to move 3 million cubic yards of dirt and sand to build new levees that are 10 feet high and 270 feet wide at the base. Weisenburg says the levees will be impenetrable to flooding.

But Williams pointed out that if the levees are not as effective as Weisenburg believes they will be, or are damaged by an earthquake, “The developer will be long gone and the community will have to pay for any upgrading that is done.”

“People who live here accept the flood danger,” said Christine Thresh, secretary of the Bethel Island Municipal Improvement District.

But only about 2,500 people now live on the island and adjacent Hotchkiss Tract, while the planned new developments would increase the population to more than 17,000.

“Putting new (housing) units on an island that’s entirely below sea level--that’s crazy, it really is,” said Sanders of the State Lands Commission.

Nevertheless, Delta builders and developers--and their allies on local planning commissions, city councils and county boards of supervisors--believe in development.

“I’d like to see a banner on the main street that says, ‘Stockton is open for business!’ ” said Ron Coale, a member of the Stockton City Council. “We have the land, we have the labor. We are coming out of an agrarian society into a business society--the sooner we recognize that, the better off we’ll be.”

There are a few dissenting voices, including that of Barbara Fass, mayor of Stockton since 1985.

“Developers come forth with their projects and the City Council basically rubber-stamps whatever they want,” Fass said. “Part of it is money but a bigger part is flattery--council members forget that when they are invited to Fritz Grupe’s carriage house (the elegant home of Stockton developer Greenlaw (Fritz) Grupe Jr.) for a party, it’s the seat that’s being invited, not them.”

Environmentalist organizations like the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the San Francisco-based Greenbelt Alliance have had some success in fending off or delaying development they find undesirable.

In Stockton, the Land Utilization Alliance--a coalition of environmental groups--has sued the Grupe Company and other large developers to gain public access to levees and waterways that these developers have attempted to seal off. But the low-budget, all-volunteer organization is overmatched in most of these confrontations.

The Stockton development community is strong “and the effective counterbalance is just not there,” said John Carlson, the city’s community development director. “That makes it tough for us to do our jobs. We’re dealing with developers and nobody else. There’s zippo on the other side.”

At the federal level, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worries about flood prevention in the Delta and about keeping open the deep-water channels that connect San Francisco Bay with the inland ports of Stockton and West Sacramento. But the Corps generally has tried to accommodate growth and development, not question whether it should take place.

For the most part, that also has been the state’s approach during the seven years of the Deukmejian Administration.

“Under Deukmejian, agencies are discouraged from looking into the environmental aspects of these things,” said Corey Brown of the Planning and Conservation League, the oldest environmental lobbying group in Sacramento.

In the mid-1970s, during the administration of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., the Department of Water Resources produced a “Delta Master Recreation Plan” urging that most of the Delta be preserved for agriculture, open space and recreation and that development be sharply limited.

But the plan had no enforcement mechanism. Although it was used as a guide by several state agencies while Brown was still in office, it has been largely ignored by the Deukmejian Administration.

The Department of Fish and Game has tried to protect wildlife and wetlands areas, but it has been successful only sporadically.

The agency that has been most aggressive in its concern for protection of the Delta in recent years has been the State Lands Commission, which has used its claim to ownership of all of California’s navigable waterways as a legal basis to challenge some of the large Delta projects. Perhaps this is because the lands commission includes two liberal Democrats--Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy and Controller Gray Davis--and only one Republican--Finance Director Jesse R. Huff, and its staff includes many refugees from the Brown Administration.

“We’re not in the business of stopping growth but we are in the business of protecting the public’s interest,” said commission attorney Fossum.

This has led the State Lands Commission, through negotiation or lawsuits, to try to make sure that new projects do not interfere with public access to state waterways.

But State Lands Commission officials themselves concede the agency has limited jurisdiction in the Delta, the legal basis for some of its claims is shaky, and it does not have enough staff to keep up with all of the supposed developments.

“Generally, we’re a reactive agency, not a planning agency,” Fossum said. “We have no authority to oversee planning in the Delta or in other areas of state-owned waters.”

Some believe there is a need for a new regional agency that would seek to protect the Delta--something like the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which is generally viewed as having done an effective job of limiting land-fill development in San Francisco Bay.

“There definitely needs to be a coordinated plan for the preservation of the waterways of the Delta,” said Dedrick, the former State Lands Commission executive officer.

“The Delta needs a regional planning agency,” agreed M. Gregory Taylor, head of the land law section in the state attorney general’s office. “Nobody plans for the Delta as a whole, and that leaves it to local city councils and boards of supervisors, which generally are dominated by developers.”

Others think a new regional agency is not needed.

“We’ve been very successful with existing environmental documents,” said Winkler of the Department of Water Resources, referring mainly to the Federal Clean Water Act and the California Environmental Quality Act. “I think the views of all the various agencies can be pulled together in those environmental reviews. . . . It’s a complex process but I think it works.”

Gerald Meral, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, predicted “tremendous resistance” to a new agency with real power to plan and control development in the Delta. “The counties involved are fantastically jealous of their prerogatives, and they’re all controlled by developers,” Meral said.

Alan Pendleton, executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, said a new agency would be accepted “only when a sufficient number of people in the Delta are convinced they’re not going to be able to solve the problem they have with flooding and inadequate levees without some degree of regional planning.”

Development Along the Delta Massive development is taking place in and around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta--1,100 square miles of waterways and rich agricultural lands. As developers ponder thousands of new housing units in the five-county area that touches on the Delta, critics voice concern about flooding and adverse affects on the Delta’s birds and fish. Here are some selected samples of developments either proposed or under way.

1.) Big developers from both Northern and Southern California reportedly are buying large amounts of land along the Sacramento River--in or near sleepy towns like Hood, Courtland and Clarksburg--with an eye toward future housing developments.

2.) At Discovery Bay, near Antioch, levees were breached so that homes costing as much as $1 million could be built. Similar projects are planned for Bethel Island and adjacent Hotchkiss Tract, where much of the land is now used for cattle grazing.

3.) In San Joaquin County alone, more than 40,000 units have been approved or soon will be.

4.) Cities on the edge of the Delta are exploding with new housing tracts. In Stockton, five major projects are expected to generate about 20,660 new housing units--containing more than 50,000 people--in 15 to 20 years.

5.) Thousands of new dwelling units have been approved by Contra Costa County, at the western end of the Delta.

6.) A proposed “new town” near Tracy--dubbed Mountain House--envisions 21,500 homes built on 4,700 acres. Additional thousands are planned for an 8,700-acre former ranch on the Sacramento-San Joaquin County line.


Couple fear that development on Hotchkiss Tract and adjacent Bethel Island will spoil the character of their Delta community. A35