The Science of Sustainability

"Whiskey’s for Drinking, Water’s for Fighting About"

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“Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting about,” the quote famously attributed to Mark Twain, aptly characterizes the tumultuous history of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Little understood, but hotly contested, the roughly 1,000-square mile inland estuary on the western edge of the Central Valley has vexed California’s for more than 150 years; first as a barrier to settlement and later as a serious plumbing problem. The Delta was formed roughly 18,000 years ago, when melting glaciers carved out the San Francisco Bay and northern rivers dragged debris and sediment from the Sierra toward the ocean. About half of California’s watersheds flow into it – mainly through the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.

When Spanish explorers first viewed the Delta from the top of Mt. Diablo in the late 1700’s, they thought they had discovered an inland sea. A vast low-lying, partly submerged marshland of wetland plants (tules) and winding tidal channels, the Delta teemed with birds and game animals, including elk, antelope, and grizzly bears. It’s only human inhabitants – small settlements of Miwok Indians – fished and hunted there during the drier months.

Today the Delta, dotted with levees and constructed islands, bears little resemblance to its native state; much has been reclaimed for agricultural use. But it wasn’t until the mid-Nineteenth Century, just over 150 years ago, that its momentous physical transformation began. It’s been a Herculean effort to meet the steep demands of California’s increasingly crowded and insatiably thirsty population, nearly two-thirds of who rely on the Delta as a primary water source. A stark symbol of our quest to bend nature to our will, the Delta also remains the epicenter of an epic drama of seemingly insurmountable political battles and power struggles, pitting north against south; farmer against environmentalist.

So how did it get like this?

Take a quick paddle through the key events in the slideshow above.

Category: Engineering, Environment, Water

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Matthew Green

About the Author ()

Matthew Green runs KQED’s News Education Project, a new online resource for educators and the general public to help explain the news. The project lives at kqed.org/lowdown.
  • Michael_rafe

    slide show not well designed. text moves by too fast and its horizontal scroll makes it difficult to read. please change it–this is an important subject.