By Avi Salem | CED Communications
Just northeast of the UC Berkeley campus sits the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas and the intersection of California’s two largest rivers. As the main hub of California’s water supply, the Delta provides potable water for two-thirds of California’s population and millions of acres of farmland. But unbeknownst to most, the Delta is also rich with a cultural and human history that’s largely gone unrecognized -- until now.
On March 12, 2019 a large conservation and public lands bill was signed into law, including the establishment of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as a National Heritage Area (NHA). NHAs are grassroots, community-driven approaches to heritage conservation and economic development. Through public-private partnerships, NHA entities support historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation, heritage tourism, and educational projects.
As California’s first NHA, the area is being managed by the Delta Protection Commission (DPC), a state agency with Delta land use planning authority. The Delta’s NHA boundaries extend from Sacramento in the north, Stockton to the east, and along the Carquinez Strait to the west. In addition to the Delta NHA, this bill established five other new NHAs in Arizona, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, and West Virginia, adding to the 49 NHAs which previously existed.
Much of the work behind the Delta’s inclusion in the bill was led by the extraordinary efforts of College of Environmental Design alumnus Alex Westhoff (M.C.P./M.L.A. ‘08), whose decade-long dedication to the project was inspired by a Landscape Architecture symposium he helped organize back in 2006. Westhoff, who is now a senior planner working for the City and County of San Francisco, was previously an environmental planner for the DPC. Below, Westhoff explains his involvement with the DPC and how his master’s thesis helped inform this recently-signed public lands bill.
What initially piqued your interest in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region?
Alex Westhoff: Following Hurricane Katrina, in the spring of 2006 the Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning (LAEP) convened the symposium "ReEnvisioning the Delta." An objective of this forum was to draw more awareness to the dangers of rapid urbanization occurring in the flood-prone Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region. Ideas for preserving the Delta as a recreational haven, including the concept of the Delta as California's "Central Park," were discussed. As a first year graduate student, I assisted with organizing this event, which began my work on Delta issues and inspired me to write my master's thesis on bolstering the Delta's tourism economy.
Furthermore, in Fall 2006 I took the LAEP course “Citizen Involvement in the Planning and Design Process” with the Great Delta Charrette as the term project. This Charrette brought Delta experts together to discuss regional planning solutions, which included ideas on integrating cultural heritage into planning efforts. Through field trips and coursework, I began to uncover the unique and significant facets of the Delta's natural and cultural history. Upon finding out about National Heritage Areas (NHAs), I made the case for the important role the Delta played in US history, and through my master's thesis proposed that it receive designation as California's first NHA.
The Delta’s history is multi-layered. During the Gold Rush the fertility of the Delta’s soils was discovered, leading to reclaiming the vast system of brackish and freshwater marshes into one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions. The original sidedraft clamshell dredge was developed as a means to construct much of the Delta’s 1,100 mile levee system, and went on to be used for other reclamation projects throughout the world. The original caterpillar tractor was amongst one of the Delta’s many agricultural innovations, with tracks instead of wheels to avoid getting stuck in the peaty Delta soils. The Delta’s long history of Asian-American landholdings supported Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrant communities including the small town of Locke, the only town in the U.S. developed exclusively by and for Chinese immigrants.
How did this lead to your involvement with the Delta Protection Commission?
AW: My LAEP Delta coursework qualified me to get hired as an intern with the Delta Protection Commission (DPC) my last year of graduate school. This position helped me to establish connections, through which I presented the concept of a Delta NHA to various stakeholder groups. During this time, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had launched the Delta Vision effort as a regional planning initiative largely centered around the co-equal goals of water supply reliability and Delta ecosystems.
During this time the term “Delta-as-Place”, was also coined for large scale planning efforts to consider the Delta’s unique human history and cultural heritage.. As a result of my thesis work, the pursuit of a Delta NHA was included in the final Delta Vision recommendation. Stemming from Delta Vision, the 2009 Delta Reform Act mandated the DPC to seek designation of the Delta as a place of special significance, including a Delta NHA Feasibility Study. After graduation, I was hired full time as an Environmental Planner with the DPC and led the multi-year effort to conduct the Feasibility Study. As part of this study, I applied concepts from the 2006 symposium and the Delta Charrette, as well as historical research from my master's thesis. Throughout my seven years with the DPC, I continued to shepherd the concept along, leading to enabling legislation introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congressman John Garamendi. In March 2019, after the legislation had been introduced five times, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area was finally established through a major public lands bill.
So, who now manages the National Heritage Area? The state of California or the federal government?
AW: The DPC serves as managing entity for the newly established NHA. However, the DPC has been working on Heritage Area projects for several years to build capacity for the concept. This has included establishing robust partnerships with a variety of federal, state, and local agencies, along with non-profit and private sector organizations. To date, the DPC has conducted a number of heritage area projects including adaptive reuse feasibility studies of historic sites, a Delta branding and marketing campaign, a Delta sign plan, heritage trails, oral histories, legacy community plans, and museum displays/interpretive planning.
While the National Park Service (NPS) provides technical, planning, and limited financial assistance, NHAs are not NPS units but rather grassroots, community-driven approaches to heritage conservation and economic development. NPS does not assume ownership of land inside heritage areas or impose land use controls.
Besides being a major component of your career since your time at CED, why is this designation important to you?
AW: The Delta is at the center of the state’s water wars, and I think it is important that Californians know that the Delta is not just a water supply source. Despite it being adjacent to the heavily populated San Francisco Bay Area, many know very little about the region. Recognition of the Delta's significant history and living cultural heritage can build more clout for its people and communities.