FEATURE — Summer 2006

Assistant Professor Jane Wolff is an authority on the challenges posed by land use in the California Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet.

California's Delta Blues

Some say the California Delta is destined for Katrina-style flooding along its massive but antiquated system of levees, and Washington University's Jane Wolff, assistant professor of architecture, is among those fearing the worst.

By Gretchen Lee

One hot, dry summer morning in June 2004, a small section of dirt levee broke at Jones Tract, an island in the California Delta where the powerful San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers meet. In a few short hours, 12,000 acres of fertile farmland lay completely submerged in 10 feet of water. Fields of corn, tomatoes, wheat, and other crops were in ruin, and nearly 300 people were scrambling for higher ground. That no one was killed is a minor miracle.

Now, spurred by population growth in nearby Sacramento and San Francisco, developers want to build new houses on the floodplains of the Delta—including 11,000 homes on Stewart Tract, which, like Jones Tract in 2004, was under 10 feet of water in 1997; 16,000 homes for the Mountain House development; and additional numbers for Stockton, which is one of California's fastest-growing communities.

Overdevelopment on floodplains is a major problem in the region.

"That's just madness," says Jane Wolff, assistant professor of architecture at the University's Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. "The wonder is not that the levee failed, it's that more levees don't fail more often."

Experts like Wolff worry that the next time a levee breaks in the California Delta the human cost will be much higher. By publishing Delta Primer: A Field Guide to the California Delta in 2003, Wolff joined a small, impassioned cadre of scholars, environmentalists, public officials, farmers, and citizens who had been quietly sounding the alarm about a looming disaster for years. But, until recently, it had been difficult to generate much public interest in the problem.

Then came last year's deadly flood in New Orleans—the result of several levee failures along Lake Pontchartrain in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "If there's anything good to come from Katrina, it's that it has raised consciousness," says Wolff.

 "In the California Delta, a bunch of issues are bundled up together," she continues. "One is that the levee system is old and fragile. The other is that it's protecting a multitude of things: It's protecting the environment, very productive farmland, more and more suburban housing—and it's also protecting the water supply to Los Angeles."

Something big, like a major earthquake along the nearby San Andreas or Hayward faults, could cause the many earthen levees protecting the islands of the Delta to liquefy and fail. Or something small, like a beaver burrowing unnoticed, could compromise the levee structure from underneath. A substantial breach could cause the area to be infiltrated with saltwater from the nearby San Francisco Bay, which would not only render the fields of the Delta inhospitable but also contaminate any water exported from the area. Approximately 23 million people get a substantial part of their water from the Delta.

Though even a single breach could prove costly—the damage from the Jones Tract flood cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars—shoring up the entire levee system could cost as much as $4 billion.  

Shaping the Delta

Currently, about 1,100 miles of levee exist to protect 60 islands in the once-marshy land at the crux of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. The area was domesticated in the 1850s as early settlers began farming on land they had reclaimed there.

"When they began to cultivate the region, the peat began to oxidize," Wolff explains, "so the land began to sink. At the same time, the levee system built to protect the islands was causing the water in the rivers to rise, which meant they had to make the levees higher."

Still, the farmers persisted, successfully manipulating the environment to grow such things as asparagus, sugar beets, pears, and hay on a commercial scale in fields that are now 20 feet below sea level.

"In the California Delta, a bunch of issues are bundled up together. One is that the levee system is old and fragile. The other is that it's protecting a multitude of things: It's protecting the environment, very productive farmland, more and more suburban housing—and it's also protecting the water supply to Los Angeles."

Beginning in 1951, large amounts of water were taken from the Delta to irrigate California's fertile Central Valley. Later, a huge aqueduct was built to transport water thousands of miles to Los Angeles and San Diego.

In the early 1990s, Senator Patrick Johnston managed to create sufficient consensus among various interests to ensure the passage of the Delta Protection Act of 1992. Among other things, the Delta Protection Act divided the region into a primary zone, where development is restricted, and a secondary zone, where some development is allowed.

With nearby cities sprawling, suburbs increasingly replace farmland on the floodplains of the California Delta.

"He was quoted as saying: 'We've drawn a line in the peat,'" recalls Margit Aramburu, the now-retired director of the Delta Protection Commission. But, in an obvious concession to politics, the lines that were drawn around the secondary zone included land at the edges of burgeoning cities like Stockton and Sacramento, where residential developments had already been proposed.

"If you look at the geography, you'd say these areas were in the primary zone," Wolff says. "It's the reality of political compromise."

Charting territory

Accepting a teaching position at Washington University was a means of coming home for Wolff, who grew up in Clayton, Missouri, just about a block from the University's South 40. Her mother, who still lives in St. Louis, attended the Washington University School of Law. Her father is a physician who practiced at nearby Barnes and Jewish hospitals.

Trained as a landscape designer, Wolff worked for several years in San Francisco and also spent some time in the Netherlands, where she studied the history of land reclamation.

The first time she visited the California Delta, Wolff recalls, "I had this funny feeling because it was just like something I knew really well, which was the western part of the Netherlands. And yet it was totally different.

Delta Primer
"If you stood in the middle of one of the islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where the Great Central Valley of California drains into San Francisco Bay, you might not know that you were twenty feet below sea level. You might not realize that the rational agricultural geometry around you ended abruptly at the meandering river on the island's edge. You might not understand that the ditches running through the fields were dug for drainage rather than irrigation. You might not think that there was anything strange about the Delta until you saw an ocean-going freighter cruise by in the distance, eighty miles from the Golden Gate and fifteen feet above your head. If you climbed to the top of the levee that separates the island from the river, though, you would see land and water together, and then you might wonder how the landscape became such a paradox." (Delta Primer, pg. 37)

"The Delta is right in the middle of all of these forces that are shaping California—agriculture, the passion for development, environmental politics, and what appears to be an endless demand for water," she says. "And, what really knocked me out is that even though it's at the center of California's economy and ecology, most people in the state didn't even know about it—had no idea that it existed."

On subsequent trips to the Delta, Wolff met often with Aramburu and began to collect ideas and stories for what eventually would become the Delta Primer: A Field Guide to the California Delta.

"Most of the people I saw [at the Delta Protection Commission] were either local landowners, business owners, or other government employees," Aramburu recalls. "Every once in a while, a bright light would come into my life—someone who was interested in the history and the beauty of the environment. Jane was one of those people. She came as an academic, but also as an artist and a designer."

Offering information

Wolff says she created Delta Primer as a means of furthering the conversation about what should happen in the region. Through photographs, drawings, maps, and text, it offers an inventory of the region using an unusual structure—the book is organized as a deck of playing cards with four "suits" of 13 "cards," each offering a different nugget of information.

"I've always loved old maps," explains Wolff. "As I was looking at a book of old maps, I came across an example from the 17th century where a deck of cards represented the 52 counties of England and Wales as the 52 face cards. I thought, 'Oh, that's so brilliant, because a map is the lowest common denominator of spatial description, and a deck of cards is the lowest common denominator for the ranking of things of relative value,'" she says. "It seemed like both of those devices were very useful in trying to explain a landscape whose geography was complicated and that served a wide range of purposes, not all of which could probably be accommodated at the same level."

The paradox of Wolff's Primer is that it doesn't make any particular design recommendations for the Delta.

"There's so much at stake for so many people," Wolff explains. Consequently, the book is not so much a prescription for change as a lexicon for simply understanding the issues.

"That's also what I try to do in school," says Wolff, "to introduce a set of terms that are common to the students I'm working with, and then to figure out how we can all use those terms to move the discussion forward."

It's an approach familiar to Nicole Ostrander, an architecture graduate student who has taken several courses with Wolff and who has also served as a teaching assistant to Wolff's introductory site planning class.

"She had us read primary sources as opposed to reading a critique," recalls Ostrander. "When you're reading the actual documents, you're able to evaluate the authors' points of view and what they're presenting, as opposed to seeing it through someone else's eyes."

All of this is not to say that Wolff herself has no opinion on what should happen next in the Delta.

"What's best for the Delta as a region, I think, is probably to try to limit development, set a limit for water exports, shore up the infrastructure, and take it on as a piece of public infrastructure in a way that accommodates public interests and private uses," she says. "I think you could say that the Delta's problems all stem from a decision 150 years ago to make a clear boundary between wet and dry in a region that was characterized by flux."

With change the only constant, those who live near and love the California Delta are slowly waking up to the fact that what is now may not always be.

Gretchen Lee, A.B. '86, is a free-lance writer based in San Francisco.