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The Heart of California’s Water System Could Get Federal Recognition

A proposal to designate the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as a National Heritage Area has been kicking around Congress for six years. Erik Vink explains what the designation would do – and not do.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Pjh ship in delta 140
A tanker ship makes its way through the California Delta. A bill now in Congress would designate the Delta a National Heritage Area.Paul Hames/California Department of Water Resources

California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a unique landscape: a maze of islands and rivers as big as Rhode Island, sprinkled with historic Gold Rush towns and teeming with wildlife amid some of the world’s most fertile farmland.

It also happens to be the heavily engineered heart of California’s water system. That labyrinth of islands within the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas also transports freshwater to 25 million people and some 3 million acres of farmland.

Yet the Delta is little-known even to most Californians, and it has no special government status as a destination.

That would change under a proposal now before Congress to designate the Delta as a National Heritage Area. It would be established under the umbrella of the National Park Service, but would mean no new regulations or changes in land use.

It would, however, serve as an important branding tool to attract tourists interested in unique American landscapes. It could also come with millions in federal dollars to help bolster that message.

If approved, it would become the first National Heritage Area in California, joining 49 others around the nation.

To explain the heritage area concept in more detail, Water Deeply recently interviewed Erik Vink, executive director of the Delta Protection Commission, a state agency coordinating the proposal.

Water Deeply: What is a National Heritage Area?

Erik Vink: I like the way the park service describes them. They call them lived-in landscapes, and they draw a distinction between [them and] national parks. We all think of national parks as places of natural splendor, and we certainly don’t think about how men and women have altered that. But that’s really the whole idea with these national heritage areas. They are lived-in landscapes and they are places where historic and cultural and natural resources all combine to form an important landscape.

The first one was established in 1984, and the very first one was called the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Area. When President Reagan signed the bill into law, he called it a new kind of national park.

They are not an effort by the federal government to acquire land or to manage land or to put requirements on how an area is used. It’s very much an opportunity just to help promote these areas where there’s been a significant contribution in history and culture to an important landscape.

Water Deeply: What are the benefits to an area in having this designation?

Vink: There are two benefits. One is to have that National Park Service imprint over this area. That will be really useful for us in our efforts to promote visitation and tourism in the region.

The other benefit is that, with an NHA designation, you are eligible for up to $10 million in federal support over a 15-year period for efforts to establish the NHA and to help promote it. And to help develop what we call the partner sites, which are the actual physical locations that would be included – or not included, as people desire – within the NHA imprint: museums, places of cultural interest, historic sites, even commercial establishments if they help to tell that story of the landscape. Ultimately, this will mean we’ll have a website and maybe some printed material that will promote the Delta NHA and list the partner sites.

You can receive up to $1 million a year. I don’t expect it will be that much with the number of NHAs nationwide, and even more on the way. But even a little bit would be enough to help with some limited state dollars to promote the region.

Water Deeply: Are there any existing NHAs similar to the Delta?

Boundaries of the proposed Sacramento-San Joaquin National Heritage Area. (Image Courtesy Delta Protection Commission)

Vink: Yes, there absolutely are. Atchafalaya National Heritage Area (in Louisiana) I would say is probably a pretty good comparison because it’s got a real heavy emphasis on culture. And I think the Delta NHA would have a pretty heavy emphasis on culture, as well. There’s just such a rich cultural history with those historic river towns, especially with some of the earliest Asian communities in California in Walnut Grove and Courtland and Isleton.

There’s also one called Silos and Smokestacks NHA in Iowa. That one has a real emphasis on how the industry shaped that particular region of Iowa. It’s got a real heavy agricultural emphasis.

People in all the 49 existing National Heritage Areas take a lot of pride in the way that men and women have made an imprint on a landscape. We think the Delta is another great example.

Water Deeply: How long has an NHA designation been in the works for the Delta?

Vink: It was a step proposed in the 2009 state legislation for the Delta. The first introduction was in 2011. It’s always been primarily introduced by Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein and congressman [John] Garamendi. We’ve had a few Delta region Congress members cosponsoring the Garamendi bill in the House. This is now the fourth session of Congress that the bill has been introduced in. It’s not that there is opposition to the idea. It’s just not rising above the din.

I’m a little more hopeful this year, because the bill has already moved through and cleared its Senate committee – the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. They took a whole slew of bills that were moved through the committee, and the Delta bill was among those bills reported out of the committee just a couple days after it had been introduced. I suspect what will happen is, they’ll probably languish for a bit until there’s some type of movement on a big omnibus House bill. Chances are good we can get this Delta NHA bill included in that.

Water Deeply: What geographic area would the NHA cover?

Vink: The outlines of the proposed NHA would exclude the southern end of the Delta. The northern Delta, and its Sacramento River communities, is pretty rich in history and heritage. And you don’t quite have the same situation along the San Joaquin River, nor in what were formerly agricultural communities and now larger cities. It doesn’t take in the Delta areas of the city of Stockton. So it is a little bit of a peculiar boundary.

The other interesting thing is that it extends beyond the Delta, as well. There’s a finger that runs up the Yolo Bypass north of Interstate 80. It also takes in Suisun Marsh, the Carquinez Strait and the Vallejo shoreline. And that was largely at the request of those cities there.

Water Deeply: What will locals get out of it? Will there be economic benefits?

Vink: We definitely believe there would be, because anything that can encourage additional tourism and additional recreational use in the Delta will help support at least some Delta businesses.

The idea is not universally loved. There are some people in the Delta who are perfectly fine being well off the path and they are content not to have any visitors come to the region.

But there is certainly a healthy component of people in the Delta who believe strongly that the only way people will care about this region is if more people experience it and develop an appreciation for it.

Water Deeply: Is there still opposition to an NHA designation?

Vink: I’d say there is some level of opposition. It’s probably in two camps. One is just the people who would prefer to be left alone, and they don’t really believe there’s a benefit to attracting more people to the region. I think there’s also a component of people who still haven’t really grasped what a National Heritage Area is and what it isn’t.

There is still, among some people, this idea that it’s going to mean some kind of federal dictate or federal land ownership. A lot of people have a keen sense of the heavy hand the federal government can exert. We’re battling against that bias. Yes, this is a federal designation. But it’s a very light, light touch in terms of what it means to have this type of designation.

Water Deeply: Does it create a new bureaucracy?

Vink: No. The Delta Protection Commission is designated in the legislation as being the coordinating entity. And it really is just to coordinate. It doesn’t grant us any new authorities or any new powers at all. We’re not universally loved throughout the Delta region, just because we’re a unit of state government. But we’re there specifically to give voice to their concerns and to represent the region in statewide discussion.

Water Deeply: Will anything look different if the NHA gets enacted?

Vink: I don’t believe so. I think you’ll see some signage at the partner sites and maybe in other locations. That’s something we would very much want to do is draw attention to the fact that you are now within the boundary of the Delta National Heritage Area. And, hopefully, you’d notice a few more people than what you’re used to seeing today.

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