The Delta


Just a few miles south of Sacramento, two of California’s major rivers converge to form one of the most important features of California’s water system – the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. More than 25 million Californians and millions of acres of farmland rely on the Delta for all or part of their water supply, and countless species depend on it for their habitat.


Covering more than 700 square miles, the Delta is a patchwork of nearly 60 islands and tracts surrounded by natural and man-made channels and sloughs. It is a popular destination for boaters and other recreationists, and home to more than 750 distinct species of plants and wildlife. Salmon, striped bass and other key species such as Delta smelt depend on the Delta and its many marshes and waterways for their food and habitat.

Since about two-thirds of the islands and tracts are below sea level, the Delta relies on a maze of levees to protect land and key infrastructure from floods and daily high tides. In all, there are more than 1,100 miles of levees in the Delta, including many built more than a century ago to protect farmland. Were it not for these levees, the Delta would be a 740,000-acre brackish inland sea.

Today, the Delta’s aging and increasingly fragile levee system is being asked to protect much more than farmland. Three state highways, a railroad, natural gas and electric transmission facilities, and aqueducts serving water to parts of the Bay Area also are depend on Delta levees. In addition, more 400,000 people live in Delta towns and communities, some of which rank among the fastest growing areas in California.

The Delta is also the single most important link in California’s water supply system. Two of the state’s biggest water projects – the State Water Project (SWP) and the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) – depend on Delta waterways to convey water from Northern California rivers to pumping facilities in the southern Delta. Delta levees play a critical role in preventing salty water from San Francisco Bay from intruding into critical parts of the Delta and contaminating the fresh water that supplies communities and farms.

Key Issues

For all its importance, the Delta faces many challenges. It is in an ecological collapse that threatens key fish species as well as water supply reliability for much of the state. By any measure, it has seen significant declines in water quality and ecosystem health in recent decades, and faces tremendous pressures in its dual role as water conveyance system and important habitat for critical species.

Regulatory restrictions to protect salmon and Delta smelt have significantly reduced on water deliveries through the Delta at key times. The reductions have exacerbated the effects of recent dry years, creating shortages for urban as well as agricultural water users in some parts of the state.

Bay-Delta Conservation Plan

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is a planning and environmental permitting process to restore habitat for Delta fisheries in a way that reliably delivers water supplies to 25 million Californians. Federal and state agencies, environmental organizations, fishery agencies, water agencies, and other organizations are working together to develop the Plan.

Launched in 2006, the BDCP focused on the following:

  • Identifying conservation strategies to improve the overall ecological health of the Delta
  • Identifying ecologically friendly ways to move fresh water through and/or around the Delta
  • Addressing toxic pollutants, invasive species, and impairments to water quality
  • Providing a framework and funding to implement the plan over time

In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled a new dual approach to improving water conveyance and ecosystem health in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta through two projects – California WaterFix and California EcoRestore. According to Brown, the dual projects  are an alteration of what was formally known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and would “accelerate the restoration of the Delta’s ecosystem and fix the state's aging water infrastructure.”

The governor’s proposed approach no longer seeks a 50-year permit, but would upgrade Delta conveyance and restore habitat through separate permitting tracks. The approach bifurcates the former BDCP, which proposed to simultaneously advance new water conveyance and habitat restoration in the Delta.

According to state officials, California EcoRestore will pursue more than 30,000 acres of fish and wildlife habitat restoration in the next three to four years. More information on California EcoRestore’s habitat restoration targets and timelines is available here.

California WaterFix  -- which was Alternative 4a of the former BDCP --  will be available for public comment through a Recirculated Draft EIR/Supplemental EIS expected for release in the coming months.

More information on California WaterFix is available here.

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