Snug Harbor
Delta History in Summary         Back to Snug Harbor Index
The following information was gleaned from many different resources.  I'd like to thank the volunteers of the Rio Vista Museum for allowing me to spend time in their private library, which holds very interesting copies of various government summaries and documents, and local history essays by the people living in the Delta at the time.

Pre 1772 - this watery area of California was home to native Indian tribes.  Some Chinese historians claim that the Chinese arrived in this particular area well before Columbus even sailed to the New World.

1772 - First recorded sighting of Delta by Fray Juan Crespi and Captain Pedro Farges

1776 - San Carlos -first ship to enter San Francisco Bay

1849 - Settlers begin arriving in the Delta to farm its rich soils while others pass through on their way to strike gold in the Sierra foothills. Transportation is by boat, using the Old Sacramento River and/or Steamboat Slough, depending on the season and water levels.  The town of Rio Vista begins to be built at the south confluence of Steamboat and Cache Sloughs, just north of the Old Sacramento River, at the location of the Ashley Ferry landing to Ryer Island.

1850 - Congress passes the Federal Swamp and Overflow Act, which provided for the title of wetlands to be transferred from the Federal Government to the states.  California, as owner of the Swamp and Overflow lands, allows for SALE of the lands to the families already farming the area, and to other interested investors.


1855 to 1876 - California accepts surveys and sells off parcels on island that are already farmed.  Ryer Island (northeast of Rio Vista) which is bordered by Steamboat Slough, Cache Slough and Miners Slough is one such island. California sells the land ON CONDITION that the buyer must invest in reclaiming the land for farming and other beneficial uses.

1861 - California Legislature authorizes the Reclamation District Act, allowing drainage of Delta lands and construction of sturdier levees.  By this time, there were already natural river-made levees in some areas (Steamboat Slough one example) and there were low lying man-made levees that tended to flood in wet winter months.  One of the first waterway improvements in in California, completed by an agency that later became the US Army Corps of Engineers, was to create a very sturdy wood with metal bracing sea wall at the north end of Steamboat Slough so the steamboats coming down the Sacramento River could nose up to the sea wall, tie off and swing their stern around so that the vessel was heading into Steamboat Slough, and then go ahead and untie to go on their merry way.  (There are some really funny and fascinating stories about steamboat passage in the Delta during this era!).  Historical maps   Paintings of Steamboat Travel

1862 - (published 1871) Book about the wonderful scenes in California is published by English traveler James M. Hutchings.  He includes a section about taking a paddle wheel steam engine ride on the Antelope up Steamboat Slough to Sacramento.  He also describes the abundance of fish, such as salmon, and the methods used to catch them...simply put out a net and pull it in! Historic Steamboat Slough & Snug Harbor    see also:
Shipwrecks of Steamboat Slough from 1848 to 1890

1869 - Sherman Island is the site of the first coordinated levee system in the Delta, according to some government documents.  However, natural and privately-made levees are found all over the Delta.  As the various islands receive improved levees, the neighboring islands find they need improvement as well, so the farmers will not be inundated by flood waters bouncing off the neighboring island with a higher levee.

1879 - Prized by fishermen, the striped bass is brought by rail from the East Coast to the Delta. Two more shipments are required before the fish is established.

1880 - By this time, much of the Delta has been reclaimed using dredges developed to build levees quickly and inexpensively.  Farmers and landowners build their own levee systems.   Most of the lands have been sold by the state to private landowners, for farming and recreational uses.  (By 1930, all but minor areas of swampland had been leveed and were being farmed.)

1884 - Federal Circuit Court decision in Woodruff v. North Bloomfield, et al., requires termination of mining-debris discharges into California rivers. Hydraulic mining had deposited tons of silt and sand in Delta channels and upstream rivers.

1900 - California's population is estimated at 1.5 million.

1902 - Congress passes the Reclamation Act for development of irrigated lands in the western United States.

1911 - The Reclamation Board is created by the California Legislature to implement a comprehensive flood-control plan for the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

1914 - California Legislature passes bill to revise water-right law regarding appropriation of surface water.

1930 - State completes comprehensive investigation of Delta salinity and its control, and the State Water Plan (now the Central Valley Project) to transfer Northern California water throughout the Central Valley.  Levee integrity becomes important to the State when the legislature decides to begin transferring Delta water to the central valley and southern area of the state.  Some of the natural waterways, like Steamboat Slough, are almost unuseable for boat passage in summer months because they have silted in with mining debris discharges. 

1933 - Corps of Engineers dredges Stockton Deep Water Ship Channel to Port of Stockton.   Note that there are "project levees" and "non-project levees" defined on Delta maps starting after the Federal Government funds the building up or raising of levees deemed important to flood protection.  Project levee upgrades are completed by the early 1950's, but most of the work was done in the 1930's as part of the "new deal".

- Congress authorizes the Central Valley Project (CVP).

1933 to 1951 - Dredging of key navigation rivers of the Delta, like the Sacramento River, San Joaquin and Steamboat Slough.  Project levees are raised and strengthened to protect the area from flooding.  Federal funding used for these projects in cooperation with state agencies.

1940 - Export of Delta water begins with U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) completion of the Contra Costa Canal, the first unit of the CVP.

1944 - Shasta Dam and Reservoir is completed as a key feature of the CVP; adds water to Delta channels during low-flow periods, thereby limiting salinity intrusion.

1951 - Delta export increases with completion of the Delta-Mendota Canal, another unit of the CVP.

- USBR constructs the Delta Cross Channel to aid in transferring water from the Sacramento River across the Delta to the Tracy Pumping Plant, which serves the Delta Mendota Canal.

1959 - State Legislature passes the Delta Protection Act and the Burns-Porter Act to assist in financing the State Water Project, including Delta facilities. The SWP, which would increase Delta exports, was approved by California voters in 1960.

1960 - California voters approve the Burns-Porter Act (also called the State Water Project Development Bond Act) authorizing the sale of $1.75 billion of general obligation bonds to help finance the SWP. California's population is 15.7 million.

1963 - Corps of Engineers dredges the Sacramento Deep Water Channel to the port of Sacramento.

1965 - Interagency Delta Committee, formed in 1961, completed its report recommending various Delta facilities, including the Peripheral Canal, to offset adverse effects of increasing Delta exports.  "Adverse effects" of increasing Delta exports includes many of the same issues the Delta and state face in the 21st century.

1967 - Oroville Dam and Reservoir is completed as a key feature of the SWP, and the Feather River Fish Hatchery is opened to replace spawning areas lost as a result of the dam.

- The first stage of the Harvey O. Banks Delta Pumping Plant is completed along with the John E. Skinner Fish Facility.

1971 - State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) adopts its Delta Water Rights Decision 1379 establishing Delta water quality standards to be met by the Central Valley Project (CVP) and SWP.

1973 - California Aqueduct completed to Southern California.

- Legislature passes Senate Bill 541 (also known as the Way Bill) to provide State financial assistance for maintenance and improvement of certain Delta levees.

- Delta Environmental Advisory Committee (DEAC) concludes that a federal-State Peripheral Canal, properly designed and operated, is necessary to protect the Delta. 1978 SWRCB issues Water Right Decision 1485 updating Delta water-quality standards and establishing water-quality standards for Suisun Marsh.

1980 - State Legislature passes Senate Bill 200 specifying the Peripheral Canal as the Delta water-transfer facility, requiring staged construction and fish-screen testing but without requiring federal participation.

1982 - California voters defeat Proposition 9, which includes the Peripheral Canal, the SB 200 package of statewide facilities, and Delta protection, by a 3-2 margin. 1986 Congress passes DWR and USBR historic accord, the CVP-SWP Coordinated Operation Agreement.

- California Supreme Court affirms State Court of Appeal ruling (Racanelli Decision) strengthening SWRCB powers to protect the Bay/Delta system. The Racanelli Decision covered eight cases challenging SWRCB's Decision 1485, issued in 1978, and its Water Quality Control Plan for the Delta and Suisun Marsh. The decision recognizes SWRCB's broad authority and discretion over water rights and water-quality issues, including jurisdiction over the federal CVP.

- DWR and the Department of Fish and Game sign the Delta Pumping Plant fishery mitigation agreement for direct fish loss.

1987 - DWR installs Middle River Weir as part of an agreement with the South Delta Water Agency to improve water conditions for local agricultural diverters. It is the first component of a temporary program designed to provide data for a more permanent solution.

1988 - DWR completes pumping plant for North Bay Aqueduct and the Suisun Marsh salinity-control gates.

1988 - Legislature passes Senate Bill 34, which provides $120 million over a l0-year period for DWR to rebuild Delta levees, enlarge channels, and help reclamation districts make levee improvements.

- An engineering study by the California Urban Water Agencies examines options for improving drinking water quality for users of Delta water.

1990 - California's population is now 29.8 million. (1990, U.S. Census)

1991 - Construction completed on four additional pumping units at the Banks Pumping Plant.

1992 - The Legislature passes the Delta Protection Act of 1992 establishing the Delta Protection Commission. The commission is to develop a comprehensive, long-term resources management plan for the Delta by July 1, 1994.

- Congress passes the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (PL 102-575), which allows water transfers from CVP contractors to other water users, reforms water pricing, and commits up to 800,000 acre-feet annually to fish and wildlife purposes.

- Governor establishes Bay-Delta Oversight Committee for long-term Delta planning.

1993 - The Delta Smelt is listed as a threatened species, and actions are defined (such as pulse flows on the Sacramento River and limitations on certain flows within the Delta) to improve conditions for the smelt and the winter-run salmon.

2000 - Salmon, striper and Delta Smelt populations are in decline according to F&G estimates.  One of the growing problems is the invasion of non-native species of water plants or weeds beginning to clog the delta waterways.  Another problem is the introduction of a non-native crab that is aggressively eating the native clams and crawdads thereby removing the natural food sources for the native fish.

Southern California looses at least 15% of its water rights from the Colorado River, so farmers and communities begin to ask for additional water resources from the Delta system.

2001- DWR begins requiring marinas, campgrounds, resorts and restaurants in the Delta area (and all over California) to chlorinate their wells to provide "safe" drinking water.  However, no consideration is made for the effects to the ecosystem from all the chlorinated water runoff assumed as a result of the new requirements.

2004 - After years of legal battles with environmental groups, Department of Boating and Waterways is finally allowed to treat Delta waterways in an attempt to eradicate plant species that are clogging the waterways and are not original area vegetation.  In the meantime, there is a "sunny day" flood in June in the Delta....but it was for a study of the effects of flooding Delta islands to use the islands as in-Delta water storage.  The media makes a big deal about the flood, ignoring the real reason for the field study on surface storage in the Delta.  Note that there are also several different proposals to divert more Sacramento River water before it ever gets to the Delta, which will also reduce Delta freshwater flow.


Seventeen years ago, environmentalists sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, accusing the agency of violating state law by not letting enough water flow to maintain the historic salmon population.

In October 2004, a federal judge in Sacramento agreed. Angrily protesting, farmers, mayors and businesspeople pointed out that their towns, jobs and crops have relied on San Joaquin River water for decades, and that some of the state's fastest growing cities are in the Central Valley.   The competing claims will be central when trial on how much water should be released begins in U.S. District Court in Sacramento in February 2006.

2005 - Due to numerous floods from levee breaks in Louisiana caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, California begins to refocus on the condition of the deteriorating levees of the Delta region.  Many bills, bonds and other proposals are put before the legislature.

2007 - Export of water from the Delta is limited due to the tremendous decline in the fish and natural environment of the Delta, directly attributed to excessive water exports.  However the state continues to plan how to divert more water from the Delta.   A very large landowner of the lower Central Valley area makes a big medial deal about getting less water, even though the farmers of the west side of the San Joaquin valley only have secondary water rights, and the governor decides to declare the state is "in a drought" as defined by the governor...not a true drought based on historical precipitation in the state, but a political drought to drum up political support for CalFed and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan which creates a "central canal" through the middle of the Delta, basically splitting it east and west.

2009 -  Legislation is passed by the state creating a huge new and additional level of bureacacy to further manage water in California.  The stated goal is to balance the export of Delta water with ecosystem restoration...legislating conflicting goals, and assuring legal funding, legal battles and further decline of the Delta as everyone argues over what the legislation will allow and who gets to decide.  Authority to do whatever he/she/they want is given away by the state representatives and put into the hands of non-elected officials.  In the meantime, newspaper media owners in California go through a huge transition where 2/3 of the newspapers go through bankruptsy and end up being owned by their "lender" or unclear buyers...the online media resources take over in time for the elections.  BofA had been bought by a North Carolina banking family, and BofA had been the lender of record for some of those major newspaper companies.  The "publisher" of a paper used to mean the owner.  These days "publisher" means "manager" and its pretty hard to find out who owns and controls the overall content of the news source!  One thing for sure, the California media has a united voice against the Delta as it is today, and in favor of diverting more water away from the Delta!

2010 -  Central Canal construction continues (called the "Preferred Alternative" in the 2000 CALFED Record of Decision) which creates a canal through the center of the Delta, splitting the Delta region east and west.  The conservation portion of planning gets delayed...the BDCP committees are said to have stopped meeting for many months once the new governor took office.  However, a commission called the Delta Stewardship Council continues to meet.

2011 -  Delta farmers, businesses, marina/RV resorts, land owners are all inundated with hundreds of thousands of planning reports and several "local" eir/eis planning projects all happening at once.  In addition, Senator Feinstein is pushing to make the Delta a National Heritage Area, which the majority of Delta land owners are against, at least according to local talk.