A Trip to the Delta
By Jenny Rempel
B.S. in Earth Systems, 2012
Read about our summer interns on the OutWest student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.
As we nibbled on sack lunches in the minivan, I found myself asking if it was opposites day. Liquid gold from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta was flowing through a leveed canal some 20 feet above us. Somehow things were reversed: how had the islands wound up beneath the very water that made them islands? On my first field day with the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI), it felt like I was following the Historical Ecology Team down the rabbit hole into a wonderland landscape. Luckily, this was just the team to help me understand the history behind this baffling locale.
Having spent the previous week copyediting a 400-page report on the region, I was eager to see this labyrinth inland delta in person. Reading of sunken islands and ever-taller levees does not fully convey just how whimsical this landscape looks today. But the 400-page report published by the Historical Ecology Program does not attempt to describe things as they are in the present. Instead, it focuses on what this landscape looked like 200 years ago. Four years of research revealed, from south to north in broad brushstroke generalizations: a series of broad riverine floodplains, tule-choked marshes laced with tidal channels, and tidal wetlands with rich riparian forests. Pretty different from the deep-set cornfields we were passing in our minivan.
The report is a tour-de-force from Alison Whipple, Robin Grossinger, Ruth Askevold, and the whip-smart team at SFEI. I’ve been lucky enough to join their ranks in Richmond, CA for a few brief summer months.
Historical ecology is a young field, and Robin and crew are at its forefront. Traditionally – by which I mean, in the nearly twenty years since SFEI began working in this sphere – historical ecology has entailed amassing as much evidence as possible to understand what watersheds, ecosystems, and landscapes looked like in the past. At SFEI, that means spending days sifting through archives for clues. We ponder everything from USDA aerial photographs to Spanish land grant cases to naturalists’ notebooks. In the process, I’ve gained an understanding of the needle in a haystack concept. Finding a pertinent detail amidst the wash of historical materials is a true delight, but it’s easy to get sidetracked by the droll minutia in explorers’ field journals. At times, stories of century-old social drama distract me from the relevant accounts of species and soil types (who knew, for instance, how infuriated naturalists get when they’re denied collecting permits, or how famed botanist Willis Jepson saved a 1928 production of The Barber of Seville by bridling a wayward donkey?). For the most part, though, I stay on track. Once these archival data are collected, they’re located on a GIS map that contains literally layer upon layer of information. From this, we calibrate certainty levels and begin to synthesize the data. It’s a long but rewarding process.
In my brief stint as an intern, I’ve had the chance to work on projects in watersheds from Alameda County to the Tijuana River. I’ve mined through online specimen collections, digitized historic maps, and collected quotes about the islands and rocks dotting the San Francisco Bay for an exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. It’s a dynamic, fascinating process.
As our trip to the Delta revealed, nature is always in flux. This flux is at the core of the Historical Ecology Team’s research – because ultimately, our efforts to understand the dynamics of past landscapes are all about reimagining possibilities for future ones. Our Delta field trip to the McCormack-Williamson Tract – a small, sunken island between Lodi and Elk Grove – exemplifies this link between past and future. At McCormack-Williamson, we’re consulting for The Nature Conservancy as they begin a restoration project rooted in history but responsive to the very real future of sea-level rise.
There’s a lot to ponder about the future of restoration and the role of historical data as global environmental change forces us into an era of Anthropocene conservation. My work at SFEI this summer has emphasized the importance of historicity to restoration projects, but at SFEI we’re cognizant that changing conditions don’t always make restoring to a historical baseline the best management plan. In places like McCormack-Williamson, we’re piloting an innovative approach that uses history to understand the present and guide the future. We know it’s rarely viable to create a carbon copy of the historic landscape, but we’re also not going to throw history out and settle for a novel ecosystem. Instead, we’re pioneering a middle ground that builds upon past patterns and processes in a contemporary, forward-thinking context. As the environmental movement comes to terms with the realities of modern conservation, SFEI is well-suited to bridge the past, present, and future in efforts to restore and preserve nature. It’s a real treat to be along for the ride.
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »