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.