#AstroFriday: The Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta from Space

This is the first in a series of posts that will highlight photos taken by Astronaut Ricky Arnold from the International Space Station (ISS). The photos are part of an ISS program that began in 1961, Crew Earth Observations (CEO). As NASA’s website explains, “Crew members on the International Space Station (ISS) photograph the Earth using digital handheld cameras from their unique point of view located 200 miles above the surface. Photographs record how the planet is changing over time, from human-caused changes like urban growth and reservoir construction, to natural dynamic events such as hurricanes, floods and volcanic eruptions.” Before Ricky’s launch to the ISS, we asked Project WET’s global network for nominations of places to be photographed. The first to be photographed happened earlier this week, with California’s  Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which was nominated by California Project WET Coordinator Brian Brown of the Water Education Foundation.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, as photographed by Ricky Arnold on the International Space Station (image courtesy of NASA)

Brian Brown, Project WET California Coordinator, Water Education FoundationBrian Brown, California Project WET Coordinator When nominating the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta—which is formed by the Sacramento River flowing south to meet the north-flowing San Joaquin River—Brian Brown wrote: “If you can name a water issue, the Delta is probably involved in it.”

A full description and timeline of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is available on the Water Education Foundation’s Aquapedia resource, but here are some highlights:

“The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is California’s most crucial water and ecological resource,” the description begins before explaining the region’s history of agricultural levees that drained and “reclaimed” marshland. Before long, the marshland had been pumped dry to make productive farms.

The Delta’s waters, which includes not only the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers but also smaller tributaries and tidal flows, “roll through the Carquinez Strait, a narrow break in the Coast Range, and into San Francisco Bay’s northern arm, forming the Bay Delta.” Other marshes and bays form the unfixed, brackish transition between fresh and salt water.

Water Education Foundation logoMore than 1,000 miles of Delta levees protect local communities from flooding and other water-related natural disasters, but they are fragile. The area’s seismic activity is a particular risk factor. The Delta’s water is ultimately divided, with roughly one-third of going to the San Francisco Bay Area and slightly less than that being diverted to Southern California: “The Delta is the hub of California’s two largest surface water delivery projects, the State Water Project  and the federal Central Valley Project. The Delta provides a portion of the drinking water for 25 million Californians and provides the $36 billion agricultural industry with irrigation to 4.5 million acres.”

Over 500,000 people reside in the Bay Delta itself, which also is home to key infrastructure, including five high highways, three railroads, two deep-water shipping channels, hundreds of natural gas lines and five high-voltage transmission lines. The Delta estuary, an important estuary that is also the largest on the west coast of North America, covers more than 40 percent of California: “An estimated 25 percent of all warm water and anadromous sport fishing species; 80 percent of the state’s commercial fishery species live in or migrate through the Delta, and at least half of its Pacific Flyway migratory water birds rely on the region’s wetlands.”

The Delta is not without controversy: “For more than 30 years, the Delta has been embroiled in continuing legal controversy over the struggle to restore the faltering ecosystem while maintaining its role as the hub of the state’s water supply.”

Based in Sacramento, Brian often teaches about the Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta and the issues that surround it. He says that activities that tie in well with teaching about it include “Seeing Watersheds”, “Color Me a Watershed”, “Blue River”, “Sum of the Parts”, “Storm Water”, “8-4-1, One For All” and “Invaders.” He added that “Water Quality Windows” from Healthy Water Healthy People is also useful.

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