Can – or should – the Delta be promoted?
by Gene Beley, CVBT Delta Correspondent

August 23, 2015 9:00pm
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•  Delta Narratives discusses how to market the region

•  “The skunk on the table is the government”


Mike Machado makes a point
(Photo by Gene Beley)

The Delta Protection Commission has spent about $400,000 with advertising and public relations agencies to explore ways to promote business in the California Delta with a basic question still unanswered: how -- or even should -- the watery region be promoted.

To get at the answer, the commission sponsored something called “The Delta Narratives” in hopes of coming up with ways to market the region to the world. Four scholars studied the issue, wrote 90-page papers on the subject, then they, along with community leaders and others interested in the Delta met for an afternoon to further discuss different approaches.

(Watch a video of the meeting meeting here:)

Delta Narratives explore ways to market the California Delta to the World from Gene Beley on Vimeo.

From that meeting emerged realization that one of the ongoing problems is that few know anything about the Delta — or even where it is located. For the record, the California Delta is where the state’s two largest rivers – the Sacramento and the San Joaquin -- meet, forming a labyrinth of waterways that make up the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Western Hemisphere.

The meeting also learned that many Delta residents aren’t excited about outsiders coming to the Delta and interfering with their way of life.

Mike Machado, who has been a state Senator (2000-2008), a former director and chairman of the Delta Protection Commission and is now a Linden cherry farmer, was one of the group discussion leaders who gave an example. “You’re trying to load pears on a road, or you’re moving a 20-foot-wide grain harvester on a two lane road and you have no place to turn off. So people are saying, ‘I’m fine with my life as it is — why complicate it?’”

“Then, as a group, aren’t we in a position to come in and say, ‘We’re your local government and we’re here to help you?’” joked Reuben Smith, one of the scholars and a retired University of the Pacific professor.

“Reuben,” Mr. Machado replied, “that is the crux of the issue. There is so much government in the Delta saying, ‘Trust me, I’m here to help you.’”

Mr. Machado said the Delta residents and business owners have seen the results. “Take some of the historical sites in Clarksburg, or Walnut Grove,” he said. “If you have a population coming in to look at it, you need eateries. But we can’t build them without making them flood-proof on stilts. People don’t even want to invest in their own homes because it may trigger all these other improvements.

“And you take a look at what used to be. If you go back 20-30 years most of these small towns had complete services with dry goods and hardware stores, gas stations, wedding shops. What was typical then was roads weren’t very serviceable. It took an hour to get out of the Delta. All of a sudden, you get better roads, cars and Ikea located in West Sacramento. You got a Costco in Lodi and Fairfield being accessible. The Antioch Bridge made the Bay Area accessible in one hour.

The results for the Delta: “No one shops locally any more,” he said.

“Then the next thing that happened is instead of all the farmers living in the Delta, now they can live in Brookside (an upscale development in Stockton) and be at the ranch in 25 minutes. So you’ve lost that core of people in the Delta. You lose the incentives for investment and upkeep. You end up with a stagnant, deteriorating Delta. Locke is a good example,” Mr. Machado said.

The former state official said government efforts to help have been a negative in many respects.

“Then the skunk on the table is the government who says we are going to take away the attributes of the Delta — water — and put in infrastructures contrary to the esthetics of the Delta. And, by the way, the federal government is going to come in and say, ‘We’ve got to take everything off the levees and can’t allow anyone to build there,’” Mr. Machado said.

Tod Ruthstaller, chief executive officer and curator of history at the Haggin Museum, an art museum and local history museum in Stockton, said maybe it is too much of a challenge to “sell” the Delta to people within the Delta. “Maybe we should focus more on those outside the immediate Delta and through education why the Delta is important,” he said.

Mr. Smith said he was uncomfortable with that approach “because it sounds like we should leave all the people in the Delta and we go ahead because we know better.”

Mr. Machado said one of the best ways to get people involved is to get their children involved. Mr. Ruthstaller told about how they produced Delta Fusion for five years with a free summer class for children at the University of the Pacific. “It was a celebration of the Delta cultural and historical aspects. They employed giant puppets that the kids made like big caterpillar tractors and big salmon.” He said they had exhausted the funding for the project, which came from the James Irvine Foundation.

Phillip Garone, associate professor of history and graduate program director at California State University, Stanislaus, gave a historical overview of the Delta that called attention to how the Delta once had a prolific salmon fishery and the canneries supported by it. He said water quality has been affected by the diversion of water to the south by the federal Central Valley Water Project and the State Water Project. He hinted that the controversial, multi-billion dollar Bay Delta Conservation Plan with its proposed massive twin water tunnels will be just one more step to degrade the Delta’s water quality.

The water tunnels, touted by Gov. Edmund Brown Jr., would suck fresh water out of the Sacramento River before it could flow into the Delta.

“The Delta is part of a larger history of reclamation in a conversion to agriculture,” Mr. Garone said. “It is also a part of a larger history of changing national and local attitudes towards wildlife. Since the mid-20th Century we’ve changed viewing wetlands as wastelands to understanding them as an important service that not only harbor numerous species, but also are a benefit to people and deserves protection from all of us.”

Technology in the Delta

Retired Pacific professor Reuben Smith spoke for both himself and his essay author partner, William Swagerty, currently a professor of history at the University of the Pacific, when he said that there is a very strong relationship between technology and the needs of the Delta.

The steamboat was the first revolution that allowed miners to get to the gold fields. “Then the Delta went through ‘reclamation’ where the first part is hand building of tulle and peat moss levees that didn’t work because they were porous. So with the development of dredging, then the building of dependable levees had begun.”

He said the next step was moving from steamboats and steam-engine pumps to the advent of electricity and electric pumps with small portable pumps for irrigation. Then came the development of steel truss bridges in the 1920s along with increasing use of internal combustion gas and diesel engines that put steam power out of business. “Couple that with the automobile and truck and a different pattern of transportation developed,” said Mr. Smith.

“Refrigerated trucks after WW II came into the fields and packed the produce. They could then ship the produce long distances. Canneries in the Delta then disappeared,” he said.

In the 1950s small internal combustion engines went into small boats and outboard motors. Even though the largest motor in the late 1950s was only 30 horsepower, it would pull water skiers. And that brought another change to the Delta: recreation.

“The Delta began developing a great tourist industry to go along with agriculture,” said Mr. Smith.

But What Do the Experts Know About Current Delta Marketing?

Those holding the discussion thought there ought to be more bus and boat tours of the Delta, yet did not seem to know about the existing Walnut Grove Delta Heartbeats bus tours owned by Barbara Daly, a Clarksburg resident and strong supporter of the Delta region.

And none seemed to know much about the Delta Chambers of Commerce and how they promote the Delta with thousands of color booklets distributed at trade shows and through all the marinas from Stockton to San Francisco.

Each cited Delta cell phone reception as being a problem in trying to follow GPS maps and suggested a map tour that could be downloaded from home before leaving to the Delta. “If your service kicks out in the Delta,” said Mr. Ruthstaller, “you’re just smacking your forehead with your hand because you’re lost.”

Becoming “lost” may well be the Delta’s best attribute. Delta business owners who deal with visitors daily say one of the aspects of the Delta that appeals to those who find it is its comparative invisibility among California’s myriad of natural wonders. For them, the Delta is a good place to just get lost and hang out at the waterfront restaurants and bars.

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