FEATURE: The Delta National Heritage Area takes shape

The Delta Reform Act and Delta Plan both emphasize the importance of designating the Delta under the National Heritage Area program.  This designation aims to protect and enhance the unique cultural, historical, recreational, agricultural, and economic values of the Delta as a place, in alignment with the coequal goals.

In 2019, federal legislation established the National Heritage Area, and since then, the Delta Protection Commission has been working on developing a management plan.  The plan outlines the significance and purpose of the National Heritage Area, as well as the activities that the Commission and its regional partners will undertake over the next 10 to 15 years.  The plan must be submitted by March 12, 2024, five years after the designation, and approved by the Secretary of the Interior.

At the September meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, Delta Protection Commission Program Manager Blake Roberts shared the progress made as they near completion of the draft management plan.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is California’s first and only National Heritage Area; there are 62 other NHAs across the country, mainly on the East Coast and Midwest.  The program celebrates nationally important areas while allowing local communities a say in its direction.  Designated as a National Heritage Area for an initial 15-year period, it can be renewed for an additional 15 years.

The Delta National Heritage Area recognizes the national significance of the Delta.  It provides resources such as federal funding, access to National Park expertise, and opportunities to learn and partner with other National Heritage Areas.   The boundaries include the Yolo Bypass, West Sacramento, Stockton, Vallejo, and Hercules, which encompasses a lot of water.  As Mr. Roberts pointed out, the focus on water is crucial, as it plays a central role in the area.

The National Heritage Area Management Plan

The Delta Protection Commission is the coordinating entity responsible for developing the management plan and reaching out to various groups, non-profits, and governments to create partnerships needed for its implementation.  The management plan identifies the important resources in the area, such as the legacy communities, historical points of interest, and natural features.  It’s the guiding document for moving forward and engages potential partners in implementation.

To ensure effective planning and community involvement, the Commission established the National Heritage Area Management Plan Advisory Committee and appointed 15 regular members and some ex-officio members.  Task groups have also been formed as necessary.  Tribal consultation is an ongoing process, recognizing the significant role Native Americans have played in the Delta’s history.

The management plan will have seven chapters:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Interpretation: This chapter focuses on the stories of the Delta, how those will be told, and why they are important.
  • Chapter 3: Resource stewardship and enhancements: These are the resources, such as buildings, landscapes, and archaeology, that the NHA will focus on, so this chapter considers how they can be protected and enhanced.
  • Chapter 4: Heritage Development and Tourism: This chapter considers how tourists will move through the area sustainably.  One concern is that roadways in the Delta are limited and unprepared for higher traffic volumes, so this chapter will consider how people can best move around the Delta.
  • Chapter 5: Partnerships: Partnerships are key for National Heritage Areas, so this chapter calls out the groups that the Commission is or anticipates to partner with.
  • Chapter 6: Business Plan: This chapter defines how the plan will move forward. The Delta Protection Commission, as a state agency, has a lot of assets and ongoing funding, but they don’t necessarily have the flexibility needed in certain circumstances.  Rather than determining what will be done, this chapter provides ideas for what can be done in the future to move things forward to accomplish the necessary tasks.
  • Chapter 7: Implementation plan.

Interpretive themes

How does a place connect with you?  Why should you care about a building?  Why should you care about a landscape?  Why should you care about an animal?  Interpretive themes are defined as the core ideas or concepts that visitors should understand after visiting an area.  They are meant to inspire emotional connection and provoke deeper thought and reflection, connecting people to the resources on a thought and feeling level.

There are five primary interpretive themes:

  • Theme 1: Water: Precious Lifeblood for the Delta and California: The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is California’s oasis, located at the center of the state’s water challenges and opportunities, and a water passage between the Pacific Ocean and inland California for folks on their way to the gold fields and for shipping from the Port of Stockton and Port of Sacramento.
  • Theme 2: The Beating Heart of Natural California: This theme is derived from Tribal consultation, during which Tribes described the Delta as a heart and the rivers as arteries flowing across the state. So this theme recognizes the Delta as the center of California’s biological and physical environment, supporting numerous biologically diverse species and connecting freshwater from throughout California to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Theme 3: Abundance, Diversity, Resistance, and Survival – Native Americans in the Delta: Numerous Native Americans thrived in the Delta before European settlement, developing complex and diverse societies deeply rooted in the landscape, and have endured despite existential threats.  Roberts noted there are no missions in the Delta due largely to resistance from Native Americans.  This theme is currently under review during Tribal consultation.
  • Theme 4: The Delta Emerges as California’s Cornucopia: Through capital, human labor, and technology, the Delta’s lush vegetation became one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions, with the ability to grow a large variety of crops, farmed by large and smaller operations. This theme recognizes the importance of reclamation to agriculture and the Delta.
  • Theme 5: Cultural Influences of the Delta – Enduring Legacies of American, Asian, European, and Latin American Immigrants: Bringing their ambition and skills to the Delta, cultural and ethnic communities from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States shaped the region’s agriculture and industry during the late 19th century and early 20th century and continue to leave an indelible imprint on the landscape.

There are three supporting themes:

  • Supporting Theme 1: Northern California’s Inland Defense (1850s- 1940s): A place of both defense and defiance, the military installations of the Delta and Carquinez Strait tell a story of local support for US military operations throughout the Pacific. Also, during World War II, an explosion at Port Chicago, just outside of Concord, killed many African-American sailors.  Afterward, Harry Truman desegregated the military; the Port of Chicago tragedy likely played an important role.
  • Supporting Theme 2: The Creative Inspiration of the Delta (1900s- Present): Distinctive urban, rural, and aquatic landscapes, labor and leisure, and relaxed lifestyle have drawn many writers and artists to the Delta for solace and inspiration, such as Joan Didion, Jack London, Wayne Tebow, and others.
  • Supporting Theme 3: Delta as Recreational Retreat (1950s-Present): The Delta’s waters and rural communities provide a retreat from our busy lives and reconnect us to the land and each other. It’s an important part of the economy and a part of the lifestyle there.

Next steps

Currently, the Commission is working to complete the draft management plan.  Later this fall, after the Advisory Committee and the Commission review the plan, it will be released to the public for review.  Afterward, a final plan incorporating comments received will be presented to the Commission for approval and submitted to the Secretary of the Interior and the National Park Service by March 12, 2024.

Projects include signage around the Delta, developing a fourth-grade curriculum, a yearly Delta Heritage Forum, a newsletter, a marketing plan, a Delta ‘passport’ for visitors, and creating habitat for pollinators through “Operation Pollination.”

In 2026, it will be the 250th birthday of the US.  “We see America 250 as sort of a coming out party for the National Heritage Area and trying to encompass as many groups as possible to celebrate all the things that are important about the Delta,” said Mr. Roberts.




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