On a clear, windless February day, biologist Chris Kitting paddled his two-man kayak through tule marshes in the Delta region known as Big Break.
A professor of aquatic biology at California State University, Hayward, Kitting conducts research in this 1,758-acre backwater that provides a habitat for osprey, great blue heron, river otter, raccoons and beaver, among other wildlife.
Big Break is a wide place in the Delta near Oakley, approximately 40 miles inland from the Golden Gate. At the turn of the century a system of levees here formed parcels of agricultural land on which farmers grew asparagus. The levees were breached 72 years ago when the forces of tides and river currents covered the rich bottom land with 10 feet of water.
"That's why this place is called Big Break," Kitting said. "Once the levy broke, the breaks just got bigger and bigger."
What Mother Nature reclaimed from the asparagus farmers is a lucky break for scientists like Kitting. The Big Break Regional Shoreline, acquired for $1,729,000 by the East Bay Regional Park District, now totals 1,758 acres, making it one of the largest outdoor laboratories for Delta research in the state. Funding for the purchase included significant grants from the state's Habitat Conservation Fund Program and the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
Although the Delta Science Center is at least five years old as a concept, the park district's recent acquisition of land and water means there will finally be a staging area and a place to build facilities for ongoing studies and public education, according to Kitting.
The center's founding partner institutions are Cal State Hayward and its Contra Costa Campus, Contra Costa County, Los Medanos Community College and the Contra Costa Community College District, East Bay Regional Park District, and Ironhouse Sanitary District.
Through the efforts of these partners Big Break is becoming laced with shoreline trails that serve scientists, teachers, students and the public seeking information vital to understanding delta habitats and the effect wetlands have on water quality and animal populations.
'Nature's Purification System'
After 150 years of development in the Bay Area and up the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, scientists are just beginning to appreciate the role of the Delta in the big environmental picture.
Plans for the Delta Science Center include building a pier over shallow water and constructing floating labs to give the public access to the water. According to Kitting, such construction will have the least environmental impact.
Water in Big Break typically has less than a 1-in-40 salinity. This concentration is acceptable for irrigation, however pollutants from upstream, including silt and mercury, can create a risk to human health.
Recent tests in the CSUH labs of Professor Joy Andrews indicate that Delta freshwater clams-a frequent crunch for river otters-contain detectable levels of mercury. This heavy metal contamination can warrant caution for fishermen who consume shellfish caught in the Delta.
Continuing research by Kitting, his students and colleagues on day and night boat trips to Big Break will help identify the problems and their solutions.
"Our collaborative research already is finding plants, such as water hyacinth, and animals, such as freshwater sponges, that can purify Delta water," he said.
Ron Russo, chief naturalist for the East Bay Regional Park District, sees Big Break as a perfect place to develop a center for education and research.
"Students will be able to get on the water in pontoon boats. They will take plant and mud samples and be able to study them right at the center," he said.
Although plans for the center are still being developed, Russo and Kitting would like a facility built on the southern shore of Big Break at the site of an old farm house and water tank tower.
Bond Approval Critical to Center
Approval will bring $2 million for the Delta Science Center. Another $2 million would come if voters also approved Proposition 13, the Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, Watershed Protection and Flood Protection Bond Act.
"The Delta is a like a giant layer cake, and every layer is a unique field of study," said Russo. "There is the historical component, including hydraulic gold mining upstream, hydrology, wastewater treatment, community ecology, and fisheries. When you look at the possible subjects that can be taught there is a huge number, given the right instructors."
Kitting and other educators have provided boat tours with an educational component for several years on Big Break.
"Intimate exposure to the environment is what makes the difference," said Russo. "This isn't just acres and acres of sawgrass. It is home to wrens, muskrats, beaver, osprey….We can change people's appreciation of this place by showing them what is here."
Students Learn Aboard CSUH Vessel
Not insignificant to aquatic biologists like Kitting is the future of the Delta smelt, the Sacramento split tail and the sturgeon.
"This is California's most important resource," said Steve Barbata, the executive director of the science center.
"The Delta is the engine that drives the seventh largest economy in the world. It is the lifeblood of California agriculture and industry, and provides drinking water for more than 20 million residents," Barbata said.
According to Barbata, the idea of developing the center "was conceived over a cup of coffee in Oakley."
He explained, "Dwight Meadows, Frank Hengel and Al McNabney got together with then-County Supervisor Tom Torlakson, who now serves in the California Assembly (D-Martinez) to kick around the idea."
Meadows, who has family roots in Big Break, is with the Ironhouse Sanitary District. Hengel is a school official and McNabney, now deceased, was an Audubon Society member.
Barbata said the idea took hold once the educators and scientists got involved.
"Now the big nut to crack is how to get funding to build and to keep the center operating in perpetuity," he said.
Science Center's Mission
"This is crucial. We have a major role," Leung said. "There are a lot of people in California who don't realize how important the Delta is to water supply in the north, south and central California. There is no other center out there doing this extensive education and research."
Public Affairs Offices/Campus News