Estuary News

September 2020

Makeover for Delta Weed Patch & Salt Trap?

What began as a project to convert a submerged Delta island into habitat for endangered native fish has morphed into a multi-benefit package with additional payoffs for water quality and recreation. The collaborative design process for the Franks Tract Futures project brought initially skeptical local stakeholders on board and is being hailed as a model for future initiatives. Yet major uncertainties remain as interested parties explore the challenges of implementing a complex redesign of a big chunk of the Delta.

The proposed project would take a big shallow lake full of weeds, deepen some parts, fill in others with new lands and fish habitats, add beaches and recreational amenities, and stanch the spread of salt water from the ocean toward the South Delta export pumps.

Carl Wilcox of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has taken on many large-scale ventures in his career, but none quite like this one. “This project is unique in my experience because it’s in the Delta and it’s transformational,” he reflects.

“You’re not just enhancing something that’s already there and functions to some degree,” Wilcox says. “You’re making a large-scale ecosystem change that alters negative ecological and hydrodynamic characteristics resulting from past alteration.”

Franks Tract (large water area) with Bethel Island in foreground and San Joaquin River over top. Photo: Christina Sloop

One of the largest and least subsided of the Delta’s flooded islands, 3,000-acre Franks Tract, probably named after dredge operator John C. Franks, was drained and converted to farmland between 1902 and 1906. Over the years, the levees around the Tract repeatedly failed. Following a 1938 breach that flooded Franks Tract, no attempt was made to reclaim it.

Little Franks Tract, a 330-acre appendage west of the main Tract, flooded in 1982. After a stint as a Navy bombing range during World War II, the Franks Tract State Recreation Area became a popular boating and fishing destination for Bay and Delta residents, serviced by Bethel Island. Apart from this unincorporated community, there are few roads and little electricity around the edges of Franks Tract.

Over time, submerged aquatic vegetation — invasive species like egeria, water hyacinth, and water primrose — degraded Franks Tract. Boat propellers became tangled in the weeds. Chemical control was expensive and raised alarms about effects on fish. No one maintained the remnant levees along adjoining Piper and Shellmound sloughs. “If those go, waves will break on the Bethel Island shoreline and the marinas,” Wilcox says.

Navigable sloughs silted up. Sea-level rise loomed. “There were a lot of trends people were not happy with,” recalls UC Davis landscape architecture professor Brett Milligan. It became clear to some local residents that the status quo was unsustainable.

The status quo changed a little more abruptly in 2015 with construction of a temporary barrier across the False River to prevent salt water intrusion from ocean tides into the area of the water export pumps. “The barrier did what it was supposed to do from a water-quality perspective, but it had negative consequences for the Delta boating and fishing community and some of the neighboring island landowners because it changed the hydrology,” Wilcox says.

Jamie Bolt manages the Bethel Harbor marina, family-owned since 1972 with 85 in-water berths and dry storage for 400 more boats. “We were affected by the dynamics of water flow with the barrier,” she says. “It was inconvenient for our customers to get up to the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers because of the closure of False River. One of the ways around it, Fisherman’s Cut, had such increased flows that it became dangerous. The Jersey Island ferry was caught in the current and damaged.” 

Retired engineer David Gloski, who bought property on the island in 2000, lives half a mile from the barrier and recalls that it drew him into the planning process for improving Franks Tract. “My job is to keep this area an asset for myself and my neighbors,” he reflects. “Why don’t we try to figure out the best things we can get out of the whole process?”

Under the aegis of the Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy, CDFW conducted a feasibility study for a Franks Tract project to improve fish habitat in 2017-18. The resulting proposal, calling for the creation of tidal marsh close to Bethel Island and the closure of False River, drew a strong negative reaction. “We understood why after talking with them,” says Wilcox. Part of it was aesthetic, a preference for open-water views from the island over marsh vegetation.

Photo: Brett Milligan

“Marsh habitat was going to be situated in a major boating corridor and aligned along residential areas, bad for property values,” Gloski says. For marina operators like Bolt, the design meant loss of access to “fast water,” which at Bethel Island means water you can boat through at high speed. Her marina would have been 20 minutes from fast water. “It’s as if I ran a ski resort and my family operated the lift and you made me put the lift 20 minutes away from the mountain.”

Gloski countered the landscape redesign CDFW had floated with his own “local option,” in which the marshes would be moved away from Bethel Island. Wilcox calls Gloski’s role “really helpful and constructive — he came up with a concept design addressing concerns about navigation and access, especially the fishing component.” While some neighbors resisted the idea of any changes, Gloski recognized the need for action: “The Tract isn’t staying the way it is and isn’t changing for the better. Something needs to be done if we want it functional and navigable.” He calls the positive response to his design “the beginning of an evolution.”

Returning to the drawing board, CDFW reconfigured the project development process. The new process combined an agency-heavy steering committee, an advisory committee of local stakeholders (including Bolt and Gloski), a public engagement effort led by Milligan, and an iterative approach to design beginning in 2019. A “no action” alternative — leaving the Tract as it is — was on the table at every stage. Online geospatial surveys let respondents drop a pin on a map to show their locations and current features they liked and disliked. Locals hosted field trips for Milligan’s undergraduate students, who helped generate alternative designs.

Meeting with the community. Photo: Alexander Kraus-Polk

“There was lot of distrust initially,” Milligan recalls. “People were convinced that they weren’t going to be heard, wouldn’t have a voice in the process, that it was all part of a water grab. That’s a legacy in the Delta that has to be undone. The salinity barrier left a bad taste.”

The engagement process changed that. “This process was something I had been hoping would show up for a project for years,” says steering committee member Michael Moran, supervising naturalist at neighboring Big Break Regional Shoreline, part of the East Bay Regional Park District. “There was something wrong about the way we were trying to do projects, so much resistance to things with good benefits. Try to change anything in the Delta and it’s ‘Katy, bar the door!’” He remembers some local participants being caught off guard by the agencies’ openness, wary of being co-opted. “The project was as much about the process as about the physical changes.”

All the resulting designs for Franks Tract moved the marshes away from Bethel Island. “Playing out the ‘no action’ alternative was a key turning point,” says Milligan. “Stakeholders got to see how their interests potentially aligned with the project.” Seven initial designs were whittled down to three for the final decision round. At each stage, “no action” lost support: “In the final survey, three-quarters of the responders voted for one of the three designs over ‘no action.’ That was a major shift,” he says.

Local doubts lingered about the connection to a water grab or new tunnels under the Delta, but gradually diminished. Planners insist there is no relationship between the Franks Tract project and any water “conveyance” project. “The project has independent utility irrespective of the tunnel or current operations,” says Wilcox. According to the Franks Tract Futures 2020 Reimagined report, “While the Department of Water Resources is coordinating with the project and provided hydrodynamic modeling of enhancement scenarios, the project is being developed independently from ongoing water operations, Delta exports, or proposals for alternate conveyances.” In terms of effects on public trust in the project process, the tunnel concern was always there but slowly evaporated, says Milligan. “At first we got tons of comments about that; in the last survey very few.”

The landscape redesign chosen as the Preferred Alternative would use dredged material from within the Tract to build up areas on the northern and eastern sides and in adjoining Little Franks Tract where tidal marsh vegetation could take root, creating 1,150 acres of marsh, intertidal habitat, and tidal channels. Other potential sources of fill, including sediment from tunnel excavations, were ruled out.

Final concept favored by the community and stakeholders.

“The project isn’t proposing to use any ‘tunnel muck,’” says the project’s principal engineer, Michelle Orr of Environmental Science Associates (ESA). “Onsite dredge is the cheapest source of fill and has the benefit of deepening the channels and open water areas.” The resulting 1,100 acres of deeper water would improve navigation for boaters and fishers and make the Tract less hospitable to invasive weeds and less prone to harmful algal blooms (see p. 5). Habitat for striped bass would be enhanced, and largemouth black bass might also benefit.

By impeding the movement of water from the western Delta to the south Delta, the new marshlands would also block saltwater intrusion without resorting to hard salinity barriers. The marshes would also mitigate the risk of Delta smelt and juvenile salmon being pulled toward the water project pumps (“entrained”) in the south Delta. Little Franks Tract would be set aside for Delta smelt and for kayakers, paddle-boarders, and other non-motorized boaters. Twelve miles of remnant levees would be upgraded. Duck hunters would lose some traditional blinds on the water, although new and diversified hunting sites would be created within and on the edges of the tidal marshes.

“We took Peter Moyle’s perspective that the Delta is a novel ecosystem, incorporating native and non-native species,” says Wilcox. “You can’t put it back the way it was.” But some historic functions can be restored. Wilcox sees the plan as an exercise in reconciliation ecology, benefiting native fish as well as “desirable” introduced species like striped bass and largemouth black bass — non-natives with constituencies. 

Future vision for slice of new tidal marsh channel and fish habitat at Little Franks Tract that would also help plug saltwater intrusion into the south Delta.

“Delta smelt are very important to CDFW, but that’s only one stakeholder; others need to be part of the process,” says Orr. “We did look closely at smelt. Little Franks Tract is closest to where smelt are typically found and farthest from the pumps. The new marshes would provide food web support. Preferentially setting aside that area, optimizing it for smelt habitat, works well with non-motorized boating.”

The Tract’s reshaped hydrology would aid salmon and smelt as well as water quality. “Entrainment of fish goes along with reduction in salinity intrusion,” Wilcox explains. “The way Franks Tract is now, the hydrology carries things through the Tract to Old River. For smelt coming out of the river confluence or Suisun Marsh to spawn, it’s an easy route to pull them into the south Delta and the pumps.” If you reduce the potential for salinity movement in dry years when there’s not a lot of outflow, the project works the same way. Breaking the flow that brings fish and saltwater with the tides and allows them to move toward the pumps addresses both problems.

Source: DWR

The non-native fish, meanwhile, are of greater interest to the Bethel Island community, as black bass fishing is a huge economic driver for the local economy. “Rarely a weekend goes by without a bass tournament, either national or local, with a hundred or more bass boats taking off at 6 o’clock,” Gloski observes. Bass like weeds but the latter can slow boats and clog fast water channels.

Wilcox describes tradeoffs for bass anglers: “We’re addressing the weed issue through dredging, making the Tract more pelagic, less weed-dominated. We’ll still have lots of edge habitat with weeds whatever we do. Arguably it could be better for black bass than it is now, with more linear habitat.”

Future vision for accessible marsh channels supporting fishing and hunting at Franks Tract.

Striped bass, meanwhile, would benefit from the pelagic effect. “Striped bass like velocity gradients, or seams,” says Orr. “You have that kind of seam at what hydrologists call the ‘nozzle,’ where water from False River enters Franks Tract, a great place to fish for striped bass. We added in a few more seams to our design as desirable features for bass.”

Along with water quality and fish habitat, recreational use is the third leg of the new design tripod. “Probably the engineering issue we spent the most time on was what kind of channels were required to meet the water quality and navigation goals at the same time,” Orr notes. Enhanced navigation is one piece of the project that draws enthusiastic local support, along with proposed beaches and other boat-accessible recreational facilities.

Future vision for a new beach and adjacent recreational area on Franks Tract.

Looking past the construction phase, Gloski and Bolt stress the importance of maintenance. “We’re really concerned for how this area gets managed going forward,” Gloski says. “It’s one thing to implement, but are you just going to walk away and in five years it’s a mess?”

Other unanswered questions include where the estimated construction cost of $560 million will come from. “It could be a line item in a bond,” Wilcox speculates. Previous bond issues have earmarked funding for specific actions, like implementing the Baylands Ecological Goals Project and dam removal on the Klamath River. “Other interests like water contractors may see it as something that addresses their needs,” he says. Wilcox notes that salinity reduction has some benefit beyond exports for in-Delta diverters that support local agriculture.

In addition to funding and community support, agency involvement will be critical. “There needs to be a champion to keep it going,” says Wilcox, noting that CDFW is not likely to be the lead agency going forward.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation owns the Tract, although the agency’s budget and staffing for it is minimal and its resources, already tight, will be further strained by 2020 fire damage at Big Basin, Julia Pfeifer Burns, and other parks. Jim Micheaels, former manager of the State Parks district that includes the Tract and another steering committee member, describes the projected increase in recreational use as “a key concern” of his agency: “Our Department is not funded to operate, maintain, and manage the proposed recreation facilities or features and increased use that would result from the Franks Tract Futures Plan,” he says. 

Some kind of co-management between State Parks and the East Bay Regional Park District may be an option; precedents include Crown Beach in Alameda and McLaughlin Eastshore park. Moran cautions that a sustainable funding source and a lot of planning will be needed. “Right now, it’s very early in the process. The District is supporting the planning process but has no official position on future management,” he says. (According to Michaels, State Parks has not discussed operating the Tract in conjunction with any other agency.)

Photo: Brett Milligan.

Despite the questions and challenges lurking in the weeds, the Franks Tract Futures project does offer a bold vision for rearranging a major chunk of the Delta to achieve a variety of common goods, all in one package. Steve Rothert, who heads the Department of Water Resources’ newly created Division of Multiple Benefit Initiatives notes pragmatic incentives for addressing multiple societal goals in one effort: “Projects cross jurisdictional and statutory-authority boundaries. We’ve learned increasingly that it’s almost impossible to do any meaningful project of any significant size and significant benefits alone. Also, given the current economy and the challenging state budget situation, over the next five years or longer we’ll be forced to be creative in developing multi-source funding packages to get big projects done. The broader the base of interests who want a project to be implemented, the greater the likelihood that stakeholders will find support among funding entities.”

Rothert says the Franks Tract project’s approach to achieving multiple benefits looks like a good fit for the mission of DWR and his division in particular: “We would consider getting involved in it going forward.”

At press time, the Preferred Alternative had just completed a public comment period. Wilcox, retiring from CDFW at the end of September, is trying to drum up support to keep the project going. On Bethel Island, people are waiting with cautious optimism, among other emotions, for what happens next.

Top Photo: Fast water is prized by local boaters on Franks Tract. Photo: Brett Milligan

Renderings: Yiwei Huang

Franks Tract Futures Reimagined 2020

Related Estuary Articles

Emergency Barrier, January 2020

Keeping the Salt Field at Bay, March 2016

Back to the Bones of the Delta, March 2017

Back to rest of issue

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About the author

Joe Eaton writes about endangered and invasive species, climate and ecosystem science, environmental history, and water issues for ESTUARY. He is also "a semi-obsessive birder" whose pursuit of rarities has taken him to many of California's shores, wetlands, and sewage plants.

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