Framework

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Locals gather at Foster's Bighorn Bar and Restaurant in the delta town of Rio Vista. Built in the 1950s, the Bighorn features more than 300 mounted heads of big game animals, and is a popular gathering spot for hunters and fishermen.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Buildings along the main street of Locke, Calif., remain much as they were when constructed about 100 years ago. The town was originally a settlement for Chinese laborers who built the roads and levees that crisscross the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Anglers congregate at a fishing spot at the end of Fulton Shipyard Road as the sun sets on the delta town of Antioch. The California Department of Water Resources has floated a proposal to replumb the delta, the main transfer point for water shipped from Northern to Southern California. Among the plans are tunnels under the delta to channel water to the south.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A boater heads for home as the sun sets on the delta near Rio Vista. Starting in the late 19th century, Chinese workers constructed hundreds of miles of levees throughout the delta's waterways in an effort to reclaim and preserve farmland and control flooding. Levee failures in the delta can result in flooding of vast tracts of both agricultural land and developed cities.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Flotsam and jetsam surround a rusty pipe draining water from Ryer Island into the Sacramento River. Islands in the delta are surrounded by levees that are 20 to 30 feet above ground level on one side and the water on the other.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

The sun rises as morning traffic travels along Highway 160, which is built atop a levee along the Sacramento River near Rio Vista. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is one of only a few inverted river deltas in the world. It is the largest estuary on the Pacific coast.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Birds swarm at sunset over Ryer Island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which boasts a diversity of flora and fauna that thrive in wetlands about the size of Orange County.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A freshly plowed field bakes under the hot sun on Ryer Island. An extensive system of earthen levees has allowed widespread farming throughout the delta. Its peat soil makes it one of the most fertile agricultural areas in California, contributing billions of dollars to the state's economy.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Dried thistles line a levee along the Sacramento River Deep Water Ship Channel. The 19th century levee system allows farmers to cultivate about 500,000 acres of the delta, which was originally a tidal marsh. Once the rivers were confined to their riverbeds, the peat soil of the former tidal marsh was exposed to oxygen. Now, most the delta is below sea level.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Workers with the California Department of Water Resources drill for soil samples in the delta to gauge the feasibility of constructing tunnels that would transport water south. California officials are touting a proposal to replumb the delta, the main transfer point for water shipped from Northern to Southern California.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A Water Resources Department worker checks soil samples drilled from the delta.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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Replumbing the Delta

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Replumbing the Delta

Pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s southern edge has helped shove the West Coast’s largest estuary into ecological free fall, devastating its native fish populations and triggering endangered species protections that have tightened the spigot to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities.

The mounting problems have resurrected an old idea: shipping water supplies around the delta in a canal or, more likely, under it in a 40-mile water tunnel system that would be the nation’s longest.

But the plans, still in draft stage, follow years of failed attempts to stem the delta’s collapse while quenching California’s thirst — leaving open the question of whether it is possible to do both.

See Times photographer Luis Sinco‘s photographs from the delta in the photo gallery above and read Bettina Boxall’s full story, “The Peripheral Canal may go underground.”

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