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Elements is a collection of stories reported and produced by Mark Schapiro about the four most elemental ingredients of life and how they’re being reshaped by climate change.

Restoring the ground beneath our feet

Lookout Slough, which until recently housed farmland and a duck hunting club. Soon, levees here will be removed.
Mary Catherine O'Connor
Lookout Slough, which until recently housed farmland and a duck hunting club. Soon, levees here will be removed.

This is the fourth and final story in a series. Listen to the rest at kalw.org/elements.

We're like a construction company, but we're constructing wetlands and streams from damaged places.
Adam Davis

This story examins Earth, our last stop in the Elements series. Earth is where all the elements connect to support life. It’s all we have — where everything begins and ends. Some cultures evoke Earth as poised like a big ball, on the shoulders of a god. Others have it supported like a juggling ball by multi-armed goddesses and others, still, have us resting on the back of a turtle.

In his epic Four Seasons Symphony, Vivaldi evokes each of the four seasons on Earth. Back in 1723, he, like most everyone, was confident that the seasons would evolve and change with regularity and that anyone listening, wherever and wherever they might be, would feel and recognize the seasonal changes.

Then came now. Three centuries since Vivaldi, the seasons are no longer what they used to be. Today's music reflects that change. In his song “SOS (Mother Nature)” the rapper will.i.am can only call out to the gods to save us from climate change.

The Sacramento Delta is one of the most constructed landscapes in California. This is the story of a place where tools of destruction are turning into instruments of restoration.

This story was made to be heard. Click the play button above to listen if you are able.

Story transcript:

MARK SCHAPIRO: The Sacramento Delta is the heart of the state’s water system. About 5 million acre feet of water is pumped from the delta to Central and Southern California every year.

The delta was once a big tidal marsh, home to the Miwok and other indigenouspeople. In the years after the Gold Rush, with government support settlers began farming this moist, fertile land. They did it by turning marshes into islands by sucking out the water and building more than a thousand miles of levees.They dredged deep waterways so that ships could carry goods from San Francisco to Sacramento, the rich soil could be farmed and floods kept under control.

One hundred years later, the state has recognized that they might have pushed the separation between land and water a little too far. Well, not just a little. A lot. Entire ecosystems were altered, and the rich terrain made possible by the salt and freshwater mix dried out.

Now, step by step, the state is trying to correct those ecological mistakes.

I’ve driven out to Lookout Slough. It’s about 30 miles due east of Vacaville, on the edge of the Sacramento Delta. As recently as 2022, Lookout Slough was farmland and a duck hunting club.

These bulldozers are monster machines, normally used for building things like freeway onramps, Today, here, they’re doing something very different: They’re bringing the Earth back to something resembling the condition it was in before California built all those levees – an Earth that had a lot more water on it. A wetland…

ADAM DAVIS: Because it's this interaction of the land and the water. That creates the most rich opportunity for life, right for biodiversity. And for the health of the natural system, right? It's the tides still here. But the tide is channeled off by levees

MARK SCHAPIRO: That’s Adam Davis, whose company Ecosystem Investment Partners, EIP, is managing this project, all 3,400 acres of it. Adam says they’re aiming to bring back the mix of saltwater from the San Francisco Bay with the freshwater from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers.

ADAM DAVIS: breaching the existing levee to allow tidal influence back on this land.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Everything that happens on the EARTH happens because of WATER. Water carves out canyons and gives the EARTH its shape. The EARTH hosts organisms, like us, that depend on WATER. It’s a back-forth…a primary relationship. When you lose that dynamic, you lose not only animals and plants but the land’s ability to withstand weather extremes…which we’ve become really familiar with… from deluges of rain to withering heat.

To facilitate the life-giving flow of Water, you have to restore the Earth.

In fact, it’s the states’ Department of Water Resources that is funding this multi-million dollar, Earth-moving project. With all the water pumped out of the delta, hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands have been lost. IN 20I8 , the federal government ordered the state to restore 8,000 acres of wetlands, and the habitat it provides to many endangered species like smelt, salmon and numerous birds and reptiles.

Which is why the state went out and hired EIP.

ADAM DAVIS: We're like a construction company. But we're constructing wetlands and streams from damaged places …

MARK SCHAPIRO: To make that happen, the first thing you gotta do is take down the levees.

[MARK SCHAPIRO] Hello, Bryce. Yeah. Hi, I'm Mark. Good to meet you 

[BRYCE HALL] Good to meet you. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: Bryce Hall works for Hanford Construction, a firm contracted by EIP that specializes in using big machinery to recreate lost ecosystems.

BRYCE HALL: And the small water trucks help the blades maintain the haul roads and the larger water trucks help the disk process the fill to the right moisture. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: So there are like six or seven different machines just right here doing different functions…

BRYCE HALL: Yes, you'll have dozers, blades, scrapers, large water trucks, small water trucks, disk, compactor. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: And what did they do? How would you characterize what they doing? I mean, they're reshaping the earth here…

BRYCE HALL: Well, if you want the honest to God's truth, we're just like a bunch of kids. We just got a bigger we just got a bigger sandbox bigger Tonka Toys now….

MARK SCHAPIRO: Those ‘Tonka Toys’ are moving a lot of Earth, tons every day to prepare the ground for the onslaught of water when the levees are removed.

We drove with Adam for a tour of Lookout Slough atop a 26 foot tall levee that’s destined to fall. Today, it's wide enough to drive an SUV on.

We stopped at the first place where the levees will be breached. Right now it’s the site of a small bridge crossing an aqueduct carrying water from the Sacramento River. The tiny bridge became kind of famous, briefly, about 30 years ago when a confused whale dubbed ‘Humphrey’ started swimming up this very channel. Bystanders and journalists crowded on this bridge to watch.

It was October 1985 when Humphrey the wayward whale first appeared in the San Francisco Bay. He began a 26 day odyssey that eventually took the humpback through the Carquinas Straits and up the Sacramento River…”

MARK SCHAPIRO: Humphrey was saved, and was welcomed by more crowds when he returned to the San Francisco Bay. When this project is completed, the levee will be coming down, and the little bridge will go down with it. The aqueduct that Humphrey swam through from the Bay will be gone too. Here’s Adam Davis again.

ADAM DAVIS: So when this when these levees are breached, this will be underwater, most of the time, that will be inundated.

MARK SCHAPIRO: The tides will rush in, and a rich ecosystem can start to build again. , capable also of sequestering carbon, will be restored.

ADAM DAVIS: And so when the new channels are built, it'll flush with tidal energy.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Lookout Slough is the state’s biggest wetlands restoration project.The California Department of Water Resources says they’re hoping it provides a “proof of concept” for more such projects.

What that could mean is a lot more work in this new field of restoration. Rebuilding ecosystems–everything from digging the right ditch to planting the right plants to bringing down the levees–requires specialized knowledge. Any wrong move could further degrade already degraded lands or even wipe out already threatened species.

[MARK SCHAPIRO] I’m in a classroom at the California Conservation Corps in San Rafael where twelve students sit with their notebooks at desks. The teacher, Eric Buenrostro, works for Hanford Construction, and he’s explaining the relationship between elements of an ecosystem. He quickly sketches a river, trees, plants, birds, on a whiteboard.

The students here range in age from 18 to early 30s. They are recent immigrants from Central America, and work in Marin and the East Bay maintaining parks and trails. They’re here for a 4-day, paid course, sponsored by Ecological Workforce, a non-profit based in Sebastopol.

It covers everything from what to be aware of while restoring an ecosystem—threatened reptiles, fish, bird nests, native plants--to the regulations that govern them.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Eric Buenrostro used to work out in the field like his students do. . Now he’s the on-site Safety Coordinator for Hanford Construction, the company that’s working on the Delta restoration project. He tells me that, through his teaching, he’s offering students the bigger ecological picture of construction work.

ERIC BUENOSTRO: I want them to know that, okay, these little small things you’re doing, moving debris from the wetlands, you guys are helping the environment, the ecosystem to make it better.

MARK SCHAPIRO: I can imagine, let's say being on one of these crews that you are saying like, okay, like, move all this dirt from here to there… And get the trees from there to here. And then, like, clean it up, and then we'll see you tomorrow. 

ERIC BUENOSTRO: Yeah. And they're like, Well, why are we doing that? And then so this is why this classroom teaching was like, Okay, there's a purpose for all these little small details you guys are doing.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Another reason for the course? To get these young people jobs… Many people I spoke to in the field of ecological restoration anticipate a boom in restoration work and the pay rate rising as the contribution of healthy ecosystems to climate resilience becomes clear. After completing the course, they’ll be prepared for state-funded, WELL-paid restoration work in sensitive ecosystems, like the project underway in Lookout Slough.

During a break, I speak briefly with one student, Glenda Diaz, who came here several years ago with her family

She says this class is helping her understand the environment and how she can help maintain the clean water and air, and take care of native animals while working on reconstruction jobs. I ask now when she’s on a job site, does she see it differently?

She says, she’s now much more aware of the impact of her work, of how she can help the ecosystem. She feels like her work has much more purpose now.

Jackie Arevalo supervises the team in class and in the field. She herself was a newcomer to this work after coming here several years ago, from Guatemala. Now, she supervises the crew’s work out in the field. She says, the classes have impact.

….To just be more mindful of the areas that we're working in. And, yeah, the power, we yield by going into these sites and to be more careful of where we're stepping to not disturb the native plants that are trying to grow in those areas. Yeah.

MARK SCHAPIRO: After the scientists, the policy-makers, the regulators, and the private companies have identified a place to be restored, the actual restoring is in the hands of workers, perhaps some in this very classroom

Back at Lookout Slough, huge mounds of Earth are being moved, everyday. The levees are expected to be breached in September, 2024. The water will flow, and the Earth will be replenished. In addition to the fish and birds and small mammals that will follow, the new state reserve will also be open to the human public—accessible by boat or kayak.

The Elements Series was financially supported by Invoking the Pause foundation and by the journalism non-profit, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project

This story aired in the October 5, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

Mark Schapiro is an award-winning investigative journalist and author specializing in the environment. He is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism