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Navigating the Delta: Meeting the people who live in California’s water hub

Tony George
Mailman Rick Stelzriede runs the only postal boat route in California


Pretend you’re looking at a map of the Bay Area, then scroll out a bit.  Find Martinez and Benicia, and draw a line east to Stockton.  From there, go north to Sacramento, then back to Martinez.  Look closely at that triangle and you’ll see a puzzle of waterways and islands that make up the California Delta.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers drain into the Delta, and with a system of dams and pumps built over decades, it’s become the center of California’s water distribution system.  Millions of acres of California farmland depend on the Delta, and nearly two-thirds of all Californians -- including many in the Bay Area -- get their water from it.  It’s also an important ecosystem, home to some threatened and endangered species of fish, like smelt and salmon.

Because so many people outside the Delta have a stake in what happens within it, there’ve been decades of fights about how water there is managed. Governor Jerry Brown has proposed building two huge tunnels under the Delta to deliver water to Central and Southern California. Last month, two federal agencies greenlit the project, and the water districts that would pay for it now say they'll make a decision in September.

Beyond the controversy

I was drawn to do these stories on the Delta in 2014 because most of what I’ve been reading and hearing over the years focused just on the water diversion and on the endangered species caught up in that system. About a year before that, when I started driving through the Delta, I became really curious about who lives there, their history and culture, and what they do for work and for fun.

I figured if I wanted to get to know this place better, a good person to meet first would be a mailman, which is how I wound up at the marina on King Island, in the eastern part of the Delta near Stockton in the fall of 2013. That’s where Rick Stelzriede, the only mailman in California who delivers by boat, starts his route. Every day but Sunday, he takes his 21-foot aluminum boat about 60 miles, visiting marinas and designated docks. At most stops, he just slows his boat as it approaches a pier with a mail box, picks up and drops off mail, then flips up the red metal flag.   

“Everybody out here that I deliver mail to, most all of them have something to do with the river," says Stelzriede. "Whether they’re farming, whether they live out here on boats; they may be caretaking an island.”

Others run marinas or sport-fishing businesses or restaurants. They might work in the region’s abundant natural gas fields. In the summertime, there’s an influx of people harvesting crops or working in packing sheds.

“My mail will change because migrant workers will come up,” Stelzriede says. “I’ll get mail from Mexico or wherever they’re from. I’ve got a guy on Mandeville Island from Peru. He’s a sheepherder out there,” and he routinely receives CDs of family photos.

Living in the Delta – where there are 57 islands and over 1,000 miles of waterways – requires people to do things differently than in most of the Bay Area. That’s really clear as we approach a stop where more than 30 people get their mail, even though there’s no mailbox. It’s a small bridge, and Stelzriede points out an attached safety cage where bridge tender Ramon Gonzalez is doing maintenance work. He spots Stelzriede, and they call out to each other in Spanish. Gonzalez climbs out of the cage and up the side of the bridge to fetch a bucket. Stelzriede labors to keep his boat in one place while reaching for the bucket Gonzalez lowers; it’s filled with outgoing mail. The whole exchange takes just a few minutes.

The water’s choppy as we head out to a large body of water called Frank’s Tract.  We see Mt. Diablo to the left and Antioch to the right, but just barely. The water’s rough enough that Stelzriede turns on his windshield wipers in order to see clearly. Each fall, Stelzriede navigates through soupy fog and around dangerous obstacles in the water, and he’s got to keep an eye out for what appear to be as many as twelve super-sized bales of hay.

He explains that they’re actually duck blinds, spaces that hunters pull their boats into for easy access to the Delta’s waterfowl. In the summer, Stelzriede keeps an eye out for boaters racing or pulling water skiers. In the spring he delivers his most unusual packages: plants, pheasants, even swans.

When he drops off mail at the home of an 82-year-old friend who lives on an island the size of a suburban house lot, I tell him the Delta reminds me of parts of the California desert, where some people go to drop out of society, to get lost.

“Absolutely,” he says. “When I came back out here in ’96, that’s why I came out, just to get lost. I had divorced, and went through that change, just had to get away from it all.”  

I ask why this is a good place for such a transition.

“For me it was all about cleaning up,” he says. “I had been on prescription pain medication for years, and for me, I lost my family, house, shut my business down, lost everything.”

He moved to the Delta and realized life can be simple.

“The beavers get along with the otters, the otters get along with the muskrats, birds get along, everyone seems to co-exist really well,” he says. “Why can’t it be that way everywhere? So I just took it upon myself to fix me.”

In 2006, he started helping out an elderly friend who had the mail route, then took it over full time.  

“Well, I’m out here forever now,” Stelzriede says as we head back into the marina at King Island. “I’ll never leave this place. To me, this is about as close to God as you can get.”

Beside the waterways

My ride with Rick Stelzriede only showed me part of the Delta, so I head west to cover more ground, and water. Just outside the town of Rio Vista, there’s a farmers market in a big red barn. This, and a planned educational center and museum, is sponsored by Discover the Delta, which is the brainchild of Ken Scheidegger. He’s a descendent of Delta farmers, a marina owner, a former oceanography professor, and a big booster of this place.

“The Delta is the most forgotten, misunderstood piece of real estate in California,” he says. “It started out that way in the 1850s, because it was marshland, no one wanted to go out there.”   

That was until people realized that swarms of Gold Rush hopefuls needed to be fed. A mostly-Chinese labor force built levees, creating permanent, rich farmland.

“It’s been divided into a multitude of islands that are very excellent for producing a lot of crops we’re dependent on, but you still can’t see it,” he says.

You almost have to get off major highways on purpose to get out to the Delta. We climb in Scheidegger’s truck so he can give me a little tour. We cross the Sacramento River by bridge – a luxury considering his grandparents could only get to the neighboring islands by boat  – then onto Ryer and Grand islands by car ferry. A century ago, he says, barges would transport people from island to island, and river boats would come up from the Bay.

“They would bring with them food supplies or newspapers or postage stamps or whatever you needed,” he says.

Scheidegger wants people to think about how that isolation plays into the Delta’s history and people, about what families had to do to develop this marshland into farms and build lives here.  

“We have to be careful about not developing or over-crowding this part of the world. The old-timers want to keep it like it was,” he says. “The other side of that coin is that a lot of the businesses that are now out here need a certain level of support.”

We disembark from the ferry, and as we drive, Scheidegger points out the fields stretching out beside us. He says a century ago most of them would be full of asparagus. Hundreds of people – mainly Filipino farm workers – picked, packed and shipped the asparagus all across the country. Chinese laborers founded a Chinese-only town. Families from Portugal and Italy started farms. His grandparents came to the Delta in the 1890s from Sweden.

Most of the roads in the Delta are on the levees, pretty much the highest point of any island here. While we take this bumpy ride, we look down at the water, where people fish out of boats or from the shore. We pass corn fields, pear orchards, and the increasingly-popular vineyards.  Scheidegger says he hopes Delta farmers can tap into the Bay Area’s interest in local food to shore up the economy.

“I think defining what local means makes the pear taste better, and that can influence price, and it can influence the resource of an area,” he explains.

Up Highway 160, we drive parallel to the Sacramento River, cross bridges, and pass little towns. Outside Walnut Grove, we drive a little levee road up to a 100-year-old restaurant called Giusti’s. An old neon sign reads “cocktails, dinners, boat landing: hunters and fisherman’s paradise.” Scheidegger says it may not look like a political hot spot from the outside, but because the restaurant’s just 30 miles from Sacramento, it’s close enough for politicians to hold power lunches here.

“I would venture to say there are more major decisions about the Delta of California made in this restaurant than you’ll find anywhere else,” he says.

Aside from stalwarts like Giusti’s, Scheidegger says, the Delta’s businesses have taken a hit, and he thinks that’s in part because of the so-called “Water Wars”. He says outsiders focus so much on the Delta's water, and not its beauty, or its boating or fishing. He says their attention is only on the controversy that’s surrounded water here for decades and on the tension that’s built over the state’s efforts to build two big tunnels under the Delta to divert water across the state.

“It’s not saying that we’re against that. We’re just saying there's so much else here to see,” he explains. “It hurts some of us when we spend our lives out here, we produce quality products or recreation and it's like, ‘Oh you’re out there in that swampland, and all you got up there is a lot of water, and everybody’s fighting over it.’”

He and his neighbors think the Delta is one of the most beautiful parts of California.

“We have to open up the doors and let people come,” he says. “When people start to think about the Delta, I think it’s in their best interest to see it, look at it, touch it, feel it, get to know it. Make a trip out.”

This story is part of a larger series titled "Navigating the Delta." You can hear all of the stories in this series here.

Originally aired Wednesday, February 12, 2014