Tuesday, September 16, 2008

New center will help visitors explore Delta, advocate says

New center will help visitors explore Delta, advocate says
By Mike Taugher
Contra Costa Times
Article Launched: 09/03/2008

A rendering of the futere Discover the Delta Information Center in Isleton, Calif. on Wednesday, August 27, 2008. The Discover the Delta Foundation plans to build the 8,000 square foot visitor center in Rio Vista to enhance tourism and recreation in the delta. (Discover the Delta Foundation)

For most Californians, the Delta is a place out of sight and out of mind — and hard to navigate even if you know where it is.

Ken Scheidegger is trying to change that.

Three years ago, he started up a plan for a massive visitor center in Rio Vista — a place where commuters, tourists and those just passing through could stop and get some directions, some ideas about where to go and some information about what he calls California's "heartland."

That dream is close to reality, with construction permits nearly in and an aggressive plan to build the 7,728-square foot center in the coming months.

"This is going to take the Delta from being one of the most ignored, hard-to-find places in the world to one of the easiest," said Scheidegger, a former university oceanographer.

Through the nonprofit Discover the Delta Foundation he started, Scheidegger hopes the center becomes a hub for Delta visitors, where they can get information and directions to the historic town of Locke, or on the best bird-viewing locations, or good places to kayak or taste wine.

The parking lot will have plenty of spaces for school buses because organizers are hoping teachers from the Bay Area, Sacramento and other nearby areas bring their classes for educational tours.

The way Scheidegger sees it, the Delta has been fought over and even written off to some extent because of a wave of bad publicity about concerns from mercury in the fish to the ability of Delta levees to hold up in an earthquake.

And because of the importance of the Delta to the state's water supply — two in three Californians get at least some drinking water from the Delta, and San Joaquin Valley agriculture is heavily dependent on it — state water officials are exploring the possibility of building a canal to deliver water around the Delta.

The result is a lot of arguing over the Delta with a relatively small voice coming from the people who actually live there.

For all its well-publicized problems, Scheidegger said, there is also a lot right about the region.

"We're trying to tell the story as only Delta people can tell it," said Scheidegger, whose family first came to the Delta in the 1890s.

"We have plenty of water, yes, but it's more than just the water."

Scheidegger said the threat of earthquakes to Delta levees — one of the main arguments in favor of delivering water through a canal, which would deprive the Delta of fresh water — is exaggerated.

"This boy was standing on that parking lot during Loma Prieta," Scheidegger said, pointing outside his office.

"You could see the water sloshing out in the slough," he added, pointing a channel out his window. "Did the Delta levees fall apart? No."

The information center will be built near the intersection of state highways 12 and 160, the busiest intersection in the Delta.

There will be educational displays on the geography, history and ecosystems of the Delta, a conference room and a place to schedule tours of the region.

The idea, though, is not to keep people in the center, but to help make the Delta more accessible to them by helping people find whatever it is in the region that might interest them.

"I think it's very, very important for people today to find this place that's so close to them," he said.

The plan fits in well with one of the main goals of an independent plan called Delta Vision, which called the Delta, "one of the state's most distinct regions, combining a unique physical geography of islands and river channels with a cultural heritage as enduring as any in California. ... But despite this fact, it is little known or recognized by most Californians, including many of the millions living in the cities just outside the Delta's boundaries."

"It's wholly consistent with what we're talking about — to create a sense of value in the Delta," said Delta Vision executive director John Kirlin. "We've got to do a better job of making it understood and valued."

Scheidegger said he thinks the center could be built by the end of the year, though the nonprofit foundation is still raising funds. It has received grants from Delta counties and is trying to attract members to raise additional money.

For more information, see the Discover the Delta Foundation's Web site at www.discoverthedelta.org.