Sacramento’s Creeks & Sloughs
SAFCA Levee Projects At the July 18, 2013 Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA) Board meeting, flood agency staff and its consultants provided a status update on the Sacramento and American River levee systems. The third map highlights SAFCA’s habitat restoration and conservation strategies for the levee work done on Dry and Arcade Creeks.
A Brief Overview with Historical Vignettes
by Rick Bettis, March 8th, 1998
Due to its unique location and topography, the Sacramento area has many creeks and sloughs. Sacramento is located near the base of the Sierra with a rolling terrain that results in numerous watersheds. As it approaches the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, the topography becomes quite flat, characterized by meandering sloughs, wetlands and shallow lakes. There are now more than forty named creeks and sloughs in the county. However, many have been altered and some completely lost.
For centuries the native people, the Nisenan, or Southern Maidu, lived in this area, peacefully and productively coexisting with the natural environment of which the creeks and sloughs were an important part. They used the plants, mammals, fish and birds found along these waterways for shelter, tools, food, and medicine. However, they did not harvest these resources to an extent that resulted in permanent loss. They practiced a sustainable lifestyle long before such a term was coined. For example, they gathered the acorns of the California Oaks as the primary staple of their diet. They also harvested the rapidly regrowing willows for use in building shelters, making baskets and producing a medicinal tea. It was centuries later that salicylic acid that is derived from willow was “discovered” by the founder of the Bayer company for use as the active ingredient in aspirin.
This benign and sustainable lifestyle changed with the arrival of eastern and foreign immigrants. Early settlers such as Captain John Sutter did not substantially alter the creeks and sloughs although their farming practices did have some impact. The major effects on this natural world started with the discovery of gold and the period when the “world rushed in”. The sesquicentennial of this landmark event is now being commemorated with three years of special events throughout the state. In the early years there was a true zest for battling nature. A February 1, 1867 editorial in the Bee stated that “…it is not the object of engineering to locate your strong works in the place of safety but to locate them where the danger is to be combated …”
Historically, Arcade Creek flowed through a large wetland and then to Bush Lake. It has been cut off by the Natomas East Main Drainage Canal (NEMDC) and has been channelized through the North Sacramento area. With the exception of Del Paso Park its watershed is mostly developed and there have been many local alterations in its upper reaches.
Arcade Creek plays a significant, albeit passive, role in California’s development. It is crossed by the first transcontinental railroad. Based on its desire to “unite the Union” during the Civil War, the federal government passed the Railroad Act of 1861 which authorized the two competing railroad companies, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, a reward or subsidy for each mile completed. For the Central Pacific, CPRR the amounts were $48,000 per mile in the Sierra, and $16,000 for other terrain. Theodore Judah, CPRR Chief Engineer, had designated Newcastle, 31 miles east of the beginning of the railroad as the base of the Sierra. However, Charles Crocker, of the “Big Four” CPRR partners was able to convince Josiah Whitney (for whom the mountain is named) Chief of the California Geologic Survey, to recommend that Arcade Creek located seven miles from the start of the line be declared the base of the Sierra. This proposal generated controversy and accusations of fraud, but it was finally approved by President Lincoln, based on the government’s desire to expedite completion of the railroad.
The headquarters of the vast, 44,000 acre Del Paso Ranch was located at “the Arcade” near the creek. The ranch, controlled by the lawyer-land baron, Ben Ali Haggin, featured the nation’s finest thoroughbreds during the late 19th century.
This slough once conveyed flows from the Bush (or Lower American) Lake in the American Basin (Natomas) to the Sacramento River. The first Bannon Slough has been mostly filled. However a small remnant remains in the Bannon Creek Parkway in South Natomas. The second Bannon Slough has been channelized and replaced by the Natomas Main Drainage Canal operated by Reclamation District 1000.
The American Basin was reclaimed in the 1910-1915 period by the Natomas Company. The Company had obtained the land from the State for a one dollar per acre fee that could be used to help pay for reclamation costs in accordance with a 1861 Tate law. The State in turn had been granted these “swamp and overflowed” lands by the federal government in accordance with the Arkansas Act of 1850 that required the State to take actions to reclaim these lands for “productive” agricultural uses. The basin, a vast 58,000 acre wetland area with lakes and marshes, became “Swamp and Overflowed Land District No. 1” in California.
This historic slough came off the American River at the present CSUS campus and flowed west and south through midtown to a wetland area at the present site of Land Park, and eventually to the Beach-Stone Lakes and Snodgrass Slough area in the south county. The slough was the path of major flood events that overtopped the American River. As the city grew in the 1860s-1870s Burns Slough was diverted to the east. It was eventually filled and replaced by constructed plank wall open ditches and finally, beginning in the 1878, by a system of brick underground combined storm drains and sewers. The final route of the slough was down Alhambra Boulevard where it was replaced by a large underground combined drain and sewer.
The ponds in McKinley Park and Sutter’s Fort are remnants of the original slough. In the early 1890s, McKinley Park (then called East Park) was owned by the Sacramento Electric Railway Company and was the terminus of a trolley line. As part of their development of the park, the company adopted a plan to plant willows along the slough. This may have been the first natural stream “restoration” project in the area.
Chicken Ranch and Strong Ranch Sloughs
These two sloughs, along with several other smaller ones, terminated in a large wetland area located on and adjacent to the present Cal Expo grounds. This runoff then flowed to Bushy Lake and the American River. These sloughs have been filled or channelized for approximately five miles each.
The Dry Creek of the Natomas area has the largest (114 square miles) watershed of any creek whose downstream channel is within the County. It is exceeded only by the second Dry Creek near Galt (329 square miles) which serves as the boundary with San Joaquin County. Dry Creek originally flowed into Bush (later called American) Lake in the Natomas area. It was cut off by the Natomas East Main Drainage Canal (NEMDC) and levee which were constructed around 1914-15. Dry Creek is noteworthy for having the only documented salmon run of any of the area’s creeks. These runs occurred both before and after construction of the East Main Drain. The creek also has the first and only dam on a local creek. The small dam located in the Rio Linda’s Central Park was constructed by the Whipple family in 1929 to divert irrigation water. It is still in use.
This creek was also cut off from Bush Lake by the NEMDC. It has been altered and diverted in the upstream Robla, McClellan and North Highlands areas.
Morrison Creek Stream Group
Morrison Creek and its tributaries: Florin, Elder, Union House (Beacon), Strawberry, Laguna and Elk Grove Creeks have been extensively relocated and channelized as a result of urban development. The modification ranges from their downstream end to as far east as Mather Field. These streams were first impacted by farming, starting in the late 19th century when the native grasslands and sparse riparian vegetation were displaced by crops, pasture, and invasive non-native grasses and weeds. The first major relocation of Morrison Creek occurred with the construction of the Sacramento Army Depot in 1945.
Although channelization and filling of streams has continued based on economic, public safety and disruption considerations, there have been attempts to recognize the aesthetic and natural values of creeks.
In addition to the Burns Slough plan discussed above, the city in 1915 adopted a “Master Plan for a Park System”. This plan prepared by a noted Cambridge, Massachusetts planner, included parkway on both the American and Sacramento Rivers and on the major creeks. These include Arcade, Morrison, and Elder Creek and the Mungers Lake (now Reichmuth Park, that linked the Elder Creek Parkway to the Sacramento Parkway at the southern limit of the city as planned at that time. Of course the “master plan” was not fully implemented. The only element that was implemented was Del Paso Park. After Folsom Dam was constructed in 1957, the American River Parkway finally was created and preserved land in this riparian corridor as open space. Now there is a movement to create a scaled-down Sacramento River Parkway. In Reichmuth Park we have a smaller version of the proposed Munger Lake Parkway.
The channelization, relocation and filling of natural streams continued until the early 1970’s when strong public interest, spearheaded by the Friends of Chicken Ranch Slough, led to the formation of a broadly based Natural Streams Task Force in 1972. As a result of the work of the Task Force the County adopted a Natural Streams Plan in 1980 which calls for the protection of the natural amenities of selected creeks. The current County General Plan as adopted in 1992 includes elements and policies that call for the protection and restoration of the natural, aesthetic and habitat values of our streams.
Continuing the movement towards preservation of our urban creeks, a group of volunteers from throughout the community, in 1987, formed the Sacramento Chapter of the Urban Creeks Council, a statewide organization. Its mission remains to promote preservation and protection of our urban creeks through public education and advocacy. The chapter volunteers have:
- Through a California Department of Education grant, developed a creek curriculum for elementary grades, now distributed statewide.
- Developed and distributed publications encouraging the community to learn about and care for creeks.
- Helped promote the city and county’s storm drain stenciling program to alert residents to the fact that water entering a storm drain goes to the creeks and rivers, not to a waste water facility.
- Received a grant to administer a volunteer water quality monitoring program involving adults and high school youth.
- Cosponsored an Aquatic institute at CSUS to provide educators with a variety of educational tools relating to waterways and water quality.
- Joined with other organizations to advocate for the preservation of open space and protection of our remaining creeks and sloughs.
Beginning in 1990 the Chapter has sponsored Creek Week which includes field trips, seminars and demonstrations, capped with a county-wide creek cleanup. This event now involves close to two thousand people. With financial support from many organizations and businesses and help from the city and county, creek volunteers have removed tons of trash from our waterways and have become personally committed to caring for our creeks.
This was a significant waterway that was located south of and parallel to the American River for nearly 15 miles between Mather and its terminus at Sutter (or China) Lake at the confluence of the rivers where the railroad depot is now located. As with other similar sloughs, it was filled as the area urbanized. Its drainage function has been replaced by underground storm drains.