Sacramento’s Creeks & Sloughs

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”. 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 …”

Arcade Creek

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.

Bannon Slough

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.

Sutter Slough

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.

Burns Slough

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.

Dry Creek

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.

Magpie Creek

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. The City of Sacramento is making slow but steady progress to create a scaled-down Sacramento River Parkway south of Miller Park. 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  County General Plan as adopted in 1992 included 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. It subsequently became the Sacamento Area Creeks Council, and its mission remains to promote preservation and protection of our urban creeks through public education and advocacy. In its early days, the chapter volunteers accomplished:

  • 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 sponsored Creek Week which included field trips, seminars and demonstrations, capped with a county-wide creek cleanup. This event involved about two thousand people yearly. 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.

Creek Corridor Trail Project  Feasibility Report  (Accepted by the Citrus Heights City Council on March 27, 2014) This report takes a comprehensive approach to potential trail locations. Contains detailed segment descriptions of the feasibility of constructing trails along Arcade, Brooktree and Cripple Creeks in Citrus Heights.

Arcade Creek has the largest drainage basin of all the local streams. It is 16.2 miles long and its basin area is about 19,000 acres or 29.7 square miles. It flows from Orangevale, northeast of Greenback Lane and Kenneth Avenue to the Sacramento River via the Natomas East Main Drainage Canal.

The creek is still partially bordered with blue interior and valley oaks. There are scattered places with Fremont Cottonwood, small willows and Oregon Ash. Because of the natural and open spaces, native vegetation in some areas persists, providing habitat for wildlife. Once this habitat was abundant; today it is quickly vanishing because of bordering land development.

Long ago, 6000-3000 BC, people of the Early Horizon period came to live near Arcade Creek and its surrounding area. These were the seed gatherers. At a mound site near the Science Center, now the Discovery Museum Learning Center, erosion of the creek revealed an artifact-bearing layer under 9 feet of soil. Seventy five pieces were recovered which included cores and flakes of handstones, mortar and pestles, cobble-choppers, hammer-stones and projectile points. This site is classified as one of the most important in the United States.

Evidence of native peoples has also been found along this park section of Arcade Creek. As excavation took place for swimming pools in Cameron Ranch, some artifacts were recovered. There was a sweat house at the intersection of Walnut and Winding Way, one reason there might be so many buckeye trees there.

About 3000 years ago the Maidu, or Southern Nisenan settled in this area. Early man found the creek water clean and full of fish, and the surrounding plants were a good source for seed eating. The oak trees provided the staple acorn, and small game provided a bounty of food. Women often used digging sticks to gather bulbs – a habit which gave rise to the name Digger Indians – now recognized as a derogatory term.

During the 1800s, Arcade Creek was included in some of the northernmost Mexican land grants in California. Governor Manuel Micheltorena, Captain John Sutter’s old friend, gave 44,000 acres to Elijah Grimes. Grimes called it the Rancho del Paso because it was on the road to the pass of the American River through the Sierra. With the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, Arcade Creek became a central focal point and even acquired national fame. To build a railway through the mountains was more difficult and more expensive than over the Sacramento Valley plain. Thus when the Pacific Railroad Act was revised on July 2nd, 1864, the subsidy was adjusted. The Central Pacific would receive $16,000 for each mile built in the valley and $48,000 for each mile of the estimated 150 miles of rugged mountain terrain separating California from Nevada.

Charles Crocker, supervisor of the actual construction, took the first State Geologist, Josiah Whitney, for a long ride along Arcade Creek. It was here, seven miles from Sacramento, that Crocker showed him engineer Theodore Judah’s chart which showed a gentle rise from the creek area to the peaks of the Sierra. Crocker asked Whitney where the beginning of the mountains should be located. Whitney replied, “Well, the true base is the Sacramento River, but for the purpose of this bill, Arcade Creek is as fair a place as any.”

In Washington DC, A. A. Sergeant, the Central Pacific’s ambassador showed a geological map to the House of Representatives. It showed the east bank of Arcade Creek as mostly composed of red podzolic earth like that of the Sierra. On the opposite bank, it showed the dark soil of the Sacramento River flood plain.

President Lincoln signed the bill increasing the subsidy giving the “Big Four”, Crocker, Standford, Huntington and Hopkins, an increase of $470,000 profit. Lincoln was surely aware that the Sierra did not start at Haggin Oaks golf course, but he was wise enough to know what linking California’s riches to the east would mean to the government during the Civil War. Getting the railroad built was the motivating factor.

In the early 1900s, salmon came to spawn in Arcade Creek. There were still swimming holes 6-7 feet deep in the 1950s. Today, Arcade Creek is a very different place. Water flowing into the creek from storm drains causes the creek to swell and flood in the winter and to hold many gallons of street gutter run off water in the summer. But along the creek’s banks and in the high branches of t