Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Historical Ecology Modeling

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Product: Current Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Perspective: North View

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The Challenge

The Sacramento - San Joaquin Delta is an expansive inland river delta and estuary formed over 10,000 years ago. The past 200 years of human activity has severely altered this once rich and diverse ecosystem. Most of the estuary was reclaimed and used for agriculture and human uses. The Delta comprises of approximately 57 islands and tracts surrounded by 1,100 miles of levees that border 700 miles of waterways. Many of these islands and tracks in the central Delta are subsiding due to environmental and human activities (farming). At the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, this great natural treasure is a vital link in the state's water system. As a result of the State's increasing population, demand for water and changing environmental conditions, the Delta is in jeopardy of collapse. The State of California is currently working to restore the Delta by developing solutions that both ensure a reliable and clean water supply for current and future generations while also restoring the ecologically sensitive areas of the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta.


The purpose of this effort is to build an accurate computer model to serve as a tool to increase our understanding of the historic Sacramento-Bay Delta landscape circa 1850 and to visualize the importance of interconnected aspects of the region. The final products of the ecosystem model provide an immersive visual experience using animations, perspective maps and storytelling techniques that describe the vast amount of detail in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Historical Ecology Investigation (Whipple et al. 2012). This model and visualizations will help guide future restoration efforts by increasing our understanding of this vibrant historic Delta landscape. The visualization tools provide detail for how streams, wetlands, lakes, and woodlands are organized along physical gradients and provide insight for scientists, engineers, and managers to develop new strategies for integrated landscape management and restoration practices.


34 North's expert team specializes in Geographic Information Systems, map design, and ecosystem modeling to create the photo-realistic computer model for our clients. There is significant focus on providing extensive detail to habitat composition such as overstory, understory, ground cover and ground texture design. The use of a digital elevation model (courtesy of U.C. Davis) expanded our capacity to detail waterways for both the major rivers and the dendritic channeling that sustained the historic and vibrant aquatic ecosystem. Modeled habitat types consisted of:

  • Alkali Seasonal Wetland Complex
  • Fluvial Low Order Channel
  • Fluvial Main stem Channel
  • Grassland
  • Non-Tidal Freshwater Emergent Wetland
  • Non-Tidal Intermittent Pond/Lake
  • Non-Tidal Perennial Pond/Lake
  • Oak Woodland Savanna
  • Stabilized Interior Dune Vegetation and Dune Structure
  • Tidal Freshwater Emergent Wetland
  • Tidal Intermittent Pond/Lake
  • Tidal Low Order Channel
  • Tidal Main stem Channel
  • Valley Foothill Riparian
  • Vernal Pool Complex
  • Wet Meadows/Seasonal Wetland
  • Willow Riparian Scrub Shrub
  • Willow Thicket


Project collaborators include: 34 North (David Osti) and San Francisco Estuary Institute - Aquatic Science Center (SFEI - ASC). Project funding: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). The detailed compositions for ecosystem types were provided by SFEI – ASC. 34 North designed and developed the computer model with the focus on visual palettes for each of the habitat type and waterway.