State reconsiders changes in Franks Tract

Photo by Tony Kukulich

With Franks Tract in the background, boaters motor down Piper Slough as the San Joaquin Yacht Club held the Opening Day Parade on Bethel Island this past spring. The California Division of Fish and Wildlife hosted a meeting last week seeking public input on potential changes to Franks Tract.

More than 100 people crowded into Scout Hall on Bethel Island last week as the (CDFW) held a meeting to collect public input on efforts to make changes to nearby Franks Tract.

Just over a year ago, CDFW presented the final draft of the Franks Tract Futures Feasibility Study to the Delta Stewardship Council. The study concluded that the project to modify Franks Tract — as it was envisioned at the time — was viable, but local opposition to the plan has prompted a return to the drawing board.

“We are pretty much starting from scratch,” said Brett Milligan, associate professor of landscape architecture for the University of California, Davis, who is serving as a consultant on CDFW’s initiative. “We are starting over on our alternatives, and that’s based on the feedback we got through the feasibility study, where there was an initial plan that was very good at meeting the ecological, technical and water-quality performance criteria. But that was before people were really aware of the local interests such as the many marinas, the recreational economy there and so forth.”

The initial objectives of the restoration project were to: improve habitat for the Delta smelt, reduce saltwater intrusion into the central and south Delta, reduce submerged aquatic weeds and reduce invasive non-native fish species that feed on native fish like salmon and Delta smelt.

Carl Wilcox, a CDFW policy advisor explained the project’s objectives are now more broad and include accommodations for the recreational and economic activities that are key to the region’s residents.

“What we’re doing is starting from what we learned as we went through and finished (the study) in 2018,” said Wilcox. “We got some more money to pick up on the planning and look closely at the planning, and look closely at trying to develop a project that has broad support. The biological and water quality objectives that were the motivation for doing it in the first place as part of the smelt resiliency strategy, but then also taking into consideration all of the issues that were identified in the futures report as the concerns of the local community and their interests.”

Reduction or eradication of non-native fish was a particular point of contention with the plan considered in 2018. Bass are not native to the area. They are an introduced species and, today, bass fishing is an important component of the Bethel Island economy. The eradication of bass would also eliminate the associated recreational and economic opportunities. CDFW’s stance on bass is now considerably more flexible.

“We’re looking a little more broadly at the biological objective — not being so Delta-smelt-centric — and looking more at improving habitat for native fish, as well as striped bass and black bass,” said Wilcox. “While we may change things, it’s not going to get rid of black bass. There’ll be black bass and we might be able to make the habitat good or better from the perspective, particularly, of fishing access.”

Franks Tract and the adjoining Little Franks Tract are submerged islands with an area of 3,000 acres and 330 acres, respectively. They are located just off the north and east shores of Bethel Island, separated from the island by Piper Slough and a series of broken levees that allow boat-traffic access to open water.

CDFW’s initial plan called for the construction of a berm that would have split Franks Tract in two along a line running north to south. Approximately 1,000 acres of tidal wetlands would have been created by dumping millions of cubic yards of fill on the west side of the berm and in Little Franks Tract. An open-water channel of approximately 2,000 acres would have been established on the east side of the berm. Boating access to False River would have been eliminated — another hotly contested aspect of the plan that is not likely to be present in future iterations.

In early 2018, Bethel Island resident David Gloski developed and presented an alternative to CDFW’s initial plan for Franks Tract that eliminated many of the aspects troublesome for area residents, while still achieving the plan’s principal objectives. Some iteration of that plan will likely be one of the alternatives discussed as the process moves forward. While Gloski expressed some frustration with the scheduling of CDFW’s meeting and their reliance on the original plan as a starting point for discussion, he does believe that there is an opportunity to make improvements in Franks Tract that could have wide-ranging benefits.

Gloski said he’s hoping the project will deliver a commitment to the maintenance of the levees around Little Franks Tract and Franks Tract — a commitment that the sloughs will be dredged and maintained to a certain depth and an assurance that the water-flow rates are not increased to a level that damages the Bethel Island levees or docks. He also sees the potential for new beaches and protected moorings in Franks Tract that would create a boating destination.

“I think that’s all positive,” said Gloski. “Potentially (develop) a pathway for hiking and walking out there, kind of like Big Break. It should be a really nice nature area out there. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch.”

Moving forward, Wilcox said an advisory group will begin developing several alternatives for Franks Tract. The advisory group is expected to meet several times this year, and another large, public meeting will likely happen late this year or early next year. Wilcox hopes to complete a final recommendation for the project by June 2020, assuming a plan can be developed that can be supported by a majority of the stakeholders.

“They’re trying really hard to appease the users of the Bethel Island area, the Franks Tract area,” said Karen Mann, a resident of Discovery Bay who attended CDFW’s latest meeting. “I’ll give them that. There’s a lot of passion on the Bethel Island area. The passion is there because it’s their home ... We live here every day and we watch our Delta every season. We live it. We’re a part of it and it’s a part of us. We’re probably more in tune with the physicality of the Delta waterways than people that have not spent years and years on it, and understanding what’s going on with our beloved Delta.”