delta smelt

Photo by Tony Kukulich

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has released a draft version of a plan that would alter Franks Tract and Little Franks Tract for the dual purpose of creating a Delta smelt habitat and improving water quality, but the plan has raised concerns among many who recreate and operate businesses in the area. 

The plan calls for the construction of a berm that would split Franks Tract in two along a line that runs roughly north to south. Approximately 1,000 acres of  tidal wetlands would be created by dumping millions of cubic yards of fill on the west side of the berm and into Little Franks Tract. An open-water channel would be established on the east side of the berm. Access to False River and the San Joaquin River to the east of the tract would be permanently blocked by the project in an effort to limit salt water intrusion into the central Delta.

“The Division of Fish and Wildlife’s plan to ‘restore’ Franks Tract is another assault on the Delta and its people by the Natural Resources Agency,” said Bill Wells, executive director of the California Delta Chambers & Visitor’s Bureau. “John Laird, Charleton H. Bonham and Carl Wilcox should all be held personally responsible for any damage to the economy and the ecosystem in and around Franks Tract. Since the island flooded in 1937 it has been a paradise for wildlife and sportsmen. It is on the Pacific Flyway and visited by thousands of waterfowl each year. It is also prime habitat for many species of fish.”

Franks Tract is a 3,300 acre submerged island located in the central Delta. It was farmed in the early 20th century before the island flooded in 1937 and again in 1938. After the 1938 flood, no effort was made to reclaim the island, and it was abandoned. Little Franks Tract, also a flooded island, is a short distance to the west and is comprised of 330 acres at the mouth of the False River. It was flooded for the last time in 1982 when it too was abandoned. Today, most of the area is owned by California State Parks and is managed as the Franks Tract State Recreation Area. 

Over time, the area, accessible only by boat, developed into a popular spot for fishermen, waterfowl hunters and boaters. A healthy population of non-native striped and black bass made the area a top bass fishing destination and income derived from Bethel Island-based bass fishing tournaments is an important economic driver for the surrounding communities. 

“Every weekend Bethel Island holds bass fishing tournaments, bringing in an average of $200,000 per event,” Jan McCleery, president of the Save the California Delta Alliance, wrote in a blog post. “The fishermen come directly in to the event (typically held at Sugar Barge or Russo’s) directly from Frank’s Tract (fast water) through one of the breaks in the levee outside those establishments. Asking fast fishing boats to take the very long way up Piper Slough would definitely cause the events to be held elsewhere. It would impact, if not close, business at Rusty Porthole, home of the Jan. 1 Frozen Bun Run. You can’t have a Frozen Bun Run ski tournament if you have to first toodle down 20 to 30 minutes of 5 mph zone to get to fast water.”

CDFW stated, however, that both Franks Tract and Little Franks Tract are choked with non-native vegetation and invasive species like black bass are predators of the native Delta smelt and juvenile salmon. The restoration plan proposed by CDFW is based on the goals recommended by the State of California’s 2016 Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy. The effort to create smelt habitat in Franks Tract puts the state at odds with a wide range of interests as it will likely diminish or eliminate recreational and economic opportunities in communities like Bethel Island and Discovery Bay.

“There aren’t very many opportunities to improve habitat conditions in the central Delta,” said Carl Wilcox of CDFW. “And flooded islands like Franks Tract are one way to do that – to make them a little more productive for species we’re interested in as opposed to introduced and non-native (species).”

A study of CDFW’s proposed project was completed by Moffatt & Nichol, a firm retained by Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). 

“Metropolitan and other agencies are cooperatively working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to facilitate the analysis of this potential habitat restoration project,” said Rebecca Kimitch, MWD press office manager. “Metropolitan’s supply reliability is related to the health of the Delta smelt. The Franks Tract restoration is part of the Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy being implemented by Interagency Ecological Program with help from Metropolitan, State and Federal Contractors Water Agency, and state water contractors to promote the recovery of the Delta smelt.”

While the Delta smelt inhabit an area hundreds of miles from MWD’s base of operations, the presence of the fish in the Delta can impact MWD’s daily operations. State Water Project pumps in the Clifton Court Forebay near Tracy send Delta water south to water agencies including MWD. To keep the critically endangered smelt from dying in the pumps, they must cease operations when the smelt are present.

 “(MWD is) a major contractor to the State Water Project, so their interest is in improving the condition of the Delta smelt so potentially they aren’t regulated as strictly as they currently are or water operations aren’t further constrained,” explained Wilcox. “At the end of the day, it’s the potential benefit for the Delta smelt over any particular other interest.”

Opponents of the project are suspicious of the state’s intentions.

“As co-chair of the Delta Caucus, I see this effort by the administration to establish a ‘habitat’ project is clearly a cover for the irresponsible tunnels proposal and will worsen the reckless overpumping of the Delta,” said California 11th District Assemblymember Jim Frazier, a vocal opponent of WaterFix, in an email to The Press. “Franks Tract is a state park and a primary way into and out of the Delta. Over the decades, it has become a paradise for anglers and recreationalists. This project will wreak havoc on our marinas, boaters and fishermen in the Delta District and severely impact our culture. This reckless plan again puts the big money interests in the south over the people of the Delta.”

CDFW estimates the cost for the Franks Tract restoration as currently planned at $300 to $650 million. Construction would require four to six years and 20 million cubic yards of fill material to create the berm and tidal wetlands. 

“The reason state officials want to fill (Franks Tract) in is to better regulate the tidal action in the area and allow more water to be exported from the Delta by the pumps at Tracy,” said Wells. “It will also be a prime spot to dump muck from their scheme of diverting the Sacramento River around the Delta via the WaterFix project. If this crazy idea is allowed to come to fruition, the economy of Bethel Island and the surrounding area will be adversely impacted. Citizens should do whatever is legally possible to stop this project from proceeding.”