Memory Lane

There’s a large-scale project under way to turn back the clock in order to better prepare for the future.

In Napa Valley, the non-profit San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) has been working to establish the historical ecology of a region that has seen huge landscape use changes over the past two hundred years. It has gone from being from a massive estuary with varied ecosystems to a heavily populated stretch of land famous around the world for its wines, climate and culture.

It has also become less climate resistant and lost a great deal of biodiversity.

 A map, two aerial photos and a land survey showing different stages of the area around the Napa River and the city of Napa, Calif., in (from left) 1858, 1942, 2009 and 1858.  Composite by Ruth Askevold/San Francisco Estuary Institute; from left to right: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S.D.A., U.S.D.A., Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley  Image/caption: New York Times
A map, two aerial photos and a land survey showing different stages of the area around the Napa River and the city of Napa, Calif., in (from left) 1858, 1942, 2009 and 1858.
Composite by Ruth Askevold/San Francisco Estuary Institute; (L to R) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S.D.A., U.S.D.A., Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Image/caption: New York Times

The SFEI embarked on the task of establishing just how this key watershed once worked, in all its complexity.

Researchers dug deep into every kind of archive imaginable. From the SFEI site:

The Native Landscape View of the EcoAtlas is a composite picture based upon hundreds of independent sources of data. These include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century maps, sketches, paintings, photographs, engineering reports, oral histories, explorers’ journals, missionary texts, hunting magazines, interviews with living elders, and other sources.

Guadalcanal Mitigation Site, an area restored to tidal influence in 2001. Photo: Gena Lasko (CDFW)/SFEI
Guadalcanal Mitigation Site, an area restored to tidal influence in 2001.
Photo: Gena Lasko (CDFW)/SFEI

The goal isn’t so much to recreate the Napa Valley of the past as it once looked as it is to re-establish the estuary and ecology as they once functioned. To improve the once-lush delta to the point that it can better absorb both flooding as well as withstand drought.

A side effect is the return of some of the wildlife and plants that once lived where there are now vineyards, roads and suburbs.

It’s not as extreme as the de-extinction projects of long-gone animals like Revive and Restore, but it is an attempt to re-invent a future that looks, at least just a little bit, like what went before and was almost forgotten.

Tidal mud in Guadalcanal Mitigation Site. Photo: Sally Mack
Tidal mud in Guadalcanal Mitigation Site.
Photo: Sally Mack