Travelers have always been drawn to California for its breathtaking mountains, relaxing beaches, extreme deserts, and endless forests. But between San Francisco and Sacramento sits the Sacramento Delta, a must-see region of rivers, island farms, and tiny towns.
Eight years ago my dad took me for my first drive through the Delta. We spent a full day zipping down winding roads, beholding islands and estuaries, all sitting below the sea level but kept dry by crumbling levees dating back over 100 years. My father explained to me the Delta’s integral role in California’s water politics—it’s the source of drinking and agricultural water for over two-thirds of the state, so everyone is eager to get their hands on it. I saw firsthand how the culture is sealed in time, the scattered buildings reminiscent of different decades of California’s history.
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Together we explored Locke, a ghost town established in 1915, and once the largest rural community of Chinese immigrants in the country. Chinese workers were originally there to construct the levees, ultimately taking on local farming jobs once construction was finished. A fire destroyed the Chinese neighorhood of a nearby town of Walnut Grove, so the community banded together and built themselves a true Chinatown in Locke. Opportunities for work in the Delta have subsided over the years, leading many locals to move elsewhere. But despite its relative emptiness, the rich lives of the community it once hosted are evident in every nook and cranny of this historical place.
This is a road trip I’ve never forgotten and oft repeated. This year’s El Niño promises heavy rains, a relief for California’s multi-year drought. But considering the already rising sea levels, strong rain is a danger to the integrity of the levees and the towns they protect. Roughly half a million people live in the Delta region, and flooding from breached levees would force them to evacuate, not to mention severely affect the rest of the state’s drinking water situation. There’s a real threat of Locke and the other fascinating Delta towns being completely lost—along with their culture, history, and politics.