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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Marsh provided fertile future

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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A century ago, the rich soil was boon to Solano

Solano County is fortunate that the Suisun Marsh is within its bounds. The marsh is part of the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary system and is the largest contiguous brackish water marsh on the West Coast.

The 116,000 acres of the marsh provide habitat for large numbers of birds, animals, reptiles and more than 40 fish species. Thousands of waterfowl annually rest here during their migration on the Pacific Flyway.

The marsh’s more than 230 miles of levees in the Delta protect drinking water for 22 million people from being intruded upon by salt water.

Today we recognize how fragile both the Delta and Suisun Marsh are. Major studies focus on several models to protect this important ecosystem for future generations.

One hundred years ago, residents viewed this natural treasure differently.

An article on the potential of the Suisun Marsh for agricultural development appeared in the Solano Republican on Feb. 23, 1912. The writer of the article visited several landowners on Joyce Island and Grizzly Island, where a number of ranchers farmed successfully.

“That is a wonderful section of Solano County,” he wrote (this likely was a male reporter). ” Those people have a great, wide, level and marvelous world of their own down there, with soil as rich as mud.

“Solano County has long been justly famed for its rich and fertile soil, the finest fruit soil in the State of California, the finest alfalfa land in California, and last its millions of acres of almost useless and worthless marsh lands.”

At that time, any open terrain was immediately valued for its agricultural use. Thus our writer continued: “But now the marsh lands are coming into their own and soon will be more valuable than any other in the county, even though many old settlers still scoff at the idea. But those who scoff are those who have not seen what the marsh land will do when handled by those have the proper ‘know how.’ “

Reclaiming marshland for agricultural use was a labor- and cost-intensive process. Tractors had to be brought in to turn over the sod, followed by dredgers that cut canals along the plowed tracts to help with drainage. These canals allowed water to run off into the surrounding sloughs. The soil from the canals in turn was used to erect levees around the reclaimed land.

The ranchers our writer visited were all in the process of reclaiming land. Among them was Mrs. Alexander.

“Mrs. Alexander, the lady rancher of the tule lands, was working numerous men and had a big C. L. Best tractor turning over furrows around a field containing hundreds of acres of this marsh land, while crops were sown and growing nicely in adjoining fields. A dredger was busily manufacturing canals and levees at one trip in fields not too far distant. This lady’s experience on these marsh lands is of such a character that she wants more land reclaimed and is going right at the reclamation work.”

The Chaplin ranch came next in his visit. Here, more than 40 men were at work.

“They were preparing to irrigate the crops because of the want of rain, and that brings up another immense advantage of these marsh lands. They can be irrigated at any and all times and the cost of the water is nothing, absolutely nix.”

The sloughs were always filled with water, “Hence, to irrigate, raise the flood gates - and let ‘er go. Ample water at all times served twice each twenty-four hours, absolutely without cost. Pretty nice, isn’t it?”

With rainfall below average and a dry early spring, these farmers were glad to be able to flood their fields.

“Mr. Chaplin irrigated some 700 acres Friday or Saturday. Think of it! Watered 700 acres in one day with the help of five or six men “

Not only was the water free, but the soil was also ideally suited to flooding.

“In irrigation countries it requires much time to do such work,” continued the writer, “because unless due care is used the crops are ruined, but here the soil is right to take large amounts of water, use what is needed and throw off or filter off the surplus “

He also marveled at the fertility of this soil.

“Seed sown into unplowed soil where salt grass stands eight inches high and thick as hair on a ‘sheep,’ if run over with a disc, proceeds to grow as fast and fill out as well as where plowed. This was shown us in numerous places.”

With his article, the writer speculated that others would recognize the agricultural potential of the marsh, rather than look upon it “as almost worthless, to be used only as pasturage for cattle and hunting preserves for San Francisco sportsmen. Right now men of ample means are coming in and gobbling up these lands “

The years around 1912 were indeed years of land speculation in Solano County. Among the men coming in was Patrick Calhoun, who purchased large tracts east of today’s Travis Air Force Base.

His company, Solano Irrigated Farms, tried to sell plots for “Solano City”, a new town for 75,000 residents.

The elaborate development scheme collapsed in October 1913.

Agriculture in the Suisun Marsh continues into present days, concentrating on cattle and pasturage.