A visit to Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

On a sunny and breezy Saturday morning, I joined a tour of the northern part of Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Situated just west of I-5 south of Sacramento, Stone Lakes is the largest urban wildlife reserve in the US.


Our guide was USFWS volunteer Ray Mendonsa, who came equipped with extra pairs of binoculars and a broad knowledge base from which he could draw upon. Here he is telling us a story about why early Californian documents were penned in brown ink. Turns out it had to do with the difficulty in obtaining cuttlefish (black) ink from the east coast and the at-hand ability to make iron gall ink, a process described to early colonists by the area natives.


Stone Lakes NWR contains some of the little remaining unreclaimed landscape in the Delta. Here is what that looks like.


No wonder native and early reclamation period people here traveled by water.

And another image, this one of a (dead?) live oak along the railbed levee worthy of a Japanese garden. And the Corps of Engineers wants to remove all of this? Friggin’ “reduce the problem to something that can be calculated” engineers.


Ray and I only had a bit of time to talk about the presence of native middens and remains that apparently still exist in the Stone Lakes NWR. He talked briefly about his father, who was a “general construction” employee of PG&E in the 50s. His dad, he said, came across human remains on several occasions. All across the Delta.

But that isn’t to say that Stone Lakes is pristine. Leaving aside the adjacent sprawl of the (once marketed to be) “sustainable” suburbia of Laguna, much of its land is pasture and, according to Ray, some of it altered pasture, part of a land mitigation banking kicking in during the development of the Elk Grove Auto Mall.

Ray told us the story of that deal. It wasn’t entirely successful due to the persistence of voles, who ate through pvc lines that were irrigating live oak saplings. On the bright side, the relative failure of this mitigation banking experiment led to changes in law that required evidence of success in the artificial habitat taking hold.

Like many of the Delta’s “cut” waterways, Stone Lakes here is little more than the result of a high ground water level filling the excavation for infrastructure, in this case, a rail right of way that extends from Sacramento to Rio Vista. The non-instrumental consequences of that instrumental act are lovely.


Finally, on the way back, we saw something in the shoulder of the gravel road that confirmed Ray’s instructions not to walk there. A killdeer “nest,” camouflaged against the sand and pebbles.


The birds of the refuge are numerous and very diverse. My personal favorite: the American Avocet. What a beauty!

Stone Lakes, “the largest urban wildlife reserve in the US,” is the northernmost component of what will one day be a landscape of intertwining public spaces and natural-cultural interactions. One day, Stone Lakes will comprise just a small part of the Delta’s intricate system of levees, but will still be a part of the “largest urban wildlife reserve in the US.” Here is my map of that future:


One can only hope this is the future scenario because, as economic pressures of water supply-demand politics get sorted out, and as the edges of the Delta become more and more urbanized, the Delta’s levees will be the most democratically accessible of its landscape. Another option of course is that it is a high-security zone of privately owned islands surrounded by barbed wire and low-salaried security guards. Much better if it is used like Stone Lakes is.

Posted by John Bass on 29 Apr 2012 | Comments (0)


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