Restore The California Delta! To What, Exactly? LISTEN· 3:56

Restore The California Delta! To What, Exactly? LISTEN· 3:56

In California, state officials are planning a multibillion-dollar environmental restoration of the inland delta near San Francisco Bay. There's only one problem: No one knows what the landscape used to look like. Ninety-seven percent of the original wetlands are gone, so the state is turning to historians for help.

This detective story begins on a sunny day in a dry field of corn, about an hour east of San Francisco.

Alison Whipple and Robin Grossinger are looking through a pile of maps, trying to piece together the path of William Wright, a man who got hopelessly lost somewhere nearby.

This happened 160 years ago. Whipple and Grossinger are historians — historical ecologists, more precisely — with the San Francisco Estuary Institute. They dig up old photos and hand-drawn maps that provide clues about what this landscape once looked like.

In this case, they're relying on a tattered, yellowing notebook. They're pouring over Wright's writings from duck hunting expeditions around 1850.

Here's what he wrote about a long, cold night lost in a damp marsh: "On all sides stretched a vast wilderness of tules from 10 to 15 feet in height. The driving storm of sleet was bad, but the pitchy darkness was infinitely worse."

When Whipple and Grossinger read this, they knew they'd struck gold. But not because of the dramatic story, with declarations like, "Our situation was so miserable that no words can do justice to it."