Using Art to Imagine a Restored Bay Delta Watershed

A restored view of the Lower Yuba river in the Sacramento Valley by Mona Carron.
An imagined restoration of the Lower Yuba river in the Sacramento Valley by artist Mona Caron

Karl Cronin, an angular young man with hair like marsh grass, walked onto the stage, pushed up his sleeves, and began sculpting the air to a soundtrack of birds, wind, and water. Then, joined by three violins and a cello, he transformed us all into water molecules. We kept company in a reservoir, evaporated into rain, and became groundwater:

how we sank
how we fell
how we learned of the mineral
how we learned of the root
the Willow, the Poplar, the Dogwood
the fecund beauty of this boundless decay
the great yield of soil
given life by our motion
through the pores of breathing stones

The San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed, from
The San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed, which contains numerous sub-watersheds. Credit:

This striking performance opened the fourth Bay Area Art and Science Interdisciplinary Collaborative Session (BAASICS.4) at ODC Theater in San Francisco on January 18th. It was an evening of presentations by artists and scientists—many of whom blur the distinction—about the San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed.

Watersheds are a type of geographic organization—but that makes them sound so (if you’ll forgive the expression) dry. They are tapestries of interwoven lives—that’s better. All life depends on water, and all water flows to the sea. A watershed contains all the land whose rainfall eventually joins the ocean at a single outlet: for example, under the Golden Gate Bridge.

The San Francisco Bay Delta watershed (so named because the waters of the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River pool in an inland delta before flowing out to the Bay) is enormous. It stretches from Oregon to Bakersfield. It has also been enormously altered, from the days of industrial gold mining to the re-engineering of the Central Valley for large-scale agriculture.


Like so many other Bay Area residents, I enjoy reservoir water, Central Valley crops, and hydroelectric power. But we also all suffer from unintended consequences: groundwater pollution, loss of waterbirds and salmon, increased susceptibility to climate change.

A view of Englebright Dam, on the left, and a drawing what the area could look like without it, by Mona Carron
A view of Englebright Dam, on the left, and what the area could look like without it by Mona Caron.

Volunteer, non-profit and government efforts have done a great deal to restore the watershed, and they aim to do more. But according to Derek Hitchcock, an ecologist with The Watershed Project, “Cultural healing is needed before watershed healing." Having worked extensively with indigenous tribes, whose very language "evolved out of the place itself," Hitchcock sees a need for the non-indigenous people of the Bay Area to plant their roots more deeply, to really inhabit the land and engage in "genuine long-term stewardship."

Thicket by Daniel McCormick and Mary O'Brien, photo by Gary Hedden
Thicket by Daniel McCormick and Mary O'Brien, photo by Gary Hedden

Art can fuel such a cultural shift. Cronin’s work, for example, turns intellectual concepts into intimate connections, awakening in us a love and a reverence for the water we all share. And the work of watershed sculptors Daniel McCormick and Mary O'Brien actively restores the environment. Their installation "Thicket," an elaborate weaving of live native willow, is currently healing Adobe Creek in Los Altos' Redwood Grove Nature Preserve.

The creek bed is dry right now, so you can walk over the gravel-strewn floodplain and touch the green branches that whip out enthusiastically, bearing the first buds of spring. Over the years, Thicket will accumulate silt and organic debris, composting it to feed the native plants as they grow and anchor the stream bank. Eventually, the shape itself will disappear--but its ecological impact will remain.

After a century and a half of environmental damage, projects like Thicket are restorative to our spirits as well as to the watershed. "Humans are an inseparable part of the ecology," says Hitchcock. "Our psychological and spiritual well-being are a piece of watershed health."


For more work by artist Mona Caron, visit