In the age of Google Earth and GPS, century-old hand-drawn maps of the
Delta would seem irrelevant.
In fact, recent state actions in the Delta had so many lawyers and engineers rifling through documents at the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum that now officials there have put some of that material online.
"Because of more and more litigation and interest with everything going on with the Delta, those maps have been used more and more," said David Stuart, director of the museum, keeper of thousands of historic records from across the county.
"They're getting more wear and tear," Stuart said. "That's why it's a priority to digitize them."
About 200 maps are now online, the society announced recently, including drawings of levee profiles, levee cross-sections and schematics.
The Delta didn't always look like it does today. It was once a vast wetland, but after the Swamp Land Act of 1850, the federal government began to transfer wetlands to private ownership. Disappointed gold miners converted to farming and began to reclaim the Delta by piling up dirt levees and draining these new "islands."
More than 150 years later, the State Water Resources Control Board in 2008 began investigating whether modern Delta farmers had legitimate claim to divert water for their crops. Thousands of those claims had never been verified.
Lawyers defending those landowners turned to the historical society's maps, along with other documents such as reclamation district meeting minutes and land deeds, hoping to find evidence that the contested rights did exist.
It was frustrating work, but there were success stories.
In one case, the maps helped to prove the existence of a natural waterway known as Duck Slough, which in the distant past connected to Middle River and gave landowners on Roberts Island west of Stockton a right to divert water. The state's case against those landowners was ultimately dropped.
Not all of the recent disputes have been settled, but the state last year announced that it had investigated 1,000 properties in the Delta and had taken enforcement action in only a dozen cases.
In the end, the documents from the historical society indeed helped preserve farmers' water rights, said Stockton attorney John Herrick.
He spent a couple of days going through 20 file boxes at the museum, attempting to decipher meeting minutes scrawled down decades before he was born.
"It's all very interesting stuff, and every once in a while we found something helpful," he said.
Herrick said putting the maps online is a worthwhile effort. The project, in fact, was funded by Delta water districts.
Chris Neudeck, an engineer for many reclamation districts in the Delta, said the online maps are "certainly a resource we'll use in the future." Neudeck's firm first suggested digitizing the material.
"It'd be nice if Google Earth was there in 1850," he said. "We'd have had no problem."
The original maps are kept in cabinets on the second floor of the museum, at Micke Grove Park. Right now there's no room in an air-conditioned downstairs "vault" where many more records from all over the county are kept.
Last week, museum archivist Leigh Johnsen spread a few of the maps across a table and attempted make sense of them.
Johnsen said the maps were put online by a San Francisco-based nonprofit Internet archive group. As funding allows, Johnsen hopes to put even more records on the Internet, such as the meeting minutes and property deeds. Delta water agencies have their own plans to digitize their records, meaning there could be a massive amount of information online in the future.
Did the archivist find it at all strange that such archaic documents were now, suddenly, so relevant?
"No," Johnsen said. "I'm a historian. I know you can use resources from the past for all sorts of purposes. Where we are is where we have been in the past."
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