Sacramento's Creeks & Sloughs
A Brief Overview with Historical Vignettes
by Rick Bettis, March 8th, 1998
Click on the creek name to the left to view a brief history.
Due to its unique location and topography, the Sacramento
area has many creeks and sloughs. Sacramento is located
near the base of the Sierra with a rolling terrain that
results in numerous watersheds. As it approaches the
confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, the
topography becomes quite flat, characterized by meandering
sloughs, wetlands and shallow lakes. There are now more
than forty named creeks and sloughs in the county. However,
many have been altered and some completely lost.
For centuries the native people, the Nisenan, or Southern
Maidu, lived in this area, peacefully and productively,
coexisting with the natural environment, of which the creeks
and sloughs were an important part. They used the plants,
mammals, fish and birds found along these waterways for
shelter, tools food and medicine. However, they did not
harvest these resources to an extent that resulted in permanent
loss. They practiced a sustainable lifestyle long before such
a term was coined. For example, they gathered the acorns of
the California Oaks as the primary staple of their diet. They
also harvested the rapidly regrowing willows for use in
building shelters, making baskets and producing a medicinal
tea. It was centuries later that salicylic acid that is derived
from willow was "discovered" by the founder of the Bayer company
for use as the active ingredient in asperin.
This benign and sustainable lifestyle changed with the arrival
of eastern and foreign immigrants. Early settlers such as
Captain John Sutter did not substantially alter the creeks and
sloughs although their farming practices did have some impact.
The major effects on this natural world started with the
discovery of gold and the period when the "world rushed in".
The sesquicentennial of this landmark event is now being
commemorated with three years of special events throughout the
state. In the early years there was a true zest for battling
nature. A February 1, 1867 editorial in the Bee stated that "...it
is not the object of engineering to locate your strong works in
the place of safety but to locate them where the danger is to be
Historically, Arcade Creek flowed through a large wetland and
then to Bush Lake. It has been cut off by the NEMDC and has
been channelized through the North Sacramento area. With the
exception of Del Paso Park its watershed is mostly developed
and there have been many local alterations in its upper reaches.
Arcade Creek plays a significant, albeit passive, role in
California's development. It is crossed by the first
transcontinental railroad. Based on its desire to "unite the
Union" during the Civil War, the federal government passed the
Railroad Act of 1861 which authorized the two competing railroad
companies, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, a reward
or subsidy for each mile completed. For the Central Pacific,
CPRR the amounts were $48,000 per mile in the Sierra, and $16,000
for other terrain. Theodore Judah, CPRR Chief Engineer, had
designated Newcastle, 31 miles east of the beginning of the
railroad as the base of the Sierra. However, Charles Crocker,
of the "Big Four" CPRR partners was able to convince Josiah
Whitney (for whom the mountain is named) Chief of the California
Geologic Survey, to recommend that Arcade Creek located seven
miles from the start of the line be declared the base of the
Sierra. This proposal generated controversy and accusations of
fraud, but it was finally approved by President Lincoln, based
on the government's desire to expedite completion of the railroad.
The headquarters of the vast, 44,000 acre Del Paso Ranch was
located at "the Arcade" near the creek. The ranch, controlled
by the lawyer-land baron, Ben Ali Haggin, featured the nation's
finest thoroughbreds during the late 19th century.
This slough once conveyed flows from the Bush (or Lower American)
Lake in the American Basin (Natomas) to the Sacramento River.
The first Bannon Slough has been mostly filled. However a small
remnant remains in the Bannon Creek Parkway in South Natomas.
The second Bannon Slough has been channelized and replaced by the
Natomas Main Drainage Canal operated by Reclamation District 1000.
The American Basin was reclaimed in the 1910-1915 period by the
Natomas Company. The Company had obtained the land from the State
for a one dollar per acre fee that could be used to help pay for
reclamation costs in accordance with a 1861 Tate law. The State
in turn had been granted these "swamp and overflowed" lands by
the federal government in accordance with the Arkansas Act of 1850
that required the State to take actions to reclaim these lands
for "productive" agricultural uses. The basin, a vast 58,000 acre
wetland area with lakes and marshes, became "Swamp and Overflowed
Land District No. 1" in California.
This historic slough came off the American River at the present
CSUS campus and flowed west and south through midtown to a
wetland area at the present site of Land Park, and eventually
to the Beach-Stone Lakes and Snodgrass Slough area in the south
county. The slough was the path of major flood events that
overtopped the American River. As the city grew in the 1860's-1870's
Burns Slough was diverted to the east. It was eventually filled
and replaced by constructed plank wall open ditches and finally,
beginning in the 1878, by a system of brick underground combined
storm drains and sewers. The final route of the slough was down
Alhambra Boulevard where it was replaced by a large underground
combined drain and sewer.
The ponds in McKinley Park and Sutter's Fort are remnants of the
original slough. In the early 1890's McKinley Park (then called
East Park) was owed by the Sacramento Electric Railway Company
and was the terminus of a trolley line. As part of their
development of the park, the company adopted a plan to plant
willows along the slough. This may have been the first natural
stream "restoration" project in the area.
Chicken Ranch and Strong Ranch Sloughs
These two sloughs, along with several other smaller ones,
terminated in a large wetland area located on and adjacent
to the present Cal Expo grounds. This runoff then flowed
to Bushy Lake and the American River. These sloughs have
been filled or channelized for approximately five miles each.
The Dry Creek of the Natomas area has the largest (114 square miles)
watershed of any creek whose downstream channel is within the County.
It is exceeded only by the second Dry Creek near Galt (329 square
miles) which serves as the boundary with San Joaquin County. Dry
Creek originally flowed into Bush (later called American) Lake in
the Natomas area. It was cut off by the Natomas East Main Drainage
Canal (NEMDC) and levee which were constructed around 1914-15. Dry
Creek is noteworthy for having the only documented salmon run of
any of the area's creeks. These runs occurred both before and after
construction of the East Main Drain. The creek also has the first
and only dam on a local creek. The small dam located in the Rio Linda's
Central Park was constructed by the Whipple family in 1929 to divert
irrigation water. It is still in use.
This creek was also cut off from Bush Lake by the NEMDC.
It has been altered and diverted in the upstream Robla,
McClellan and North Highlands areas.
Morrison Creek Stream Group
Morrison Creek and its tributaries: Florin, Elder, Union
House (Beacon), Strawberry, Laguna and Elk Grove Creeks
have been extensively relocated and channelized as a result
of urban development. The modification ranges from their
downstream end to as far east as Mather Field. These
streams were first impacted by farming, starting in the
late 19th century when the native grasslands and sparse
riparian vegetation were displaced by crops, pasture, and
invasive non-native grasses and weeds. The first major
relocation of Morrison Creek occurred with the construction
of the Sacramento Army Depot in 1945.
Although channelization and filling of streams has continued
based on economic, public safety and disruption considerations,
there have been attempts to recognize the aesthetic and
natural values of creeks.
In addition to the Burns Slough plan discussed above, the
city in 1915 adopted a "Master Plan for a Park System".
This plan prepared by a noted Cambridge, Massachusetts planner,
included parkway on both the American and Sacramento Rivers
and on the major creeks. These include Arcade, Morrison, and
Elder Creek and the Mungers Lake (now Reichmuth Park, that
linked the Elder Creek Parkway to the Sacramento Parkway at
the southern limit of the city as planned at that time. Of
course the "master plan" was not fully implemented. The only
element that was implemented was Del Paso Park. After Folsom
Dam was constructed in 1957, the American River Parkway finally
was created and preserved land in this riparian corridor as open
space. Now there is a movement to create a scaled-down
Sacramento River Parkway. In Reichmuth Park we have a smaller
version of the proposed Munger Lake Parkway.
The channelization, relocation and filling of natural streams
continued until the early 1970's when strong public interest,
spearheaded by the Friends of Chicken Ranch Slough, led to the
formation of a broadly based Natural Streams Task Force in 1972.
As a result of the work of the Task Force the County adopted a
Natural Streams Plan in 1980 which calls for the protection of
the natural amenities of selected creeks. The current County
General Plan as adopted in 1992 includes elements and policies
that call for the protection and restoration of the natural,
aesthetic and habitat values of our streams.
Continuing the movement towards preservation of our urban
creeks, a group of volunteers from throughout the community,
in 1987, formed the Sacramento Chapter of the Urban Creeks
Council, a statewide organization. Its mission remains to
promote preservation and protection of our urban creeks through
public education and advocacy. The chapter volunteers have:
- Through a California Department of Education grant, developed
a creek curriculum for elementary grades, now distributed statewide.
- Developed and distributed publications encouraging the community
to learn about and care for creeks.
- Helped promote the city and county's storm drain stenciling
program to alert residents to the fact that water entering a storm
drain goes to the creeks and rivers, not to a waste water facility.
- Received a grant to administer a volunteer water quality monitoring
program involving adults and high school youth.
- Cosponsored an Aquatic institute at CSUS to provide educators with
a variety of educational tools relating to waterways and water quality.
- Joined with other organizations to advocate for the preservation of
open space and protection of our remaining creeks and sloughs.
Beginning in 1990 the Chapter has sponsored Creek Week which includes
field trips, seminars and demonstrations, capped with a county-wide
creek cleanup. This event now involves close to two thousand people.
With financial support from many organizations and businesses and help
from the city and county, creek volunteers have removed tons of trash
from our waterways and have become personally committed to caring for
This was a significant waterway that was located south
of and parallel to the American River for nearly 15
miles between Mather and its terminus at Sutter (or China)
Lake at the confluence of the rivers where the railroad
depot is now located. As with other similar sloughs,
it was filled as the area urbanized. Its drainage function
has been replaced by underground storm drains.