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Age Determination of the Remaining Peat in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, California, USA

Donna L. Knifong, Christian S. de Fontaine, Judith Z. Drexler | October 9th, 2007

The Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta of California was once a 1,400 square kilometer (km2) tidal marsh, which contained a vast layer of peat ranging up to 15 meters (m) thick (Atwater and Belknap, 1980). Because of its favorable climate and highly fertile peat soils, the majority of the Delta was drained and reclaimed for agriculture during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Drainage of the peat soils changed the conditions in the surface layers of peat from anaerobic (having no free oxygen present) to aerobic (exposed to the atmosphere). This change in conditions greatly increased the decomposition rate of the peat, which consists largely of organic (plant) matter. Thus began the process of land-surface subsidence, which initially was a result of peat shrinkage and compaction, and later largely was a result of oxidation by which organic carbon in the peat essentially vaporized to carbon dioxide (Deverel and others, 1998; Ingebritsen and Ikehara, 1999).

Because of subsidence, the land-surface elevation on farmed islands in the Delta has decreased from a few meters to as much as 8 m below local mean sea level (California Department of Water Resources, 1995; Steve Deverel, Hydrofocus, Inc., written commun., 2007).

The USGS, in collaboration with the University of California at Davis, and Hydrofocus Inc. of Davis, California, has been studying the formation of the Delta and the impact of wetland reclamation on the peat column as part of a project called Rates and Evolution of Peat Accretion through Time (REPEAT). The purpose of this report is to provide results on the age of the remaining peat soils on four farmed islands in the Delta.


compaction, Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, subsidence, wetlands