OAKLEY -- A new $11 million Delta visitor center is at last open here to tell the story of the maze of islands and rivers in the heart of California's politically volatile water system.
It's not an easy tale to tell.
The vastness of the flat area, with 700 miles of waterways, 58 islands and 1,153 square miles of land and water, makes it a hard place to visit and understand -- especially if you don't own a boat.
The East Bay Regional Park District is opening a window into the region with its new Big Break Visitor Center at the Delta. It is located within the Big Break Regional Shoreline in Oakley.
The center is part natural history museum, science lab, and staging area for paddling and hiking trips into and along the Delta, a drinking water source for 22 million Californians and source of environmentally struggling habitat for fish and wildlife.
"We want to give the public a place to experience the Delta because it's important to California's future, and because it's a cool place to visit," said Mike Moran, chief naturalist at the center. "This is an excellent place for us to carry out our mission to connect people to their land, natural resources and heritage."
The 5,000-square-foot visitor center with big glass windows is the latest addition in a series of recreation and nature education improvements at the shoreline park.
Not far away in the same park is a popular large-scale model of the Delta, the source of a tug or war over water for people, farms, and fish.
Children like to pour water on the 30-by-50-foot model to see how it flows past cities and other familiar landmarks toward San Francisco Bay.
The park also has a beach to launch kayaks, a fishing and observation pier, an amphitheater for talks and activities, restored wetlands, shoreline trails and picnic tables.
The regional park district will dedicate the new visitor center and hold an open house there from 11 to 1 p.m. Saturday at Big Break Shoreline, 69 Big Break Road, Oakley.
The shoreline park is open seven days a week for no charge, but visitor center hours are currently limited to weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Park officials, however, say the new visitor center is being warmed up for a bigger role in 2013.
The park district soon will solicit requests for proposals to design and build some $800,000 in permanent displays and exhibits to go into the center. Exhibits in place now are temporary.
"We are talking about very cutting edge and top-flight exhibits to help answer the questions: What is the Delta, why is it important, how has it changed, and what is wrong with it?" Moran said.
The Delta includes portions of Contra Costa, Alameda, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Solano and Yolo counties.
Regional park district employees also are planning next year to introduce public and school interpretive programs for groups to take paddling, walking and research trips.
"There is a real shortage of public places to access water in the Delta," said Ted Radke of Martinez, a regional park board member. "There is no other place in the Delta like this that combines offering public access and public awareness."
More than 17 years ago, several East Bay educational, environmental, and government organizations began discussing the idea of joining forces to build a Delta center.
One by one various groups dropped out until the regional park district decided to build the project alone with local, state and federal money.
Radke said he expects the center to be popular with school and college groups for visits and research.
"If there's a need down the road, the center can be expanded," Radke said. "It's been a long time coming. We're pleased to have it open."
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.
When: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Big Break Regional Shoreline, 69 Big Break Road, Oakley (off Highway 4 east of Antioch Bridge)
What: First visitor center to offer public and school interpretive programs focused on the Delta.
Admission: Free, and open to the public
Details: Visit www.ebparks.org and click on "parks" and "Big Break"