The Owens Valley and adjoining Mono Basin are intimately connected to places far away, not just through the Los Angeles Aqueduct, but also through bird migrations that flow through the valley twice a year. Each spring and fall for millennia, hundreds of thousands of birds have moved along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada using the Owens Valley as a north-south flyway.
Bounded by dramatic mountain ranges—the Sierra Nevada to the west and the mountains of the Basin and Range Province to the east in Nevada—the valley is also a transition zone between the shadscale shrubs of the low elevation Mojave Desert to the south and the sagebrush of the high elevation Great Basin to the north. Despite the transformations that resulted from the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and exporting much of the water that used to flow from the mountains down to Mono Lake and Owens Lake, the Owens Valley remains a rich string of feeding, resting, and nesting spots for birds, many of which are designated as Important Bird Areas by Audubon California.
Owens Valley. Photograph by Chad Ress/Center for Social Cohesion
On the northern end, Mono Lake—home to over one million eared grebes, red-necked and Wilson’s phalaropes, and other waterbirds—has come to represent a remarkable environmental success story. The legal notion of a “public trust doctrine” was born of the legal battle to limit water diversions from the lake’s tributaries to the Los Angeles Aqueduct and has resulted in a long, gradual restoration of an astonishingly beautiful aquatic ecosystem in an arid environment. The sagebrush flats and grassy meadows of the Mono Highlands south of the lake remain a stronghold for greater sage grouse, Brewer’s sparrow, and other sagebrush species.
The Owens River links the highlands to Owens Lake. This snowpack-and-spring-fed river has received new life thanks to a 2006 court order mandating that the Los Angeles Department of Water put water back into the lower 60 miles of the river. The department takes some of that water back out of the river for the aqueduct at the lower end of its run, but the river is now a ribbon of life again. Cottonwoods and willows shade this green corridor in the dry desert landscape. Sadly, the Owens pupfish and Owens tui chub, two native fish, have disappeared from the river, though nonnative trout thrive there; and floodplain wetlands full of cattails and tule provide cover for birds and other aquatic life.
The valley’s southern end is anchored by Owens Lake. Water diversions had dried up the ephemeral lake until recent rewatering projects were begun to keep hazardous dust from blowing off the desiccated lakebed. The results have been dramatic and demonstrate the nearly instant power of putting water out on the dry lakebed. Invertebrate populations explode and the birds respond. The 100 square-mile desert lake had long been a magnet for ducks, gulls, shorebirds, and other waterfowl, and they have returned with the water. A one-day bird count this April tallied 115,000 birds, including twenty species of shorebirds. The lake also has spring-fed alkali meadows of sacaton and saltgrass that provide fresh water inflows into the otherwise saline lake, attracting amphibians, mammals, more birds, and other wildlife.
Over the past two years, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been negotiating a master plan for controlling dust and providing habitat at Owens Lake. The department has recently floated a conceptual master project to enhance habitat while minimizing the water used for controlling dust in favor of using other dust control methods on the lake. This certainly makes sense—conserving water while providing habitat and mitigating hazardous dust—but the project still has to undergo a rigorous environmental impact review. A binding enforcement mechanism remains to be worked out.
The city of Los Angeles and its Department of Water and Power have a historic opportunity at Owens Lake. The public trust doctrine is a legal doctrine that established that some water should remain in our rivers and lakes as a matter of public trust. In a very real sense, it states that rivers and lakes have some legal right to exist and without a minimal right to water they may not survive. The public trust doctrine saved Mono Lake. Returning water to the Owens River was an extension of the spirit of this public trust, although it was done without resorting to the legal doctrine. Ensuring the long-term viability of aquatic habitat at Owens Lake would be a fitting way to extend the spirit of the city’s public trust to the rest of an amazing ecosystem, whose most precious resource, water, gave life to Los Angeles.
Spring shorebird migration peaks in the second half of April at Owens Lake. Fall migration peaks late in August through September. The Eastern Sierra Audubon Society coordinates bird counts during the migrations. The “Owens Lake Big Days,” as these events are called, began in 2008, seven years into the Los Angeles Owens Lake Dust Control Project when thousands of migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, attracted by the water used for dust control, were being observed each spring and fall.
A “bubbler.” Courtesy of Mike Prather.
Shallow flooding to control dust and create habitat. Courtesy of LADWP.
Survey days start with an orientation at dawn and can extend well into the afternoon. Fifteen to twenty local birders and others from around the state work with biologists from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to form survey teams that spread out and cover the entire lake, recording all birds seen and their locations. Good bird identification skills are essential, as well as the ability to count groups of birds numbering in the thousands. Up to 22 different shorebird species may be seen on an Owens Lake Big Day. Large flocks of American avocets as well as least and western sandpipers flock back and forth over the lake making counting a challenge. Occasionally a peregrine falcon will streak through a surveyor’s location causing birds on the ground to flush up into the air. It isn’t unusual for counters to have to begin all over again once the birds settle back down.
Collecting population numbers is crucial for understanding, managing, and protecting the wildlife attracted to the new habitat created by the dust mitigation program, as well as figuring out how best to manage the water to provide habitat. Data from the Owens Lake Big Days is shared between Eastern Sierra Audubon, Audubon California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the California State Lands Commission.
Canada Goose 2
American Wigeon 57
Blue-winged Teal 3
Cinnamon Teal 560
Northern Shoveler 1,003
Northern Pintail 64
Green-winged Teal 107
Unidentified Anas species 3
Ring-necked Duck 12
Lesser Scaup 2
Common Merganser 4
Red-breasted Merganser 1
Ruddy Duck 3,265
Eared Grebe 15,510
Western Grebe 5
Clark’s Grebe 1
Snowy Egret 3
White-faced Ibis 193
Northern Harrier 1
Prairie Falcon 1
Peregrine Falcon 3
American Coot 1,095
Black-bellied Plover 6
Snowy Plover 26
Semipalmated Plover 36
Black-necked Stilt 353
American Avocet 9,730
Greater Yellowlegs 221
Lesser Yellowlegs 8
Spotted Sandpiper 3
Long-billed Curlew 2
Marbled Godwit 7
Western Sandpiper 3,279
Least Sandpiper 11,514
Unidentified Calidris sandpiper species 36,637
Long-billed Dowitcher 296
Dowitcher species 348
Wilson’s Phalarope 521
Red-necked Phalarope 69
Phalarope species 260
Franklin’s Gull 27
Bonaparte’s Gull 39
Ring-billed Gull 37
California Gull 27,545
Forster’s Tern 2
Common Raven 89
Horned Lark 176
Tree Swallow 57
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 2
Cliff Swallow 178
Barn Swallow 117
Unidentified swallow species 1
Marsh Wren 1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1
American Pipit 131
Yellow-rumped Warbler 3
Brewer’s Sparrow 5
Black-throated Sparrow 2
Savannah Sparrow 58
White-crowned Sparrow 8
Red-winged Blackbird 47
Yellow-headed Blackbird 5
Brewer’s Blackbird 19
American avocets. Courtesy of Mike Prather.
Conceptual drawing of future habitat. Courtesy of LADWP.
The Upper Owens River is the top end of the watershed that William Mulholland and his crew of engineers tapped into to take water to Los Angeles. The headwaters are giant springs that come out of the canyon called Big Springs. There is a Forest Service campground right adjacent to where the springs are; and if you go to the end of the campground and walk down a little hill, there’s all this volcanic rock. And from that rock, you’ll see water bubbling up all over the place.
From here, it flows to Crowley Lake—originally named Long Valley Reservoir—the largest reservoir on the Los Angeles Aqueduct system. It has a huge capacity of 183,000 acre-feet, which can supply half a million people a year. That water is stored in Crowley until it’s needed and, of course, it’s let out constantly, raising and lowering the level depending on what’s coming into it.
From there the water goes into a pipe and tunnel and into three hydroelectric plants because Crowley Lake is about 2,400 feet above the Owens Valley floor, and that’s a great way to generate electricity. They run the water through three hydroelectric plants built in the 1950s and put the water back into the river just above Bishop, at a much lower elevation.
Then from there it flows in its normal river channel until it comes to the intake, about thirty miles south of Bishop, where Mulholland determined he needed to take the water out of the original Owens River channel and put it into an artificial conveyance system—the aqueduct—so he could take it all the way to Los Angeles via gravity. There’s no pumping on the system; it all flows downhill via gravity. The other way to think about it is that the aqueduct intake is the one place where, from there south, everything is at a lower elevation. Water is taken out of the river and put into the aqueduct. It’s amazing. For a stretch of about 10 miles, it only drops about a foot per mile; it’s a very gradual flow. Most of the section in the Owens Valley is open to air.
We have an unlined stretch—I call it the “big ditch”; it’s just a 40-foot wide ditch—that the water flows in. The groundwater is so high in that portion of the Owens Valley that it makes water. More water comes in than is lost to groundwater infiltration.
Then it goes into a lined concrete channel that’s open to air for about another 35 miles and in the south end of the valley. Once the aqueduct skirts around Owens Lake, it spills into Haiwee Reservoir. There are actually two reservoirs there; both are fairly long and narrow.
From there south, the water is all in conduit tunnel and pipe, all the way to Los Angeles; and it first appears at the LA Aqueduct filtration plant at the intersection of Interstate 5 and Highway 14, just above Los Angeles.
The Boom interview: Ron Nichols, Department of Water and Power
Uneasy lies the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Before Ron Nichols was appointed general manager in January 2011, the nation’s largest municipal utility was run by five different men in five years.
Before moving to LA, Nichols was a high-powered consultant to water and energy utilities, first with his own firm, Resource Management International, and then with Navigant Consulting. His speciality: putting together tough deals, selling them, and making them work. He knows government and politics, too, having held positions with the California Department of Water Resources and the California Energy Commission.
He has a vision for the future of water and power. It’s not his alone. But he has made it his.
Get Los Angeles off of coal-fired power. Expand the city’s renewable energy sources. Implement the largest home solar program of any city in the nation. And reduce the city’s reliance on imported water by capturing more stormwater in LA watersheds, cleaning up contaminated groundwater, and reusing treated wastewater, while convincing customers to go along with rate hikes to pay to keep up a century-old system and invest in the future.
Nichols knows the territory. He knows it won’t be easy. And, yes, he has seen Chinatown.
Boom spoke with him about the legacy of the LA Aqueduct and the challenges ahead.
Boom: When we told people we were working on a special issue about the one hundredth anniversary of the LA Aqueduct, often the first thing they said was, “Oh, you mean, like, Chinatown?” Do you ever hear that? And how does that affect what you do?
Nichols: When word first came out that I was being appointed to this position, I received a half-a-dozen copies of Chinatown from people, saying, “Oh, you have to see this movie.” Well, you know, actually, I saw it when it came out. It was a very entertaining movie. That movie is very loosely based on past events. I don’t think it depicts what William Mulholland did and what the LA Aqueduct is to Los Angeles. It’s a useful foil. It’s a good opportunity for people to bring out their perceptions of the aqueduct and the issues associated with the Owens Valley and juxtapose that against what has really happened and, most importantly, what we’re doing going forward. I think the better story, the real story, is a story of an incredible undertaking of unprecedented proportions to develop an ingenious supply of water to help create one of the largest cities in the world. That’s an impressive story.
Boom:Is it true that most Southern Californians don’t know where their water comes from?
Nichols: I think that’s true. It’s human nature to look at a tap as it provides me water, just like when you look at your light switch. You flick it on and have light. You don’t think about where any of that came from. That’s just human nature.
Ron Nichols. Courtesy of LADWP.
Boom:Where does our water come from in Los Angeles?
Nichols: In an average year, about half of it comes from purchases from Metropolitan Water District. About a third of it comes from the Owens Valley through the LA Aqueduct, and the rest comes from water conservation, stormwater capture, recycled water, and groundwater. And the important thing is there’s very rarely an average year. And as a result, our water requirements in terms of what we purchase from MWD, imported largely from Northern California varies from 25 percent of our needs in a wonderful wet year, like we had three years ago, to 75 percent of our needs in a year like we’re having now, with two back-to-back drought years.
Boom:What does Los Angeles owe Owens Valley, if anything?
Nichols: I think we owe them our attention in terms of how we’re using the water and how we’re planning to use that water, the effects that our use of water has had and does have in Owens Valley. I think we owe them respect. And I think they need to understand the role that the water that we bring from the Owens Valley plays in Los Angeles and how important that water is to a city of four million people. There has been a century of difficult relations between the Owens Valley and LA. You don’t change that overnight, but we’re working on it.
Boom: Can the DWP make peace with Owens Valley?
Nichols: I guess it always depends on how you define peace. We’re working much better with Owens Valley than we have in the past. There is not a monolithic Owens Valley, though. There are agricultural users up there who would like to see more water for their use in the valley. There are persons who are very pleased that it hasn’t grown like a big valley town in the San Joaquin Valley. There are the tribes up there who are concerned about the impacts of development on their lands up there. So you can’t just paint Owens Valley with the same brush. There are those who are concerned about dust impacts. You can’t solve all of those interests simultaneously. And all of those interests themselves don’t necessarily agree with one another. But we’re doing our best to try to find a way to be better partners. And a perfect example is what we call our Owens Lake Master Project. We will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on doing a better job of mitigating dust with less water, while enhancing the environment for waterfowl and aesthetics—if we’re allowed to do it.
Boom: So what are the parts that you’ve not been allowed to do that you would like to do?
Nichols: Rather than have a well-established comprehensive plan on how you’re going to do that—that is, mitigate the dust on Owens Lake—it comes to us in large bite-sized pieces, obligations, with very tight deadlines. If we actually knew what the overall plan was going to be and where, we could come up with something much better. We could come up with something that doesn’t waste 95,000 acre-feet of water a year on mitigating dust when there are things that can be done without using anything close to that much water. We could do something that environmentally looks better in places where we could put water that works for waterfowl.
Boom: Can the new mayor Eric Garcetti play a role in making peace between LA and Owens Valley?
Nichols: No one has to put a gun to our head to say go up there and cooperate with the people in Owens Valley and the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District. We’ve extended our willingness to do that, but you need to have a willing partner on the other side. It takes two to tango.
Boom: Could shuttle diplomacy help?
Nichols: Well, here’s the challenge with that: To do shuttle diplomacy, you need a diplomat on the other side that represents the other side. And there is no one individual that truly speaks for the interests of all of Owens Valley on the other side. That’s been the challenge. You’ve got a single regulator up there that has a job that he perceives he has to do, and there is not a political body on the other side that says, “Well, what’s in the long-term best interest of Owens Valley, and how can we work collaboratively in a way to get something done there that works out not only for Owens Valley but all of California?”
Boom: Is the LA Aqueduct going to become less important or even more important in the future?
Nichols: I believe it will be even more important in the future. It was obviously vitally important at its birth to provide the volume of water that was necessary to build a city on. Fast-forward a hundred years: We’re not going to be growing massively going forward. We’re certainly not going to be using a lot more water. But it’s important to have some diversity of water supplies to have a reliable supply, and the Owens is an incredibly important piece of that and I think will be even more important going forward.
Boom: So why is water from Owens Valley even more important going forward?
Nichols: It’s important for us to be able to have a supply that we uniquely have rights to. There are three legs to the stool for our water supply. There’s Owens, there’s what we get from the Metropolitan Water District, which is 80 to 90 percent in normal years from Northern California, and there’s what we do locally here within the city. If we know that we’ve got those two other legs of that stool, of MWD and Owens, then we can set upon the investments that we need to do to try to firm up our local supplies through conservation, cleaning up our contaminated groundwater, stormwater capture, and recycled water. If there were uncertainty about whether Owens is going to be there, I’m not sure where we’re going to get the water that we need for a city of four million people.
Boom: If money were no object and you were the king of water in Los Angeles, how would you change our water system?
John Ferraro Office Building, LADWP headquarters. Photograph by Joshua Llaneza.
Nichols: There are two pieces of that. There’s the infrastructure that delivers to our customers and there’s the supply. On the infrastructure side, it would be wonderful not to wake up every day to a water break in our system. So I would love to be able to replace all of our aged pipes and pumps and other things to get us up to a totally modern distribution system. On the supply side, I’d like to be able to focus on cleaning up the groundwater aquifers in the San Fernando Valley. Get rid of those industrial solvents that came there in the World War II and post–World War II time frame, so that the water that’s there can continue to be used reliably and sustainably. That’s an important supply. I’d like to be able to complete the Owens Master Project to reduce the amount of water that we are using for dust control. And I’d like to be able to find a way to take highly treated water out of all of our wastewater and use that and put that into our groundwater aquifers to have that be a bigger piece of our long-term supply. All of those things take a lot of money, unfortunately.
Boom: But all of those things are actually in your plans.
Nichols: Yeah. I’d like to get them done tomorrow.
Boom: So how do you persuade the public—your customers—to support those kinds of investments when it means higher rates for them?
Nichols: It’s an education effort. And it’s something we’ve been doing over a number of years. I have spent, personally, a lot of time on it, over a year and a half, working through, identifying what our near-term water requirements were, to explain to people first, here are the supplies we have. Here’s the condition of our infrastructure. Here are our needs. And here is how we need to be able to do these things, both to meet regulatory requirements and to do it more sustainably and more wisely. I think we get substantial support for that in that process. But to get people comfortable with putting money down monthly to do that, it needs to be tangible. Tell me the project. Tell me exactly what you’re going to do. Show me that you’ve prioritized this in a way that makes the most sense, that you’re doing the best things first. We owe that to them and we’re doing that.
Boom: But we often hear people say, “That’s not what it’s about at all. It’s about the unions and their pensions.” How do you respond to that in public meetings?
Nichols: The question of the unions at DWP and our costs for labor get raised early and often. And I think people need to understand that, number one, unlike, say, the rest of the City of Los Angeles, where 90 percent of their costs are labor; 25 percent of our costs for LADWP are labor. So it’s not a big driver of our costs, and as a result, people aren’t going to be seeing rate increases because of the demands of our unions. Do we need to make certain that we’re being prudent in dealing with our unions and that we’re making certain that we’re not overspending? Of course. I think it’s very important to make a differentiation between DWP and DWP’s largest union. They’re not the same. DWP does play a meaningful role in city politics, but it does so by virtue of providing two phenomenally important commodities that make cities survive: water and power. And on the water side, it’s particularly important when you have a city of four million people living in an arid area that relies on water that doesn’t largely come from within its borders. Making certain that there’s water there and there’s power priced at a level that people are willing to pay and changing from a fairly high carbon power supply to a sustainable one are big issues. They’re important issues, and they loom large on the political horizon down at the city council and should. These are important issues for a city. They’re important issues for society. So, in that regard, DWP utility does play a significant role in politics. DWP, the utility, has nothing to do with elections. We don’t spend any money on elections. We don’t take positions on candidates. The union has taken its position. And they’re free to do that. And there’s been a long legacy of IBEW influence with respect to elections. I don’t have any say over that. Unfortunately, I think both the media and a lot of the public have difficulty making that separation between the union and the department. That’s unfortunate.
Boom: The other part of your portfolio is power. How do you balance the two, water and power?
Nichols: Both water and power systems are going through this phenomenal change at the same time. And it’s all about a combination of aged infrastructure and sustainability. We’re making huge changes on the power side as we move off of coal, as we help our customers use less energy and use it more wisely, as we ramp up to at least 33 percent renewable energy, as we rebuild all of our coastal gas-fired power plants to quit using once-through ocean cooling, we’re completely turning this utility upside-down in twelve or fourteen years. And that’s a huge process. But we’re doing the same thing on the water side. We’re covering all of our reservoirs. We’re rebuilding our pipelines. And we’re having to regularly recondition the LA Aqueduct. We’re spending billions of dollars on dust mitigation up on Owens Lake. We’re putting an incredible amount of money into recycled water and stormwater capture and pumping up our funding for water conservation, all at the same time. It would be wonderful if we could do one and then the other, but we can’t. So they pretty much occupy about an equal amount of my time.
Boom: Thinking about the future of water and power, it seems that we might reasonably expect new disruptive technologies that could substantially change how we generate energy, store it, and use it. But in water, not so much.
Nichols: Clearly, and there’s a reason for that. You get water from where it exists. We have a fixed amount of water on this planet. We haven’t found a way to manufacture new water. But you can manufacture electricity lots of different ways. As a result, the technological opportunities on the power side are significantly greater. Anybody who says they know fifty years from now what we’re going to be using to produce energy is crazy. Whereas on the water side, we know where our water is going to come from. We just need to prioritize our planning and our spending for it. If there were one technical area that I wish someone could come up with, it would be to have every multifamily home, unit, have its own individual water meter. Sixty percent of Angelenos live in multifamily homes. And the vast majority of those multifamily homes are in large enough structures that they don’t have a separate meter for each dwelling. They don’t have anything that causes them to pay directly for the water they use. And it’s very tough to replumb buildings. If somebody could come up with a way that could measure that water use at the point of use in multifamily buildings, to give a price signal to all of those customers to conserve more, that would be a technological difference. That would make a difference in this city.
Boom: How will climate change affect our water supply and what are you doing now to adapt to those changes?
Nichols: I’m one of those that believes climate change is real. We’re going to have greater heat that’s going to put potentially greater demand on water unless we change how we use it. And we’re going to have less water available. Or when it does come, it’s going to come in less of an even flow year-to-year than we had in the past. Those are big challenges. That’s one of the big drivers of why we decided to try to accelerate by a decade our local water management goals, because we think time is not on our side. And changing how people use water, and using and reusing here more locally is really important. There’s not a lot we can do about what it’s going to do in terms of changing the availability of supply, but we can change how wisely we use it.
Boom: A big chunk of LA’s water comes not from Owens Valley by the LA Aqueduct but from Northern California through the State Water Project. There is a terrific debate brewing about the future of that water supply, restoration of ecosystems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and a new conveyance system of tunnels under the Delta to bring freshwater into the State Water Project. What are your thoughts about what’s happening now in the Delta?
Nichols: I personally think the future of California, not just Southern California, depends upon resolving that issue and providing through that project or something similar to it, not more water—that’s where I think the misnomer is—not more water, but more assurance of the reliability of that water being there, irrespective of what climate change issues might be. I think it’s most important to Southern California overall, but speaking for Los Angeles, I think it’s critical that we know what we can reasonably expect to get from Northern California for at least the next century, and right now, given the uncertainty associated with environmental problems that are there, the impacts that could happen from a major seismic event, we don’t know. And that’s not an acceptable circumstance.
Boom: How should Los Angeles think of its role in the Delta?
Nichols: I think it’s important that we communicate in Sacramento that we have done an excellent job on water conservation in Los Angeles. Most people don’t realize that we use the same amount of water today cumulatively as we did over forty years ago in 1970, and yet we have more than a million people more than we had then. That’s pretty darn impressive. We’re going to continue to do an increasingly better job of our water use down here. We’re going to continue to get the squeal out of the pig of the water that’s available in Los Angeles. But we can’t be cut off from that supply. The city will wither. And I believe that there is a good solution that works for Northern California and Southern. This is speaking for somebody who spent thirty-five of my years living in Northern California.
The common belief, if you read it in the media, is that it’s a big water grab and we’re trying to increase it more for wasteful uses. In Southern California, nothing can be further from the truth. We have to get that clear message out to debunk that myth. I’m a water skier, and I’ve spent a lot of time up and down all over that Delta and used to be a fisherman up there as well. I’m not going to profess to be an expert on the Delta ecosystems. But from everything I’ve seen—and I’ve followed this issue for thirty-five years, back when I used to work for the first Brown administration when I was at the California Energy Commission, then the California Department of Water Resources in the seventies—that a solution like this is needed. We can’t continue on in the same fashion right now. It isn’t environmentally sustainable for the Delta. It’s not adequate for the reliability of water supply for Southern California. And this fix seems to be the best fix that I’ve seen in the thirty-five years or so that I’ve been in this business. And if it doesn’t work this time, it’s going to be a difficult challenge to try to do it again at a point in time that I fear is going to be a time when it has reached such a dire problem that it would be hard to get done in time.
This interview was conducted and edited by Jon Christensen.
Photograph at top: John Ferraro Office Building, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power headquarters, by Abhijit Patil.
What does WUI (often pronounced “woo-ee”) mean to you? If you immediately recognize those letters as an acronym for “Wildland-Urban Interface,” odds are good you’re a Californian who does not live in one of our state’s urban cores. If the term WUI conjures images of CalFire and Forest Service firecrews fighting blazes in grasslands and forests, then you probably know firsthand some of the risks of living beyond the easy-access comfort zone of city services.
WUI (the “I” sometimes standing for “intermix” rather than “interface”) is part of a special vocabulary—the parlance of exurbiA&Mdash;that I’ve had to learn since moving into the Sierra Nevada. I didn’t move to the mountains to learn about urban or rural sprawl, the rural/urban fringe, or edge effects. I didn’t move here to learn about the WUI as that space where buildings (usually residences) face off or intermingle with wildland vegetation. That’s the simplest and most straightforward definition of the term, but also one that does not begin to do full justice to the complexities of that space. I moved here because I wanted to live in a place where, on clear, moonless nights, I could see the dense river of stars called the Milky Way. I wanted not so much to look down on city lights as to look up at stars. That was the space I was interested in. To cultural geographers that makes me an “amenity migrant,” although I must admit that reducing the whole of the visible universe to an amenity—to something merely conducive to the attractiveness and value of a piece of real estate—strikes me as trivializing in the extreme.
Aerial view of wildland-urban interface (WUI).IMAGE COURTESY OF NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE.
Despite myself, I have learned about more here than the names of constellations. I have had to learn to see the trees for the forest, the specific details that get lost in phrases like “wildland-urban interface.” I have had to recognize that the WUI is a boundary zone for many conflicts between human beings and our environment in California: not just wildland fires but also habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and biodiversity decline. Encroaching air and water pollution. Mountain-lion kills of pets and other domesticated animals (and yes, sometimes people). The toxic waste and toxic politics surrounding guerrilla marijuana grow-sites and methamphetamine labs—including law enforcement agencies’ widespread use of helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft surveillance, and the proposed use of drones. When I look through the lens of the wildland-urban interface, what I increasingly see in its details is not so much some idyllic past now disappearing, but rather a foreshadowing of the future that forces me to reexamine my understanding of words like “diversity” and “urban.”
Initially, I found it strange that “urban” is a part of the term for this particular interface. I have lived in Riverside and Fresno Counties in ethnically, racially, and socio-economically mixed “urban” neighborhoods, as well as in locales commonly understood to be “suburban,” “rural,” and “exurban.” I thought that I knew what those words in scare-quotes meant. I seem to have been wrong.
What, for instance, is “urban” as opposed to “rural” or “exurban”? Urban and regional planners, demographers, cultural geographers, political ecologists, and rural sociolo-gists have been debating those definitions, and the issues and impacts surrounding them, for fifty years. Yet the matter still continues to be worth debating. For all of us, understanding those terms more deeply tends to lead us away from the idea that we can take for granted the characteristics of the places where we actually live, work, and play. Moreover, how a locale is defined has many practical consequences—from the ratio of grocery stores to liquor stores, to how government funding is distributed, to how corporations market their wares to residents (and which corporations will choose to do so).
Satellite image of California at night. IMAGE COURTESY OF WWW.NIGHTEARTH.COM
Yes, it’s true that to define is inherently to exclude and oversimplify, but like the experts we should at least attempt to define the problem before we set about problematizing the definition. So, to begin: Of California’s nearly 38 million people, only 800,000 (about 2 percent) are defined as “rural” by the USDA; the rest are “urban.” My wife and I are members of a still more nuanced geographic minority—Californians who live in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We number about 600,000, mostly in rural and exurban communities, but with a few suburban-style resort developments in the mix, too.
Fires from undeveloped land may impinge similarly upon all of these, but even if one considers urban, suburban, rural, and exurban as points along a continuum rather than clearly bounded regions, there are still a lot of differences among them.
Unlike the suburbs’ subdivisions and planned commu-nities, with their limited variety of approved home models on lots generally smaller than an acre, the lot sizes where I live mostly run five acres and more. This makes my neighborhood exurban, if one agrees with the geographers that exurban housing densities are one housing unit per one to forty acres. Architectural styles of residences in my exurban neighborhood, too, tend to be unregulated beyond basic county-permitting requirements.
Image source: Radeloff, U.C. et al. “The Wildland-Urban Interface in the United States,” Ecological Applications 15, 2005.
Suburban developments are generally regulated by covenants or similar agreements. Most are served by paid professional city firefighters, police, and emergency services, as well as by publicly funded roads, water, and sewage systems. In exurbia, where we live, there are fewer covenants and residents are likely as not to have their own water systems (usually wells), their own “sewage” systems (septic tanks and leach fields), and their own privately maintained roads. Law enforcement is more likely to involve the county sheriff and state highway patrol, and fire protection is more likely to be provided through county fire districts, volunteer fire departments, and CalFire.
Suburbs tend to grow houses where there were formerly orchards and row crops, but the land where I live (which the local real estate agents like to call “resort property”) was previously used for grazing and timber. That in itself might be a good way to distinguish between rural and exurban: “Rural” as historically and/or presently characterized by the large-scale row cropping of the farmer, and “exurban” suggesting far less a history, or ongoing presence, of large-scale row crop agriculture, and more pronounced historical connections to the worlds of the miner, the lumberjack, the shepherd, and the cowboy. Yet even here the boundary between rural and exurban stays fuzzy, given that community gardens, backyard orchards, vineyards, and marijuana plantings—not to mention chicken coops, horse paddocks, and cow pasturage—are not unknown in exurban areas. While our exurbia is exhaustively described by neither the genteelly pastoral “Appellation: California” nor by the grimly pejorative “Appalachian California,” those terms nonetheless do suggest realities readily seen here, often cheek by jowl with one another.
IMAGE COURTESY OF U.S. FOREST SERVICE.
Peter Walker and Louise Fortmann, in their 2003 article “Whose Landscape? A Political Ecology of the ‘Exurban’ Sierra,” find in their Nevada County study a situation of “competing rural capitalisms”—of conflicts between what Raymond Williams termed “practical” versus “aesthetic” or “production” versus “consumption” landscapes. The “old” resource extraction-based capitalism (timber, grazing, farming, mining) is an obstacle to the “new” aesthetic consumption-based capitalism (recreational tourism and rural residential real estate development). In my own neighborhood, the shift from the old capitalism to the new was less a “conflict” than a hand-off. Hereabouts, the largest local subdivision-style development was on land once owned, and then subdivided, by an out-of-state timber company, subsequently rebranded an “energy” company, which in turn sold the subdivision plans to local real estate developers.
Cultural geographers often get around the whole “what was grown or extracted when” question by referring to exurbia as “post productivist”—as Laura Taylor does in her 2009 landmark overview, “No Boundaries: Exurbia and the Study of Contemporary Urban Dispersion,” wherein she defines exurbanites as “city people who have deliberately chosen the rural landscape as a setting for their homes” and who “commute by cars, trains, planes, and Internet to one (or more) cities and suburbs for work, shopping, and entertainment.” She writes that “Exurbia captures the phenomenon of very-low-density, amenity-seeking, post-productivist residential settlement in rural areas.” Some of my neighbors are among those Internet circuit-riders called telecommuters, of whom it might be said that they do not so much go to the city as have the city and its ethos come to them—but more on that later.
View of Fresno from Pine Ridge. PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES PARR.
Such distinctions in any case miss out on details that are just as important, such as the fact that where I live the mailbox is not within walking distance, taking out the trash involves a pickup truck, and one of the best off-label uses for a pellet gun is plinking soot off the screen of a woodstove’s chimney cap. Moreover, a homeowner benefits from knowing how a couple of tennis balls in a mesh laundry bag attached to a long pole can be used to plug from the inside the outlet of a 3,000 gallon water storage tank. The homeowner can then remove the freeze-cracked ball valve from said outlet without draining said tank.
I include these details not to make the place where I live sound “folksy” or “quaint” or somehow “exotic,” but merely to mention realities I have experienced. Many of my neighbors and I have also come to know the “dark side of exurban living (constant debt, physical fatigue of commuting, dissonance between the dream of country living and the labor of its reality)”—as Taylor writes of A.C. Spectorsky’s warnings in his 1955 book The Exurbanites. As with so many other complex matters, when it comes to defining the “urbs”—including the “sub” and the “ex”—there is more than one way to peel the onion.
CalFire and the Forest Service have their own functional definitions of “urban” and “wildland,” which understandably emphasize different details than those I’ve just mentioned. The fire services’ WUI works well enough but is perhaps too broad and big-picture—too much “forest,” too little “trees.” It would be just as functional (and admittedly just as problematic) to say that, since the modern city is most characterized by night-banishing artificial light, the city ends where the Milky Way begins. When one is far enough beyond the influence of streetlights and all other forms of light pollution to be able to see our planet’s neighborhood—several of our solar system’s other planets and myriad stars of the actual galaxy in which we live—then we’re not in an urban area anymore.
Add light pollution, then, to the WUI conflicts of wildland fires, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and biodiversity decline. Yet there are other types of “diversity decline” that should also concern us, beyond biology and astronomy.
During my twice-a-week commute to California State University, Fresno, where I teach, I see a diversity of landscapes and land uses. I pass logging trucks, cattle ranches, rock quarries, orange groves, suburban tract developments, and industrial and manufacturing concerns. Once I arrive on campus, I encounter a different type of diversity. My students are quite diverse economically and ethnically. They hail from almost everywhere, represent a broad range of class strata, and are as likely to be Hispanic, African American, Hmong, or Punjabi, as Northern European-descended Caucasian.
Yet underlying this apparent diversity is also a growing homogeneity. In 2008, for the first time ever, more human beings found themselves living within urban areas than outside them, according to geographers and demographers. When it comes to designating where the urban world ends and the nonurban world begins, these experts put forward even more numerous conflicting interpretations of that boundary than firefighters or starry-eyed writers do—but it’s clear that the trend of global urbanization is accelerating. When the experts write that 70 percent of all human beings are projected to live in urban areas by 2050, I see no reason to quibble. Although it took more than ten thousand years for cities to reach the 50 percent threshold, it will only take slightly more than forty years to cover the next 20 percent. If this trend continues, sometime in the next century the percentage of the global human population living outside cities will become vanishingly small.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF CALFIRE.
Despite the apparent diversity of urban residents, many a seasoned traveler will tell you that, if you really want to know a region’s people, visit the countryside rather than the big cities. In one paradoxical respect, however, city and countryside are not so different. Agriculture made human settlement possible, and now human settlement curiously recapitulates agricultural practice, particularly the preference for monoculture. Megacities anywhere are very much alike: the socioeconomic logic of our times presses the diversity of peoples into an increasingly uniform global urban monoculture—or, more precisely, a global monoculture of the urban, corporate, and digital. As William Gibson rightly notes in his essay in a special “Cities” issue of Scientific American, cities increasingly exist within the “ageographic and largely unrecognized meta city that is the Internet.”
This reality was brought home to me when my wife and I, after having climbed to the summit of Mount Whitney, met a young man engaged in uploading to the Web, from his iPhone, every image he framed and shot from that peak. Despite the physical challenges involved in reaching its summit, Mount Whitney is also an on-ramp to the hyper-boulevards of the global virtual city.
Given satellite phone coverage, that virtual city might not be said to “end” at all, but rather to be coextensive with the surface of the Earth. The light from its streets may prove inescapable. For those of us who dwell in the dwindling refugia of cell-phone dead zones yet are already enduring law enforcement’s surveillance overflights, the idea that someday soon there may be no space on Earth free of digital oversight is something that gives us pause. Privacy is, after all, another of the amenities for which we migrated here.
Aside from the occasional concerns expressed by linguists and anthropologists regarding the disappearance of tribal languages and cultures, one hears very little discussion of any downside to this shift to global monoculture, even from scholars and activists normally quick to condemn the unsustainability of monocultures in other contexts, particularly agriculture. These days, global urbanization is increasingly touted in messianic terms as the most environmentally sound future—the “smartest,” “greenest,” and “most sustainable” alternative among foreseeable life-ways.
Because city dwellers live at higher densities in more compact dwellings and are less reliant on automobiles, they presumably leave smaller carbon footprints than sub-urbanites or exurbanites. Urban population density itself is lauded as a major maintainer of cultural complexity and a major driver of new behaviors. No wonder the editors of Scientific American, in the previously mentioned issue, proclaimed the city as the “solution to the problems of our age.”
Much of this is plausible and true, but I still have questions. Cities currently account for 50 percent of our global population—and 80 percent of our greenhouse gas production. They will have to become far more energy efficient and much more self-sufficient overall if they are ever to fulfill our great expectations for them. The popular argument that “increasing population drives increasing innovation” may have been true enough for Upper Paleolithic humans living at numbers far below environmental carrying capacity, but I doubt that technological innovation alone will find for us the way out of an environmental-collapse cul-de-sac, or that population growth on its own, without broader socioeconomic changes, will foster a golden age of innovation. When discussing cities as engines of innovation, prophets of the messianic city, the Neon New Jerusalem, tend to speak of “conurbations,” so they might include the children of the better-off suburbs as part of their urban visions. Indeed, one might observe that, over its long history, urbanism has contributed in no small part to the creation of a contemporary world that is arguably overpopulated, heatgas-insulated, corporate-dominated, surveillance-regulated, and media-hypersaturated, as unpopular and unfashionable as that observation may be, especially if true.
If California is a bellwether in this matter as it has been in so many others, then the future looks more “suburban” than “urban,” in any case. Population is declining both in the state’s urban cores and exurban counties. Meanwhile, population and poverty are growing fastest in the suburbs, although they still remain richer and less population-dense than residential zones of the urban cores.
At first blush, the more “urban” side of the wildland-urban interface might seem to have little to say to the more “wildland” side. If the WUI is not exactly a Mason-Dixon Line, it still seems something of an “Occupy-Tea Party” Line: On the more urban side of the line, gun control means legislation; on the more wildland side of the line, gun control means using the proverbial “both hands” when your neighbor passes you the large-caliber hand cannon he’s just purchased and invites you to “take a shot.” On the more wildland side, wisdom is slow; but on the more urban side, slow is dumb. On the more wildland side, people’s most often-voiced response to government is that they “just want to be left alone,” while on the more urban side, they “just don’t want to be left . . . alone,” especially during hard times.
I have little interest in romanticizing or exoticizing either the wildland or the urban side of the interface. Such broad-brush contraries, even if drawn from my own experience, again cannot do full justice to the nuanced realities. Consider, for instance, the fact that rural folk and exurbanites—partly because of their privately maintained roads, wells, and septic systems—tend to view themselves as more self-reliant than their urban fellow citizens. Yet USDA figures for 2010 showed that, in terms of all Federal funding, government support of rural people amounted to $9,806 per person, while government support for urbanites was actually less, at $9,433 per person.
Each side of the WUI needs the other’s perspective, especially when it comes to water and fire issues. Urban environmentalists (and exurban homeowners of the “new” aesthetic-consumption economy) sometimes need to see the trees for the forest. “Land use” and “land management” are not necessarily dirty words, and not every timber harvest is a clear-cut. My neighbors here in the forestland can readily tick off “seed-tree cuts,” “shelterwood cuts,” “group retention for wildlife habitat,” “group selection for uneven-aged mosaic stands,” and “single-tree selection for least impact” without even breaking into a sweat.
Exurban land-users, however, need to see the forest for the trees and be reminded that there is a long, big-picture history of wildlands being mismanaged and abused, not least by agricultural and forestry interests of the “old” resource-extraction economy. Given the overburden of fuels in our forests caused by a century of fire suppression, some timber harvesting is unavoidable if the environmental and economic damage of unnaturally high-intensity fires is to be reduced. Yet a balance must be struck between such harvesting and damage to watersheds and ecosystems.
The people who would use the land can benefit from the perspective of those who would protect it, and vice versa. The same is true of water in California, which is in fact about a lot more than “fish versus farmers versus cities,” or the dreams and nightmares of dam builders and wild-river enthusiasts. Here, nearer the headwaters in the Sierra Nevada, a diversity of informed approaches both to the use and the protection of watersheds again works best. Water issues are like surface tension: an interface, or better, an intermix—not all one thing or all the other, but a combination and interpenetration.
The conflicts of the WUI, too, are of this dynamic kind, a tension arising from the diversity of needs, uses, and approaches. How shall we balance the practical and the aesthetic, the trees and the forest, the private individual and the connected crowd? The wild stars and the domestic streetlights? The nonurban and the urban worlds? Understanding the interplay of those forces clearly and deeply might be a first step in preventing our boots on the land from making ever-deeper carbon footprints—and might prevent us, as well, from selling our birthright of stars for a mess of wattage.
(above: View of Friant Dam, with Millerton Lake at low water in foreground. Photograph by Rennett Stowe.)
Feeling conflicted about dams is a fine old tradition in our state. Many Californians are well aware of the O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy canyon, the construction of which may have caused John Muir to die of a broken heart. Many of us have heard that in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires, the Hetch Hetchy project was at least partially sold to the public on arguable fire-fighting grounds. Nonetheless, to this day the dam and the reservoir behind it provide clean Sierran drinking water to San Francisco, where the Sierra Club, founded by Muir, makes its headquarters.
The conflict over our state’s dams goes far beyond Hetch Hetchy and San Francisco, however. Ask any two Californians who enjoy or care for the Sierra Nevada about dams and you’ll likely get three opinions: (1) Build more of them (“Our state doesn’t have a water shortage problem—it has a water storage problem”); (2) Remove them (“Dams are environmental mistakes—restore the [insert name of river here]”); (3) Keep the dams we have (“It’s too expensive to build more, and tearing down what’s already in place is a waste of money”). California environmentalists, too, remain divided over the damming of rivers for hydroelectric power as an alternative to both coal-fired and nuclear power plants. About the only thing we can all agree on is the critical importance of the Great White Reservoir of the Sierran snowpack, but what, exactly, global climate change will do to that water storage system remains controversial.
My own dam conflict is more personal than the big issues of hydration, irrigation, recreation, and electrification. In 1928, when my father was still an infant, his mother, Ruth Kearney Hendrix, slipped, fell into, and drowned in an undammed stretch of the snowmelt-swollen Sacramento River. When my father was still a child, his young cousin, Larry Kearney, swam into trouble in the outflow below Boca Dam. His great-uncle, Andrew Finnegan, tried to save him and drowned with the boy. The interactions of my extended family with mountain rivers seem to have been damned whether the rivers were dammed or not.
Outflows on the downstream side of O’Shaughnessy Dam, Hetch Hetchy. Photograph by Michael Riese.
This background may explain why my father never learned to swim and lived the last forty-three years of his life in Cincinnati, Ohio—far from mountain rivers and dams. As a child growing up in the Midwest, I was nevertheless haunted by flows and dams. When my cohort of friends and I were on the shy side of ten years old, we reveled in building earthen dams across the small creek that meandered through the woods behind our homes. Unlike the monumental structures made by adults, all of our dams were impermanent things, never lasting much longer than was needed to create a small pond, over which we would bravely swing to the far bank, aping Tarzan and his yell as we clung to a bottom-cut wild grape vine.
Eventually, ecology lectures I heard as an undergraduate biology major led me to develop a distinct aesthetic preference for natural lakes over man-made ones. After finishing my Bachelor’s degree (and learning to swim) I moved to my father’s native state to attend graduate school. A quarter of a century later, I came to live in the Central Sierra. Now, like some generationally delayed, mutant salmon hybrid, I live within an hour’s drive of no less than eight dammed lakes and reservoirs, seven of them built primarily to provide hydroelectric power, one to provide water for irrigation, all doubling for recreational use and flood control.
Following such a fish-ladder trajectory through life has led me to realize that we Californians tend to focus too exclusively on dams as concrete objects, and forget that it is the power of more abstract forces—symbolic, aesthetic, political—which leads us to create, maintain, or remove dams. Two dams in the San Joaquin River watershed, Friant Dam and Florence Lake Dam, both within that hour’s drive of my home, illustrate this situation well.
The Florence Lake Dam is part of Southern California Edison’s Big Creek hydroelectric project. A two-hour drive from Fresno, up and over Kaiser Pass (9,184 feet), Florence Lake is relatively remote. Completed in 1926, the dam has long been popularly, though never officially, referred to as “Eastwood’s Dam” for engineer, water developer, and dam designer John S. Eastwood, the man behind the Big Creek project and its system of dams, lakes, penstocks, forebays, and powerhouses on the San Joaquin. (In 1987 the Eastwood powerhouse at Shaver Lake was officially named for the great dam designer, long after Eastwood himself, in one of those strange ironies of history, drowned in the Kings River, the next drainage south of the San Joaquin.)
Sky view from the base of one of Florence Dam’s multiple arches. Photograph by Jerry Taylor/jrtce1.
Eastwood was a great proponent of the multiple-arch approach to dam building. He much preferred such dams aesthetically, and less concrete had to be hauled to remote locations to build them. Florence Lake Dam is just such a “scallop-shell” structure and is often photographed for the aesthetic qualities of its construction. Anyone willing to make the short scramble to the base of one of the arches will, upon looking overhead, be rewarded with a unique perspective: part unfinished Pantheon dome, part keyhole view of the sky.
Public attitudes toward Florence Lake Dam, although not completely immune to controversy, have been generally positive. Reasons for this include not only the dam’s remoteness and beauty, but the fact that in the years of its construction hydroelectricity was popularly seen as an unalloyed good. “Salvation in White Coal,” an editorial from the 8 August 1918 New York Times, mentions “extensive power plants . . . that tap the streams of the Sierra Nevada for California cities” and notes that “We are just on the edge of a greater development of electrical power through the utilization of all sources of energy. . . . Our ‘white coal’ or long-distance electrical power may yet banish all locomotive smokestacks and local factory stacks, belching their unused carbon into the air.” Although there’s something eerily prescient about this ninety-four year old editorial, the response to such early dams involved more than just the boosterish view of hydropower during the first decades of the twentieth century. The overall negative public response to Friant Dam provides a contrast helpful to understanding the complexities of the issue.
Aerial view of Friant Dam, with a very full Millerton Lake behind it. Photograph courtesy of NOAA.
At the boundary between Sierran foothills and the San Joaquin Valley floor, Friant Dam and Millerton Lake are within a half hour’s drive of downtown Fresno, and are much more in the public eye than Florence Lake. The dam at Friant drowned the community of Miller Town. Its associated canals (Friant-Kern and Madera) diverted almost the entire flow of the San Joaquin River from its bed, turning that channel into little more than a big irrigation ditch, at the same time ending the salmon run on the San Joaquin and devastating Central Valley wetlands dependent on the river’s near-annual spring overflow.
In contrast, no community was inundated by the filling of Florence Lake. Florence Lake Dam—indeed all of the Big Creek Project’s High Sierra components—had almost no effect on the salmon run, since the hydropower dams were far above the elevation of the salmon spawning grounds. Both the role of Friant Dam in the disappearance of the San Joaquin salmon and the possibility of restoring the salmon run and the river itself have been fought over in legal cases all the way to the US Supreme Court—an ongoing newsworthiness Florence Lake has managed to avoid.
The Friant Dam/Millerton Lake complex is part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project (CVP). Begun in 1937 and completed in 1942 despite the onset of the Second World War, the dam and lake were intended mainly to provide water for irrigation. Like the whole of the CVP, this project is seen by many as benefiting a narrow segment of the populace (farmers and agribusiness), in contrast to the more generalized public good of hydroelectric power. Indeed, when it was proposed that Friant Dam might provide municipal power generation for Fresno, power company opposition led to the dam being legally banned from having a hydroelectric power component. And unlike the aesthetically interesting scallop-shell structure of Florence Lake Dam, the Friant Dam is more often viewed as a functional (if rather moderne-brutalist) river plug.
Something further distinguishes public responses to Friant Dam and Florence Lake Dam. In 1936—at the very time Friant Dam was being designed and planned, and when the majority of the Big Creek Project was already completed—cultural theorist Walter Benjamin published his seminal long essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In that essay he discusses the ways in which technology can be made to serve either “the aestheticization of politics” (extreme but telling example: the Nazi Party Congress rallies at Nuremberg as portrayed in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) or “the politicization of aesthetics” (extreme but telling example: Socialist Realist poster art of the Soviet Union under Stalin).
Since Benjamin’s work is usually discussed in the context of how the mechanical reproduction of nature via technologies like film or photography can be used to influence and manipulate the aesthetics and politics of the general populace, it might seem odd to apply Benjamin’s ideas to dams. Yet dams are quintessentially a technology for the mechanical reproduction of nature. In the region of the Sierra where I live, the bodies of water behind the dams of Southern California Edison’s earlier twentieth-century Big Creek Project are called “lakes,” while the bodies of water behind the dams of Pacific Gas and Electric’s significantly later Helms Project, in the Kings River watershed, are called “reservoirs.” As the camera can be used to create an artificial vista, so the dam can be (and generally is) used to create an artificial lake.
In its utilization of the idea of Progress during the first four decades of the twentieth century, the dam-building industrial complex provides a fine example of the aestheticization of politics. Both developed and developing nations loved their dams, almost as if the building of such monumental structures proved a nation had “arrived” on the world stage.
The monumentalism of Modern Progress was itself an aestheticizing of national political will, something powerfully apparent to anyone who has toured Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border, another Franklin Roosevelt-era Reclamation Project. So much of Hoover speaks to the dam’s role as a political and aesthetic object, in addition to a functional and utilitarian one: the Modernist-influenced spillways and intake towers; the Art Deco terrazo floor motifs relating Native American geometric forms to power plant turbines; Oskar Hansen’s two thirty-foot tall bronze “Winged Figures of the Republic” statues, representing the “eternal vigilance which is the price of liberty” (as Hansen put it); and, most strikingly, the cosmic context of a terrazo star map depicting the celestial alignment from the dam’s location on the very evening of its dedication by President Roosevelt in 1935.
During the course of the past century, however, there emerged a counterweight to the aestheticization of politics characteristic of so much of the rhetoric of Progress (and its more extreme incarnations, futurism and boosterism). That counterweight, of growing heft and sophistication, was a politicization of aesthetics variously referred to as environmentalism, the environmental movement, or the environmental ethic. The Romantic poets’ aesthetic response to the sublimity of wild nature laid the groundwork for the creation of the national park system and for the decades of biological studies that eventually came to underpin the scientific critique of dams. That underlying Romantic response had, by the late 1960s, become politicized enough to prevent further dam building in the Grand Canyon—a change none too soon in coming, given that the waters stored behind Hoover and Glen Canyon dams had already inundated a significant portion of the greater Grand Canyon system.
Low water at Millerton Lake, with surrounding foothills. Photograph by Rennett Stowe.
The remoteness of Florence Lake Dam, its obscurity, its perceived general public good, and its comparative lack of harm to human and natural communities—but most of all the still inchoate state of a scientifically based environmental ethic in regard to the impact of dam building, at the time of its construction—contributed to the more positive public perception of Florence. Friant Dam’s ongoing presence in the media spotlight, the perceived narrowness of the segment of the populace benefiting from the project, the harm done to human and natural communities by the dam’s construction—but most of all the increasingly sophisticated state of the environmental critique of dam building—have all made Friant Dam and Millerton Lake much more controversial over the long haul.
Dams are poignantly symbolic of the fact that every form of progress, however needful, necessarily carries within it a form of oblivion. The dam is the cusp of the present. Its rising waters are the harbinger of a utopian future. The human and natural landscapes inundated by those waters are the drowned past of lost times, places, and peoples. The pastoral quiet of a foothill river valley lies far below what is now Millerton Lake State Recreational Area. There, on summer weekends, partiers on litter-strewn beaches have to scream to each other to be heard over each other’s amplified music. The air itself is choked with the noise and smoke of two-stroke powerboat engines.
The aestheticizing of politics today is the wind blowing through our hair as our powerboat races ever faster over the surface of the lake behind the dam. The politicizing of aesthetics is the haunting realization that, in the still, deep waters below us, ghost salmon swim the streets of ghost towns. Even if we forego the shedding of tears for the already drowned, the wind as we race across the lake will make our eyes flow, reminding us that, in the words carved on the Romantic poet John Keats’ tombstone, our lives, too, are “writ in water.”
Water isn’t free in California. For more than a century, water in the state has been trapped behind dams, funneled into pipelines, routed down canals, and pumped over mountains; it has been allocated, bought, and sold to such an extent that the natural and designed environments are now tightly interwoven. And even as this hybrid waterscape took shape in the twentieth century, new demands were being placed on it.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STAR5112 (HTTP://WWW.FLICKR.COM/PEOPLE/JOHNJOH/)
By the 1970s, growth and development were no longer the only priorities for water use, and this change in social values was embodied by a wave of environmental laws and regulations. We asked to have our rivers, and drink them too. In many ways, the state is still learning to live with the full implications of this shift, and the challenge of reconciling tensions among legitimized water users poses a major challenge for California water design in the 21st century.
Many examples of highly manipulated water environments exist across California. The expansive federal Central Valley Project and the slightly newer State Water Project make it possible to irrigate almonds near Bakersfield and to wash dishes in San Bernardino using rain that fell just miles from the Oregon border. This water passes through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, with its fragile complex of levees, channels, and pumps that is the heart of California’s water capabilities and its water woes. Hundreds of smaller but substantial water projects scattered across the state must likewise balance competing demands for limited resources, but with fewer of the dizzying economic and political complexities of statewide systems.1 A close look at one place that has no choice but to reconcile human and ecological water uses, and perhaps to blur the distinction between the two, can help us understand some of the considerations that will frame water design and management decisions in California for decades to come.
Two hours north of San Francisco, on the western edge of Sonoma wine country, there is a small valley known for its world-class zinfandel and bucolic setting. The waterway down the spine of Dry Creek Valley begins among steep, snowless hills covered with grasslands, oak woodlands, and evergreen stands. The creek eventually settles into a gentle approach toward its confluence with the Russian River, splitting the narrow floodplain of the lower valley. The Dry Creek watershed covers over two hundred square miles, which means that one half of an inch of rain across this area constitutes nearly two billion gallons of water. Just twenty miles inland from the Pacific, wet ocean winds bring more than 44 inches of rain to the watershed in most years, nearly all of it occurring during the winter and spring. Some of this rainfall evaporates, much of it is transpired by plants, just a fraction is used for agriculture, and the rest flows out of the watershed via Dry Creek.2
The Italian immigrants who first cultivated wine grapes in Dry Creek Valley in the mid-1800s must have felt quite at home with California’s Mediterranean climate and fertile soils. But the region has not always been wine country. Wheat fields and apple orchards were more common than vineyards in the valley until the mid 1900s; California wines were not particularly reputable or profitable until 1976. In June of that year, a tasting in Paris was staged as a faceoff between France and California. The superiority of the French wines was a foregone conclusion, at least until it wasn’t the conclusion at all. In a blind test, a panel of nine French judges gave top honors to California wines, a stunning outcome which Time Magazine reported as “The Judgment of Paris.”3 George Taber, the reporter for Time, reflected recently that the judgment “created a market for California wines that hadn’t existed before … literally overnight.”4 The subsequent rise in California wine grape values, combined with the high quality and premium branding of Sonoma wines, created the economic incentives that quickly transformed Dry Creek Valley into the vineyard monoculture that it is today. The transition was lucrative; the valley’s 2010 wine grape harvest was valued at $40M for just six thousand acres of grapes.5
Water distribution in Dry Creek Valley for a median year (2004) and a dry year (2001).
Despite the dominance of grapes in the valley’s landscapes and livelihoods, water is an almost equally valuable export. The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) collects $30M per year for providing water to cities and districts in Sonoma and Marin counties.6,7 The key to this supply is Warm Springs Dam, which fills a narrow gap in Dry Creek Valley fourteen miles upstream from the Russian River.8 Conceived as a collaboration between SCWA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“the Corps”), construction was delayed for decades by funding shortfalls, local opposition, and legal battles that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. When the dam was finished in 1983, it was the last big federal project of the California dam boom. It stores a two-year water supply for half a million residents of Sonoma and Marin counties, and reduces floods in the valley below it by 80 percent.9,10 The mouth of Dry Creek is less than 10 miles from the city of Santa Rosa, the ninth largest city in northern California and the biggest customer of SCWA water. Dry Creek is the supply conduit: there is no other way to get water from behind the dam to the water agency collector pumps along the Russian River.
Grape wine harvest values adjusted to 2010 dollars using U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics Producer Price Index for fruits & melons, fresh/dry vegetables, and nuts. Data Sources: Sonoma County Agricultural Crop Reports USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, California Fruit and Nut Crops Historical Report
This role for the creek is problematic for folks like Bill Hearn, a supervising biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), who sees this arrangement as “basically treating fourteen miles of critical habitat as a conveyor belt,”11 which is to say that cities and farms aren’t the only constituents of the creek. Nature also needs the water, and the NMFS, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for ocean-dwelling fish like salmon, is a powerful ally of several fish species indigenous to the region. A 2008 study found a bleak outlook for endangered coho salmon throughout the Russian River water basin, with only somewhat better prospects for threatened steelhead.12 These species evolved in conjunction with their surroundings, adapting to take advantage of the full complexity of physical, chemical, and biological processes in the region. When human development altered these processes, the environment was made less hospitable for many native fish and wildlife. Their survival now depends in part on how well we understand our shared ecology, and how far we are willing to go to apply this understanding.
The Human Factor
Each of these groups has a legitimate claim to the water in Dry Creek. An estimated 98% of the property in the Russian River region is privately owned,13 including virtually all of the land adjacent to Dry Creek, and this ownership comes with rights that predate other human uses of water in the valley. Specifically, landowners control physical access to the creek, so their cooperation is needed for any research or work in it, with few exceptions. The combination of legal rights, economic clout, and political engagement gives the landowners and wine growers of Dry Creek Valley a strong voice for preserving their current level of access to the water in the valley.
Dry Creek flow levels (blue) reacted to rainfall (black) until Warm Springs Dam was completed in 1983. Consistent flows provide water to cities but have consequences for fish.
The State Water Resource Control Board (“the Board”) is responsible for surface water rights allocations in California. The Board granted the SCWA a water right that is equivalent to 11 inches of rainfall in the region that drains into Lake Sonoma behind Warm Springs Dam. However, SCWA responsibilities extend beyond keeping a consistent flow to homes and businesses, as the agency must also maintain the environmental health of the Russian River basin by managing the waterways in compliance with state and federal regulations. Like many places in California, the Russian River water system is sorely stressed in dry years, and the supply margins are only getting thinner with a reduction in artificial transfers to the basin.14
Lake Sonoma. PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK HOGAN
It might be tempting to villainize urban water users as oblivious consumers of natural resources, but Californians looking to place blame should keep in mind that they almost certainly fall into this category themselves, since nearly everyone in the state lives in areas classified as urban.15 Furthermore, per capita urban water consumption has actually declined within California since 1995.16 This is not to say that urban water conservation and efficiency are anything less than essential to the future of the state, but the fact is that cities are expected to provide safe, clean, cheap water to all who choose to move in. John Dracup, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, makes this point with the rhetorical question, “When you moved to your town, did you call ahead to ask if they had sufficient water for you?”
Fish in Mind
Fish have only recently been treated like legitimate water users. The vast system of concrete, steel, and turbines that forms the backbone of California water infrastructure was built despite the fish, not with their needs in mind. But then the landmark environmental laws of the 1970s gave legal credibility to what previously had been merely obvious: fish need water. And not just leftover water, but dynamic water systems that closely resemble the streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans where each species evolved. The federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 has emerged as perhaps the most powerful and controversial environmental law in the country, a future that would have surprised the Senators who voted unanimously in its favor and the conservative icon who signed it into law. “The price of economic growth need not, and will not be, deterioration in the quality of our lives and our surroundings,” President Nixon declared earlier that year. It has been said that as few as four people in Washington, DC truly understood the vast implications of the law.17
The Extinction Vortex
California’s climate encourages ambitious water design.18 Nearly all of the rain and snow in the state falls from October to April, while human demand for water peaks during the dry season from May through September. The vast majority of this precipitation happens in the north part of the state, yet most of the population chooses to live in the arid south. What we call droughts and floods are simply natural weather patterns; the “typical” water year is a myth. Native vegetation and wildlife evolved to survive and thrive in this erratic environment, but the most recent wave of human development expended monumental efforts to tame the state’s wild rivers and wetlands. Until the 1970s, little legal or political leverage existed to counteract the promise of economic growth that accompanies a stable, predictable water system, and so California’s water infrastructure expanded as quickly as its dreams.
As the environmental costs of unbridled growth became impossible to ignore, a tide of federal and state laws reflected a shift in social values. The ESA was virtually unopposed as it passed through both houses of Congress and across the desk of President Nixon. But, within a decade, the broad scope and language of the ESA became a powerful lever to wield against the growth priority, and it increasingly influences water design and management in California.
Coho salmon used to thrive along the central California coast, but today they are nearly extinct, with as few as five hundred fish returning to their home streams at the end of their three-year life cycle.19 The coho species native to this region was listed as threatened in 1996, and by 2005 its status had deteriorated to endangered. There are many reasons for this decline, including the cumulative effects of logging, dams, land development, over-harvesting, and water pollution. But at the heart of the coho’s plight is the loss of places to spawn and grow large enough to journey to the sea.19 The ESA treats habitat loss just as seriously as it treats direct harm of a protected species,20 and this is what recently disrupted the fragile equilibrium of water use on Dry Creek.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAN BENNETT
When coho were listed as a threatened species in 1996, the Army Corps of Engineers was required to consult with the NMFS to determine if any of the Corps’ operations in the Russian River water basin might be harmful to these or other protected fish. A key piece of this assessment was a 2001 study by teams of fish biologists that rated habitat on Dry Creek for three different levels of flow released from the dam,21 and what they observed was bleak for the salmon. One serious problem was that the speed of water in the creek was too fast for young coho to survive through the dry season. This evidence, along with other harmful conditions found on the main Russian River, led to the conclusion that the status quo jeopardized the survival of coho in the region.22 The long consultation process culminated in a 2008 Biological Opinion, in which the NMFS minced no words in describing the gravity of the situation: “The Russian River population of coho salmon is likely in an extinction vortex.”12 Another key finding of this study was that the lower stretch of Dry Creek is critical to the survival of the species, an idea that is ironic to those who knew the creek before the dam.
Long-time residents of the valley will tell you that there never were any coho in the part of Dry Creek that is now below the dam. And, though historical fish counts are sparse and imprecise, science supports these recollections. Coho need cold water. Before the dam, Dry Creek warmed up as it trickled slowly through the valley under the summer sun, making the water too hot for the species by the time it reached the lower valley. So, any coho in the creek likely summered far upstream or in its tributaries, in shady stretches where the water stayed cool as it seeped from the ground. Before Sonoma County was utterly transformed by human development, the Dry Creek watershed accounted for only about 4% of coho habitat in the Russian River basin.23 Now, water released from Warm Springs Dam is deliberately kept cool enough to support fish in the creek below. Because of the broad degradation of regional waterways, this means that lower Dry Creek and its tributaries could represent up to 40% of all remaining potential coho habitat in the basin today.12
The goal of coho recovery on Dry Creek is not, then, to restore some historic condition, but to redesign the waterway and its immediate surroundings for a specific purpose: to serve as spawning and rearing habitat for coho and other endangered fish. Ecologists refer to this approach as “reconciliation,” a conservation strategy that acknowledges the vast, perhaps irreversible impacts of human activities, and aims to achieve specific ecological goals within a manipulated environment. Preservation of any remaining undisturbed ecosystems remains the highest priority for many conservationists, and restoration to some previous condition may be desirable where it can be realistically accomplished. But it is likely that most future efforts to protect native species in California will involve at least some aspect of reconciliation.16
Consistently high creek levels used for city water supply result in poor habitat conditions for young coho salmon.
An Approach to Reconciliation
How might the competing demands of human uses and ecological needs be reconciled, given the reality of the creek today? One approach is to tailor the flow for the benefit of the fish. However, because the water agency uses the creek as its main transmission channel, this would stress municipal water supplies throughout the region. A pipeline has been proposed to bypass high summer supply flows, but there is a consensus that such a project would take a decade or more to complete, which may be too late to save the coho. This option is estimated to cost upwards of $160M and is unpopular with nearly everyone, including landowners who are concerned that large changes to the creek flow could infringe on their water rights. Even if a pipeline is someday built, reduced summer flows alone would only go so far toward improving fish habitat on Dry Creek.12
Proposed Enhancements. IMAGE COURTESY OF SONOMA COUNTY WATER AGENCY
The immediate approach to water reconciliation on Dry Creek is simple to describe, if harder to execute successfully. The needs and habits of coho have been studied for decades, so, in principle, creating high-quality habitat is simply a matter of giving the fish what they want. Because the water quality is already excellent, the most serious shortcoming in Dry Creek is the lack of physical habitat for juvenile coho. These fish require a diversity of deep pools and quick (but not too quick) riffles, with boulders and large woody debris to provide shelter from fast flows and larger fish. Coho also need plenty of native vegetation to provide shade and to nurture a vibrant food web. In short, the design challenge is to introduce complexity, which is the opposite of what is typically found downstream from dams.
To create this complexity, six miles of Dry Creek will be manipulated to look and function more like a natural water system. This involves reshaping the creek bed, introducing boulders, logs, and other woody debris, and constructing dead-end channels and ponds connected to the creek, as well as controlling non-native vegetation nearby.24,25 This endeavor is not cheap—changes to the creek and follow-up monitoring are expected to cost $6-8M per mile.26 But the outcome could be very important to recovery of protected fish. The NMFS is hopeful that habitat creation could support over 30,000 young coho in Dry Creek. The number of these that survive hazards beyond the creek and return to spawn is a more complicated matter.12 If this approach is not effective, the costly and unpopular pipeline plan will go into motion, which means that the success of the habitat project could become a one hundred million dollar question.
Sidebar: Water Data as Art, works by Adrien Segal
Data are just numbers until someone interprets them. This interpretation can take many forms, as with the art of Adrien Segal, a California native who designs and creates sculptural furniture that is based on the shapes of water data.
Adrien describes her work in the following way: “I make sculpture as a means to communicate data and statistical information about the intersection of humans and the natural world. Simplifying complex ideas, my design method involves translating sets of data into graphics—shapes, lines, and forms—which are then fabricated out of tangible materials such as metal and wood. I aim to present scientific information about fascinating aspects of the natural world in an unexpected poetic form. Bringing together rationality of scientific analysis with the emotional realm of sensory experience, the sculptures push scientific and artistic inquiry in an unanticipated direction, revealing new capacities in the representation of information. The resulting objects are data embodied in physical space, making the information accessible to viewers in an alternative medium that engages the body though intuitive understanding of sculptural form and creates a space to contemplate ideas about the natural world and our role within it.”
Tide Table is the first piece in a series of work that represents data about water in sculptural forms. Sourcing daily tide graphs from NOAA’s Historic Tide Database, the curves of the tide highs and lows are translated into hand bent flat-bar steel. Twenty-eight consecutive days (a full lunar cycle) of tide graphs are framed within the structure of a hand-crafted walnut table, revealing the natural undulating patterns created by tides over a given amount of time. SCULPTURE BY ADRIEN SEGAL, PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL LORENZE.
Sourcing data from the USGS report titled “Analysis of Water Use in the United States: 1950–1995,” Canyon is a three-dimensional representation of national water use statistics, where the central river and its tributaries are related to a specific categorical use. The two largest uses define the central shape of the table, which is based on the line of Colorado River (Thermoelectric) in its entire length, and its main tributary the Green River (Irrigation). Additionally, Industrial, Public Supply, and Domestic/Rural/Livestock are embodied as tributaries in the canyon walls. The Canyon width is relative to amount of water used, and the table height is a measure of time – the top is relative to 1950 water use, the very bottom of the canyon is 2000. Viewers can physically see the changes – as thermoelectric use grows, the statistically smaller categorical uses are swallowed into the crevice walls by its immense growth. Conversely, water use for irrigation has the reverse effect of decreasing gradually over time. SCULPTURE BY ADRIEN SEGAL, PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL LORENZE.
Opinions vary about the prospects to save the coho by any means. A recent study ranked coho from this region as second most vulnerable to extinction of all the freshwater fishes native to California.27 Research about the effectiveness of habitat modification finds mixed results,28,29 though some methods, such as in-stream log and boulder structures, appear to be broadly successful.30 California river restoration projects have become increasingly common in the last thirty years.31 Close to $50M has already been invested in river and watershed restoration in the Russian River basin since 1980, primarily to counteract the effects of logging and other land development.13 A reconciliation effort in Lagunitas Creek, forty miles south of Dry Creek, is considered a qualified success for its role in supporting the largest population of native coho in the region.32
Schematic for “canyon” derived from water use statistics for the Colorado River.
When asked whether the Dry Creek habitat effort could be successful, Rick Rogers, a fisheries biologist for the NMFS, answered directly, “We wouldn’t be encouraging this level of effort and cost if we didn’t believe the benefits were commensurate … we think the benefits will be huge.” Rogers bases this confidence on the excellent water quality in Dry Creek, the comprehensive scope of the science and implementation around the project, and his belief that the right people with the right experience are involved. He also emphasizes a close collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Game to exploit their expertise and to ensure compliance with California’s own Endangered Species Act.
Peter Moyle, a prominent fish biologist at the University of California at Davis and author of Inland Fishes of California, was more measured in his response about prospects for recovery of the regional coho population. Noting the many factors other than waterway management that conspire against these fish, he offered, “It is hard to be optimistic about the long-term future of central California coast coho.” However, he added that the advantages on Dry Creek, including potential benefits for other native species, make it “worthy of investment as a site for both coho recovery and for research and demonstration” of recovery methods.
Water enters Dry Creek Valley as rainfall and leaves as either creek flow to the Russian River or vapor into the atmosphere. The monthly balance, water in minus water out, has a pattern reminiscent of a heartbeat, which is a reminder that water is the lifeblood of the plants, animals, and livelihoods of the valley.
The matter of defining success on Dry Creek is a work in progress, though it is expected to include some measure of whether coho are using the newly created habitat, as well as an indication of an overall positive effect on the regional coho population.33 But lurking just beyond this is the broader question of whether such efforts could or should be considered successful even if the coho go extinct. What if the coho disappear but steelhead thrive? Or Chinook salmon? The Endangered Species Act requires the protection of all listed species; it does not permit any sort of triage that would allow one fish to perish if others could benefit. In Dry Creek, the habitat creation effort is expected to benefit all of the protected species, but it is worth pondering whether putting equal emphasis on all species is always the optimal strategy for managing our dynamic ecology, especially in the midst of broader climate shifts that will favor some species over others.16
Like many other residents of Dry Creek Valley, Greg Chambers, a vintner and former president of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley trade association, supports efforts on the creek to try to save the coho. As he sees it, “If it works, everyone gets a nicer creek.” But he also voiced a question shared by many: “How much is a fish worth?” The ESA treats this as an open-ended question, but there is always a tradeoff of money and effort that could be prioritized elsewhere. In this way, choosing which pieces of our ecology to value and protect is a design decision in itself.
Whatever the outcome, the reconciliation approach for Dry Creek is not a template that can be blindly applied elsewhere. Ecological and human dynamics tend to be highly specific to each circumstance. In some places, more drastic measures may be appropriate, such as the planned removal of dams on the Klamath River. The values of stakeholders can also vary widely, as with the case of indigenous tribes and the Bureau of Reclamation working together in the Klamath basin. But Dry Creek offers some instructive perspectives about how an increasing number of water design and management decisions will be made in the future. It is important to acknowledge the preexisting tensions among groups with different types of legitimate water claims, and to understand what incentives or fears might motivate each group to cooperate with or obstruct a particular design alternative. Many future water design decisions in California will be made in the context of complying with one or more environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act. This means that for a design solution to be considered, it must be injected into highly structured planning and enforcement processes. Furthermore, for the next fifty to one hundred years, most water design in the state will happen amidst an expansive legacy of twentieth century water infrastructure that may be anachronistic to our needs and values today.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STAR5112 (HTTP://WWW.FLICKR.COM/PEOPLE/JOHNJOH/)
The future of a single waterway like Dry Creek is not all that is at stake. Warm Springs Dam is a node in a water network that extends down the Russian River basin, up and down the coast and out into the ocean as far as the salmon and steelhead roam. The next generation of California water design must acknowledge this interconnectedness and decide how the network can be used to craft the 21st century waterscape for cities and towns, farms and fish. We cannot turn back the clock on centuries of environmental manipulation, but we can take charge of the decisions that will shape what comes next.
The author is grateful to Prof. James Hunt at UC Berkeley for an introduction to the fascinating story of Dry Creek and for his guidance on early drafts of this paper, and to Carolyn Remick at the Berkeley Water Center for conversations that shaped the story. The insightful and constructive comments provided by two anonymous reviewers were invaluable. Water data analysis was made possible by the technology and support of Microsoft Research.
1. For thorough and enjoyable histories of California water development see Norris Hundley Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water-A History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001) and Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (New York: Penguin, 1993).
2. Water also seeps into the ground, but the climate, geology, and water uses in the Dry Creek watershed result in fairly stable groundwater levels on a year-to-year basis, so this factor can be ignored for gross estimates of the yearly water balance.
3. G. Taber, “Modern Living: Judgment of Paris,” Time, 07-Jun-1976.
4. M. Brand and G. Taber, Judgment of Paris 35 years on: when CA wines trumped French. Pasdena, CA: The Madeline Brand Show, KPCC Radio, 2011.
5. L. Corriea, “Sonoma County Crop Report,” Office of the Agricultural Commissioner, Santa Rosa, California, 2010.
6. SCWA, “Sonoma County Water Agency Basic Financial Statements, FY2010,” Sonoma County Water Agency, Financial Statement, Nov. 2010.
7. SCWA, “2010 Urban Water Management Plan,” Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa, California, Jun. 2011.
8. SCWA also manages water from other sources in the Russian River basin, but the agency policy is to use water released from Warm Springs Dam as its primary municipal supply source.7
9. SCWA, “Final Current Conditions Inventory Report, Dry Creek: Warm Springs Dam to Russian River,” Prepared by Inter-Fluve, Inc for: Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa, CA, Sonoma County, CA, Dec. 2010.
10. Flood protection diminishes further downstream of the dam. For example, Warm Springs Dam controls 60% of the flow out of the Dry Creek watershed, but less than 10% of the flow in the Russian River at Guerneville, 35 miles downstream from the dam.
11. G. Kovner, “Too much water?” The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, California, 02-Jul-2007.
12. NMFS, “Biological Opinion for Water Supply, Flood Control Operations, and Channel Maintenance in the Russian River watershed, Endangered Species Act Section 7 Consultation,” National Marine Fisheries Service, Santa Rosa, California, F/SWR/2006/07316, Sep. 2008.
13. J. Christian-Smith and A. M. Merenlender, “The Disconnect Between Restoration Goals and Practices: A Case Study of Watershed Restoration in the Russian River Basin, California,” Restoration Ecology, 18 (2010), 95–102.
14. The Coyote Valley Dam is 60 miles upstream the Russian River from Dry Creek, where it regulates releases from the reservoir called Lake Mendocino. A significant amount of the annual flow into this reservoir is an incidental transfer from the Eel River basin that has been piped through a mountain to power a private hydroelectric facility since 1908. Recent environmental regulatory rulings have reduced this transfer by up to half, and renewal of the operating license in 2022 is in question.
16. E. Hanak et al., Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation. Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 2011.
17. H. Doremus, “The Endangered Species Act: Static Law Meets Dynamic World,” Washington University Journal of Law & Policy, 32 (2010), 175.
18. T. E. Grantham, A. M. Merenlender, and V. H. Resh, “Climatic influences and anthropogenic stressors: an integrated framework for streamflow management in Mediterranean-climate California, U.S.A.,” Freshwater Biology, 55 (2010), 188–204.
19. P. Moyle, J. Israel, and S. Purdy, “Salmon, steelhead, and trout in California, status of an emblematic fauna,” Center For Watershed Sciences. Davis, CA. A report commissioned by California Trout, 2008.
20. Coincidentally, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the importance of habitat as a consideration for protection of listed species was decided against a lawsuit that originated in the author’s childhood town of Sweet Home, OR. Babbit v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon, 515 U.S. 687, 1995.
21. USACE and SCWA, “Russian River Biological Assessment,” Prepared by Entrix Inc. for: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco, CA and Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa, CA, Sep. 2004.
22. Threatened steelhead were also found to be jeopardized, though less imminently than coho. Chinook salmon, also a threatened species, were determined to be relatively unscathed by Dry Creek water operations because their young leave the creek by late summer.
23. B. C. Spence, S. L. Harris, J. Weldon, M. M. Goslin, A. Agrawal, and E. Mora, “Historical occurrence of coho salmon in streams of the central California coast coho salmon evolutionarily significant unit,” National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, 2005.
24. G. M. Kondolf, “Some Suggested Guidelines for Geomorphic Aspects of Anadromous Salmonid Habitat Restoration Proposals,” Restoration Ecology, 8 (2000), 48–56.
25. SCWA, “Dry Creek Fish Habitat Enhancement Feasibility Study Draft Report,” Prepared by Inter-Fluve, Inc for: Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa, California, Mar. 2011.
26. SCWA, “Overview of Draft Habitat Enhancement & Draft Pipeline Feasibility Studies,” Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa, California, Apr. 2011.
27. P. B. Moyle, J. V. E. Katz, and R. M. Quiñones, “Rapid decline of California’s native inland fishes: A status assessment,” Biological Conservation, 144 (2011), 2414–2423.
28. P. Roni, K. Hanson, and T. Beechie, “Global Review of the Physical and Biological Effectiveness of Stream Habitat Rehabilitation Techniques,” North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 28 (2008), 856–890.
29. M. Palmer, J. D. Allan, J. Meyer, and E. S. Bernhardt, “River Restoration in the Twenty-First Century: Data and Experiential Knowledge to Inform Future Efforts,” Restoration Ecology, 15 (2007), 472–481.
30. S. L. Whiteway, P. M. Biron, A. Zimmermann, O. Venter, and J. W. A. Grant, “Do in-stream restoration structures enhance salmonid abundance? A meta-analysis,” Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 67 (2010), 831–841.
31. G. M. Kondolf, S. Anderson, R. Lave, L. Pagano, A. Merenlender, and E. S. Bernhardt, “Two Decades of River Restoration in California: What Can We Learn?,” Restoration Ecology, 15 (2007), 516–523.
32. G. Andrew, E. Ettinger, E. Childress, M. Piovarcsik, D. Morell, and A. Wolf, “Lagunitas Creek sediment and riparian management plan review and evaluation report, 1997–2009,” Marin Municipal Water District, Jun. 2011.
33. R. Rogers, NMFS Fishery Biologist, Personal Communication 28-Oct-2011.
Stewart Brand is arguably best known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1960s, but he’s been an activist for environmental and related causes for over forty years. His book How Buildings Learn addressed architectural reuse and longevity, something he’s also explored in his work with the Long Now Foundation. His latest book, Whole Earth Discipline, explores the science and the social science behind the challenges of climate change. Stuart Kendall recently spoke with Brand for Boom.
SK: You are well known for your advocacy of amateur innovations and personal technologies, but in Whole Earth Discipline, you aren’t as distrustful of the government or of large-scale, multinational corporations as many of your fellow environmental activists might like. Was there a change in your thinking at some point? Why are you willing to work with government agencies and corporations when so many of your colleagues in the environmental movement are not?
Brand: I’ve done work for the government, a fair amount through Global Business Network, primarily with national security and intelligence people. I like very much working with them because they are serious people who take the long term seriously. They study to learn things about any event that they are a part of, and they often apply the lessons they learn, and I enjoy that.
I think I’m useful to them because partly I’m outside the beltway. The Global Business Network is intentionally based on the West Coast where we can draw upon the whole gamut of creative stuff going on here. That’s one of the things that we’re valued for by companies all over the world and other governments, like Singapore, as well as our own government in Washington and indeed here in Sacramento.
Stewart Brand. PHOTO BY TED/MARIA AUFMUTH.
But personally, I prefer a bottom up solution to problems because I think it is much more appropriate to the situation since it is close to it. In Whole Earth Discipline, I pay a good deal of attention to squatter cities and slums where people are bootstrapping themselves out of poverty. I guess it’s no accident that I live in a former squatter community in Sausalito, in the houseboat area, where again a bunch of relatively impoverished maritime artisans and artists and riffraff got themselves a place to live and defended it until it got gentrified and became a legal part of the town. That’s happening all over the world to people by the billion.
SK: You write that most innovation comes from amateurs, since enthusiastic amateurs who aren’t bound by institutional limitations often have a great deal of freedom.
Brand: Yes, that’s exactly right. Hackers have always interested me. In another part of Whole Earth Discipline, I try to encourage bio-hacking. I would like to see the same thing in biotech that happened with computer hackers in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and on to this day with cell phone or smartphone hacking or web hacking.
More broadly, there is now set in motion, partly by Tim O’Reilly, this whole Maker phenomenon, Maker Faires, Maker magazine, etc. Some of the same thing is going on in science from iGEM gatherings [International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition], which are MIT-based and the FIRST robotic competitions that Dean Kamen set in motion, he’s also East Coast-based. Tim O’Reilly though is very Californian in orientation and his publications are coder empowering with Whole Earth Catalog-like access to tools kind of stuff, access to techniques in most cases there. Grassroots is abounding.
Of course, that’s not the only story. There’s lots of stuff that is done by proper well-paid engineers in proper profitable corporations and I think the combination is part of what makes everything go forward.
SK: Many of your projects over the years have involved working with groups of close friends or collaborators, several of whom have been consistent even as the projects have changed.
Brand: [Laughs] Yeah.
SK: One the one hand, from a managerial standpoint, a lesson in teambuilding might be gleaned from those experiences, but on the other hand, they might just evidence the importance of friendship in community-building, in life and in work. Have you been trying to balance friendship and work or maybe familiarity and reliability of insight with a diversity of opinions in these groups?
Brand: I put my theory of guilds up on John Brockman’s theedge.org World Question Center. I said that the most effective people I know have a close cadre of people whose work and thoughts they pay close attention to and who pay close attention to them. I got to looking around and indeed discovered that there were six or seven people whose thoughts I always want to know.
And sometimes we publically collaborate on projects. Kevin Kelly and I have started several things, starting back with the Hackers Conference and the WELL [the Whole Earth Electronic Link, several things with the Long Now Foundation where he is very thickly involved. A while ago we did an All Species Inventory project. My wife was also involved with that one, as she had been with the Hackers Conference. As you point out these are very different subjects but we knew how to work together and there is no greater shortcut to getting things done than a few people who know how to work together.
There are other people I pay attention to all the time. One of whom I seldom see physically is Brian Eno. We exchange email practically daily and have been for twelve years or so. Peter Schwartz is a formal co-founder at Global Business Network. Alexander Rose and Danny Hillis are in the thick of the Long Now Foundation, as I am. And I’m married to one of my guild, Ryan Phelan, so we’re basically conspiring all of the time.
Whether this is common or in any way Californian, I don’t know. But I think it is more common than has been noticed and it is probably something worth drawing out when you talk to people about their design life: who are the non-direct reports that they work with?
There are a lot us who are not interested in a lot of people’s opinions but rather in a few people’s opinions.
Storm system in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA.
SK: In that sense, you would describe yourself as an elitist?
Brand: Oh yeah, absolutely. My feeling is that elite is how things used to get done in the world and it’s all over the place. Hackers were an elite. Beat poets were an elite. An elite is a kind of self-selecting meritocracy that gets a sense of itself as a group, a flock or something, birds of a feather of some sort. The individuals within the group give each other permission to be better than they already are and sometimes they rise to amazing heights. So I’m all in favor of elites.
SK: The subtitle of Whole Earth Discipline, in its hardcover edition, was an eco-pragmatist manifesto. What is eco-pragmatism?
Brand: Desperation. I had more trouble subtitling that book … in fact, I changed the subtitle for the paperback edition because the book was not doing all that well. The publisher and the agent expected the book to be a huge bestseller and they were shocked that it wasn’t, so we made adjustments in the paperback.
With the term eco-pragmatism, I was trying to do something similar to what I did with the Whole Earth Catalog, which was a counter-counter-culture publication. I was immersed enough in the counter-culture to see that there were some things that I thought were not being perceived properly, mainly just practical, how to do things. So the Whole Earth Catalog was technology friendly, and technique friendly, and had no politics at all. I was partly following Buckminster Fuller’s lead in that respect.
Whole Earth Discipline was me trying to bring environmentalists to a problem-solving mode rather than a mode of endless complaint, of slowing everything down, to get them away from the Romantic notions that we had gotten into partly from the successes that we’d had in the 70s and 80s, and the moral leadership that we elected to follow, and so on. All of that was proving to be completely inadequate to thinking about or actually dealing with things like climate change. So Whole Earth Discipline was in a sense a counter-environmental publication trying to bring practicality and pragmatism to a movement that had let itself become non-, even anti-pragmatic, almost.
There’s been some success in that direction. I’ve heard the leadership of the Nature Conservancy has adopted the book as a guide and I see it surfacing in funny places in funny ways. But it has not sold quite as well as Silent Spring.
Saharan dust crosses Western Europe. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA.
SK: [Laughs] Give it time.
Brand: We’ll see. There are other books coming along in the same vein. Mark Lynas’ book The God Species is very much in the same frame and better in some respects. Both books are intended to be green programs for this century.
SK: The last chapter of Whole Earth Discipline presents the notion of geo-engineering, effecting large-scale positive change to the earth over long periods of time.
Brand: The basic environmental project really is managing the commons. The commons is the oceans and the atmosphere and biodiversity and so on, all that was here before us. We can bang on it pretty hard, a lot of it is extremely robust but it goes better if we back off half a turn and don’t hit natural systems quite as hard, quite as often. But some of this stuff has been bashed on so long that it is headed over a cliff. Greenhouse gases and global temperature are one area. Acidification of the oceans may be another. In those cases, it is not just a matter of protecting but of repairing.
When the damage is at a global atmospheric scale and you want to repair it, your actions need to be at a global atmospheric scale. To the extent that you can do that by just cutting back on greenhouse gases, on carbon, bio-char, whatever, those solutions are best, but if that is not enough, then you need to think about taking action to undo the previous action.
We’ve been terra-forming Earth badly. We don’t have the choice of stopping. We only have the choice of doing it well. And we’re in the process of learning what that means. Just because we don’t know enough now doesn’t mean that we won’t know enough soon. And the only way to get there is to do the research.
SK: It’s less a question of backing off or setting protection as our limit and more of thinking in terms of repairing and indeed building something that can flourish.
Brand: Also, in terms of protection, here I’m following Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy, protection becomes a little illusory when you tell yourself that what you are protecting is pristine, pristine forest, pristine tundra or whatever. Telling yourself that you have to protect it very assiduously because it is very fragile. Both of those things are wrong. Nothing is pristine and it hasn’t been for a long time. And few things are fragile.
Alien invasive species, for example, which I have developed the aesthetic of being against … I used to be against eucalyptus trees, in California, but time went by, and by and by, I saw what the wind does to the leaves and that they are green all year long, which is rather nice, and full moonlight on a eucalyptus tree is one of the most beautiful things in the world, and they seem to be prospering here and they aren’t really doing that much harm. It’s time they got their green card.
But there are forms of alien invasives that are tremendously harmful. One of them, especially on remote islands, is any new kind of predator, like the brown tree snake in Guam, which can wreak total havoc. Goats and rats on islands. Take the goats off and a lot of biodiversity comes back.
So nothing is across the board.
Nothing is quite pristine, so don’t bother to protect that. And alien invasives are not the spawn of the devil, so don’t get too worked up about that. And then basically it’s gardening and negotiating. Neither of those things is particularly romantic, but it’s the reality. Our impact on natural systems is increasingly a gardener’s role. And we’ve got to negotiate with each other on how to make that go forward in a way that gets better over time rather than worse over time.
Dust storm in Saudi Arabia. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA.
SK: It seems like friendship matters here as well, in the role of the gardener, who needs to know the garden best, what to trust and what not to.
Brand: One of the things gardeners learn is distrust. Plants never do quite what you had in mind. You can hammer on them until they do, then you wind up with bonsai. But by and large it’s a comic dialogue between species that goes on in the garden. Michael Pollan said that and he’s right.
In terms of design, and this is maybe a design aesthetic that we are talking about here, the total design approach is that one is going to dominate every single aspect of the designed entity. I suppose that is one of the things that I was inveighing against in my book How Buildings Learn. When that happens you have an unlivable building. To make it livable, the occupants and remodelers are going to have to undermine the purity that the signature architect wrought. The architect will go away all pissed off and that’s just too bad. Hopefully the building is forgiving enough that the people who are living and working there find it to be a place they can feel pretty good about. A theme that is emerging here is suspicion of purity in all its forms.
SK: And along with that, a more measured approach: there you have the eco-pragmatist.
Brand: Yeah, the eco-pragmatist is aware of theories and agendas but is really an engineer who is just looking for what works.
SK: Rather than seeing things in black and white, us and them, as was fairly common in the 1960s, the approach that you’ve taken more recently has been more synthetic, appropriately suspicious but not absolutely against anything, not ruling anything out too quickly, but not accepting anything too quickly either. Being willing to change your mind.
Brand: Yeah, I expect that’s right. There are two heuristics going on there. One I quoted in Whole Earth Discipline: I wonder how many things I’m dead wrong about. And then, the opposite version of that: you never know who is going to be right. For all I know, there’s some Tea Partier out there, who I generally disapprove of, who has actually got something right. We gotta keep an eye out for that.
M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management
of California’s Natural Resources (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006)
Ira Jacknis, Food in California Indian Culture (Berkeley: Phoebe Hearst Museum
Kent G. Lightfoot and Otis Parrish, California Indians and Their Environment: An
Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009)
The road from Sacramento to Yosemite takes you up into the mountains and back into the history of human subsistence in California. South of the capital city, Highway 99 roars with semis carrying agricultural equipment and produce—the inputs and outputs of laser-leveled fields and industrial food factories. The junction with 120 East is in Manteca, whose name (“lard”) recalls Spanish California’s tallow-and-hide operations as well as the modern region’s association with feedlots and dairies. In the eastern part of the valley lie fruit and nut orchards that have been part of the landscape since Yankee and Japanese settlement. As the road begins to rise into the foothills, ranchettes give way to large private cattle ranches. Closer to the park, scraggly state and national forests bear the scars of timber and mineral extraction. To the north is Hetch Hetchy, a reservoir and hydropower station for the city of San Francisco. When you finally cross the boundary between Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park at Crane Flat, however, most outward signs of the economic exploitation of California’s material abundance cease and the recreational and spiritual aspects of the backcountry come to the fore.
This break from the trammeled landscape is a major part of the appeal of national parks and other wildlands, of course. The problem is that our dependence on produce, meat, lumber, ore, water, and energy does not really disappear at the park gate: the need for food and shelter in fact remains as strong as ever, even as we distance ourselves from the messy circumstances of their procurement. The fruits of our domination of the natural world outside the wilderness boundaries must be trucked into the Yosemite Valley and the high meadows, where their presence often registers as an affront to the principles of “leave no trace.” A Snickers wrapper dropped by an eager backpacker in the parking lot near Tenaya Lake or the cappuccino served at the Lodge cafeteria in the valley can seem like both a sacrilege and an acknowledgment of our fundamental distance from the natural world we are attempting to enjoy.
For just these reasons, environmental ethicists have long recognized wilderness preservation as a problematic approach to the relationship between modern civilization and the nonhuman world. Taking large swaths of land out of economic use and designating them for limited recreation, they remind us, is a complex cultural and political act, and one filled with questionable presumptions. In making certain landscapes sacred, for example, don’t we implicitly make all the rest into an environmental sacrifice zone, as in those photographs of intact forests on protected lands that abruptly give way at their edges to vast clearcuts and tree farms? In basing our decisions about what to protect on aesthetic grounds, don’t we miss biologically more significant lands, such as the lowland marshes that have all but disappeared from the state? And in removing wilderness from human history, don’t we both exacerbate the alienation of the modern citizen from the natural world and disrespect the long and deep aboriginal connection to particular environments? For several decades now, the consensus among those who contemplate such problems is that yes, we do.
And yet, for all the problems with wilderness, few are willing to follow through on the logic of this argument and repudiate the system of wilderness preservation we have in this country, sensing that backing away from wilderness absolutism, however intellectually shaky its foundations, will open the door to aggressive elements of the mining, grazing, and timber industries already pushing up to the borders of protected parklands. When I introduce the wilderness paradox to my undergraduate students, asking them to consider the pros and cons of doing away with the wilderness designation for all public lands, the invariable result (after several productive hours of debate) is a stalemate: we come to recognize both the deep problems of the wilderness model and the pronounced lack of any satisfactory alternative to it. Is there any way out of Californians’ warring conception of our land as either untouchable wilderness or ecological free-fire zone, where the most profound kinds of violence to natural systems are the norm?
This question was on my mind recently as I visited the Yosemite Museum in the heart of the Yosemite Valley, one of the few places that showcases the connection of the park to specific human histories. There I gravitated towards an empty room filled with local native art carefully preserved inside Plexiglas cubes. I stood alone for a full five minutes contemplating the skill and labor that went into the centerpiece of the collection—an enormous woven basket, 60 gallons or more in volume—and quietly bemoaning the loss of a world that was capable of making so much out of so little. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a slight movement from the corner of the room. Seated on a very small stool, leaning slightly against the wall, was a tiny, deeply wrinkled old woman patiently winding a length of deergrass around the ribs of a newly begun basket. Startled by her unexpected presence and a bit baffled by her obsolete project, I stood for a moment pretending to read a curatorial label and trying to think of an appropriate thing to say. It is one thing to recognize Yosemite as a place of historical human settlement, represented by black-and-white photographs and archaeological specimens, and quite another to find that the original occupants are still in some form of possession. I was soon rescued from my fluster by a large class of fourth graders herding into the room to listen to the woman talk. Her name, it turned out, was Julia Parker. She is a Kashia Pomo and Coast Miwok who has taken up the basketweaving tradition of the Mono Lake Paiute, the people of her husband, and a former apprentice of Lucy Telles, the legendary basketmaker responsible for the immense and beautiful basket I had just been admiring. Now in her early eighties, Julia is herself a living legend of sorts, having spent nearly her entire life in the Yosemite Valley preserving native traditions and interpreting them for the park’s millions of yearly visitors. I listened as she began patiently to explain the techniques of basketweaving to the children, delving into the materials she collected from the wild lands in the park at specific seasons with her daughter and granddaughter, now weavers in their own right.
As the children began to ask more and more questions, the relevance of Julia Parker’s answers to the problem of wilderness began slowly to sink in. The baskets on display, which I had thought of as anthropological relics, art objects, or “crafts” in the contemporary American sense of the word, are in fact evidence of a long and continuing reciprocity between human beings and the montane ecosystems around them. The baskets were and are made of willow shoots, deergrass stalks, redbud twigs, and other materials carefully collected from areas that Indian women manage— through careful weeding, transplanting, and burning—in order to encourage the right kind of growth of the right kind of plants. The native makers of these baskets constructed them as tools to support their own subsistence, in particular for the processing of acorns. The acorn, a nutritious major staple of native California, owes its ubiquity in part to the natives’ deliberately timed fires, which suppressed both insect pests and the natural succession of oak woodlands by shrubs and conifer forests. There were baskets for collecting acorns, baskets for storing them, baskets for holding the crushed meal, baskets for leeching out the bitter tannins, and baskets for cooking the final product, acorn mush. A well-equipped native household might have thirty or more different woven vessels for a variety of domestic tasks. As I walked out of the museum with Julia Parker’s words ringing in my ears, the baskets, the people responsible for them, and the landscape itself seemed changed in fundamental ways. No longer trapped within an archaic wilderness ethic—take no specimens, leave no trace—that is continuously belied by the alien material culture (popcorn, chocolate bars, Gore-Tex) trucked in and out daily for the benefit of tourists, it could be again what it still was for a few members of the native tribes, an active garden that both reflected and sustained their claims on the land.
Reintroducing such native Californian knowledge and practices into the management of public lands on a broader scale is the express goal of M. Kat Anderson, an ethno-ecologist who argues in Tending the Wild that the wild landscapes for which California is famed come primarily from the labor and accumulated experience of native occupants who took charge of their home ecosystems to produce the materials they needed to survive. If heeded, Anderson’s claim would have major significance for both the philosophy and the practice of environmental preservation and restoration, not to mention the status of native peoples in directing public environmental projects. No longer simple hunter-gatherers passively dependent on the bounty of wild nature, historical native Californians would have to be seen as manipulators of their environment no less ecologically significant than the large, centralized agrarian societies found elsewhere in native North America (though quite different in the specific techniques they applied and the effects they produced).
By the same token, wilderness would no longer be understood as a place defined by its indifference to the hand of man and instead would have to be viewed as a tended agroecological zone that historically has required the intervention of humankind to help it retain its pre-contact biodiversity and fertility. More concretely, the state of California’s environmental laws, policies, programs, and practices would need to be shaped by the memories and experiences of native peoples as much as by the farming, industrial, and scientific research communities that now dominate such discussions. To back up her claims, Anderson draws upon a huge repository of texts, oral interviews, and field research, demonstrating how nearly every component of a given ecosystem played a key role in the material economy of the local tribes, providing ample documentation of native practices—like irrigating, pruning, coppicing, tilling, sowing, transplanting, and especially burning—that contributed to sustaining the resource and creating places like Yosemite that we now try to preserve, ironically, through questionably low-impact policies.
Anderson’s book represents one of the high points in a marked scholarly reappraisal of native Californians and the worlds they lived in prior to and after colonization. Kent Lightfoot and Otis Parrish’s new collaboration, California Indians and Their Environment, appears as a commissioned volume in the California Natural History Guides series, but it has an ambition grander than the typical guidebook: to synthesize new research on native California tribes that takes seriously their capacity to help resolve some of the state’s seemingly intractable environmental problems. The scope of this task is daunting in part because of the notorious diversity and complexity of native California. Yet despite the challenges posed by the eighty or ninety different linguistic groups in the state at contact and by the decimation of native communities thereafter, a lot of information about native environmental practices has survived into the present. Perhaps the greater stumbling block has been a conceptual one: the models developed by American anthropologists in the study of other regions of North America are often quite misleading when applied to the aboriginal societies of the West Coast. In particular, the standard division between “primitive” hunter-gatherer societies and larger, more “advanced” agricultural societies (like the Cherokee or Hopi nations) does not fit California facts. Although primarily made up of very small “tribelets” (as Alfred Kroeber called them), native Californians displayed highly advanced forms of material and social culture as well as sophisticated trading networks. Of particular interest is native California’s oblique relationship to traditional agriculture. The “three sisters” so commonplace elsewhere in North America— corn, squash, and beans—were not cultivated outside of a small sliver of what is now the southeasternmost part of the state, nor were any similar agricultural staples. Calling native Californians hunter-gatherers, however, obscures the wide range of deliberate interventions they made in their environments. Lightfoot and Parrish make clear the need for a new category of subsistence in the extensive introductory portions of the book, which are highly recommended for Californians who want to begin their study of native peoples with the most up-to-date synthesis available. The remainder of the guide is given over to six sections—one for each of California’s major geomorphic provinces—detailing the specific animal, plant, and mineral materials used by various tribes in the region. The Central Valley/Sierra Nevada section, for example, describes the use of Mariposa Lily bulbs for food, of jimson weed as an analgesic poultice, and of soapstone for dishes. Walking through an uncultivated portion of my home turf in the Sacramento Valley, I began to see the land anew as a granary, medicine chest, and outfitter.
Bringing this kind of change in perspective out of academia and into the broader popular culture of California will likely require something more than either Anderson or Lightfoot and Parrish can supply, for after they had inspired me to a new awareness of the useful materials around me, I still lacked detailed knowledge about how to actually go about using them. What we need, in order to act on the lessons Anderson and others are teaching us, are instructions that will help connect their insights into native food cultures developed in California over millennia with the widespread interest in local, ecologically appropriate food, medicine, and clothing.
The work of Ira Jacknis, an anthropologist at the Phoebe Hearst Museum, may become the founding text of any such future movement. Bringing together for the first time dozens of obscure anthropological and Indian texts on native foodways, Jacknis’s book offers a systematic culinary and gastronomic consideration of early food practices after generations of studies that focused primarily on either the nutritional or the social dimensions of subsistence and exchange. Not a cookbook in any traditional sense, Jacknis’s work nevertheless provides an extraordinarily fine degree of detail about various native California food practices. Modern Californians searching for an engaged, sustainable, and historically aware relationship with the California landscape through their own kitchen-table practices should start here.
To move toward a new vision of public land, one in which human intervention (guided by the experience of native Californians) is not regarded as a defeat of preservationist principles but as an affirmation of our necessary bond with our environment, requires a careful transition away from the ideological legacy of wilderness. The demise of that outdated vision, however, need entail no diminishment in our attachments to our state’s famous natural landscapes. According to Jacknis, the sugar pine we now appreciate for its beauty can also yield a resinous native candy that would perhaps be an even more durable connection between the coming generation and the natural world they are partly responsible for. And perhaps someday the injunction to eat what is fresh and local will extend beyond introduced cultivars grown in the stripped fields of the Salinas Valley even to roasted armyworms, a favorite Pomo dish consumed in celebration every few years when the population of these caterpillars spikes in the ash groves of the northern Bay Area. The continuing process of reinhabiting California in a sustainable and responsible way will have to proceed through our foraging grounds, gardens, palates, and stomachs. Thanks to the natives and scholars working to reveal the agriculture and foodways of the first peoples of California, such a goal no longer looks like sheer fantasy.
No doubt modern Californians will long continue to car-camp in Yosemite Valley, making s’mores over the fire pit. But I wonder whether one of our California mallows (perhaps the appropriately named Malva neglecta) might take the place of the gelatinous corn-syrup puffs we are used to, whether we could make a graham cracker out of carefully leeched, pressed, and baked acorn meal, and how much coaxing it would take to get our children or grandchildren to replace a square of chocolate with the roasted pith of a green pine cone.
Around 130 years ago, a man visited Lake Tahoe looking for a bargain.
The Comstock Lode, that sublimely rich vein of silver near Virginia City, had made Elias “Lucky” Baldwin a man of wealth and property. The old-growth forests of the Tahoe Basin had provided wood for his mines. Much of the forest was gone, and he bore responsibility for its destruction. Now he turned his sights to the south shore. He walked among trees so big they were like monuments to a passing era. Something inside of him moved.
Speeding across the lake on a chilly day, June 1958. photograph courtesy of Jim French.
He bought a south shore hotel, and later built his own resort here, named Tallac for a nearby peak. Over the next years he bought land, far more than he needed—eight thousand acres in all. He issued a statement that hardly makes sense for a Comstock millionaire: “My land acquisition will save this vast forest from the beauty-destroying ax of the woodsman so that the magnificent pines and cedars may be admired by generations to come.” He seems not to have understood the irony, but he was not the first man to experience a conversion once his fortune was made.
Baldwin wasn’t lying, and he cared nothing for public relations. In future years he would suffer severe financial reversals, but he never logged his eight thousand acres. Scarcely educated, Lucky Baldwin was a frontier rogue, a product of the pre-railroad West, and a great lover of opulent display. Yet the magnificence of the south shore tamed him. The resort he built at Tallac was a model of elegance, decorum, and restraint. His private residence was a one-story cottage with two pines growing through the roof, literally; he had his builders work around the trees, a gesture that perfectly symbolizes his attitude toward “his” forest.
Recently, I found myself on the south shore often, because a publisher I was working with thought a book about Tahoe might be worth printing. The book would explain why controversies about the lake are so harsh. During my research, I came to believe that the landscape itself has a say.
Nature, even in this century, controls us more than we think. At Tahoe, nature allows us to live only within its own margins, which limit how we think about the place. Take Baldwin’s resort. The location made his design choices for him, led him to build a low-key resort in classic rustic architecture: steep shingle roofs, walls of unpainted wood, nearly all materials of local origin. Yes, he was copying earlier styles—but why those styles, out of all the others available? Why not something more garish? Baldwin could have built a comic opera nightmare, a castle like Mad King Ludwig’s in Bavaria. Yet the forest led him in another direction.
To understand Tahoe is to understand that it was, early in its history, deemed a work of art. Along with Yellowstone, Yosemite and other masterworks, it was placed at the top of an aesthetic scale and made the subject of comparison. John Muir commented that “its waters are everywhere as keenly pure as any.” Joseph LeConte, stopping by the lake while returning from Yosemite—and so having seen a few natural wonders lately—said that the lake created in him “a never-ceasing and ever-increasing sense of joy, which naturally grows into love.”
Lake Tahoe around 1908. photograph by Geo. R. Lawrence Co., courtesy of Library of Congress.
Compare another deep blue lake not far away. The lake is not famous, but its name is: Donner, named for the emigrant party that spent the winter of 1846 trapped there. The Donner Party was short of food from the start, and eventually, as one of them recalled, they were “without anything to eat but the dead.”
If only they could have eaten the irony their story represents. The town of Truckee has grown to reach out and lasso the lake with vacation homes. Most of the lakeshore is somebody’s backyard, with docks for jet skis or boats engineered for maximum speed, noise, and pollution. Donner Lake is totally given over to human consumption, overwhelmed by recreation. “Keep Tahoe Blue” is a common sticker on California Jeeps and Volvos, yet rarely will you hear of environmentalists targeting Donner Lake, or see a bumper sticker that says “Don’t Cannibalize Donner.” Tahoe is special, and not just because of its size. It is more esteemed, nearer the sacred, even though the two lakes are not radically different. But here, expectation is crucial.
“I measure all lakes by Tahoe,” Mark Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad. He compares Tahoe to Lake Como and the Sea of Galilee, and finds both wanting. He visited the Tahoe basin in the early 1860s, and honors the lake, in Roughing It, as a magnum opus: “The view was always fascinating, bewitching, entrancing.” He elsewhere called Tahoe the “masterpiece of the universe.” The lake does what landscape paintings did, in his era at least. It teaches, enriches, relaxes, and inspires.
It is easy to look at Tahoe today and wonder what all the fuss (“Keep Tahoe Blue”) is about. Given that most of the shore was logged flat long ago, and given its present heavy development, the slogan makes as much sense as a bumper sticker that demands we “Keep Vegas Wholesome.” The shore of Tahoe, crowded with gambling joints, mostly looks about as wild and pure as Disney World.
The Tahoe that Twain and other pioneers saw was as pure as a North American landscape could be, and their way of seeing it has never died. Parts of the basin still resemble what they saw, but some people have higher ambitions for Tahoe. The political brawls that happen here arise when those ambitions are frustrated.
Relaxing on the shore with a beer, 1960. photograph courtesy of Olivia Warnecke.
Recreation managers sometimes talk about “purist” versus “social” visitors. Purists go to the outdoors as to a museum, to relax, to learn, to be inspired and enriched. The social camper is there for fun, and may see nothing special in the setting. The landscapes of North America can be set on a scale, depending on whether they appeal to the purist or the social visitor. Among the remote national parks, Denali and the backcountry of Yosemite and Yellowstone weigh in at the purist end. National Recreation Areas like Lake Powell and Lake Mead, heavy on the houseboat parties, are wholly social. Every wild landscape finds its spot on the continuum. We instinctively place artwork on this same kind of scale: difficult, expensive, quality art for the purist; “low,” easy-to-comprehend art for everyone else.
Tahoe started at the top, along with the art of Thomas Hill and Albert Bierstadt, or to go farther afield, Rembrandt and Shakespeare, and is now near the level of the airport thriller and Dogs Playing Poker. For most visitors, contemplation is not on the agenda. Tahoe is a place of adrenaline-soaked thrills, gambling, skiing, parasailing. The purist objects to the heavy development of places like South Lake Tahoe, but objects all the more to its recreational purposes. Bad enough that there are high-rises here; worse that they are casinos.
The factional battles would look mythic if they didn’t rage so often in everyday reality. The border between Nevada and California, running down the center of the lake, marks the no-man’s-land between two characteristic American philosophies. Nevada is the purest bastion of frontier libertarianism, a place of legalized everything, swinging uneasily between admirable self-rule and wretched excess. California is the national center of tree-hugging progressivism. On one side, there’s not enough government; on the other, too much. The two sides shake hands over Tahoe and come out fighting.
Let’s take opening a business as one example. In California, the new business operator needs a squad of lawyers and a reinforced platoon of tax accountants. In Nevada—to borrow from a Tahoe realtor’s website—there is “No Sharing of Information with IRS. No Corporate Income Tax. No Gross Receipts Tax. No Franchise Tax. No Inventory Tax.” The general attitude in Nevada is, Have at it.
But Tahoe is not a postmodern construct. It is a real place, and it has a say in these matters. The life in these glacial mountains is as seasonal as it ever was. Humans have had to adapt. And thinking back to Lucky Baldwin, we know that Tahoe can change people so deeply that their behavior completely departs from anything they’ve done before.
On a June day, just before my Tahoe research project blew apart for lack of funding, I stood on the beach at Camp Richardson, near the town of South Lake Tahoe. A local garage band, hired to play there, burst upon the scene. The music must have been audible ten miles out to sea. Halfway through the set, the band slammed into Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” giving the lyrics a local spin: “On we sweep with threshing oar / Our only goal will be the Tahoe shore!”
At that moment, I no longer cared if Tahoe stayed blue. This region was, I decided, a quarantine zone, my private term for those places in the wild parts of our country where all the tourists go. Old Faithful is a quarantine zone; so is Niagara Falls; so is the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. There, people and cars and “visitor facilities” are held together like atoms in a molecule, because, in fact, people enjoy being jammed together. In the California Sierra, Tahoe is the greatest quarantine zone, rivaled only by Yosemite Valley.
The garage band drove me down shore, toward old, less-developed Tahoe. The remains of Baldwin’s Tallac Resort, removed by his daughter Anita in the 1920s when it became a financial drain, lie near Camp Richardson. The Forest Service maintains that the resort’s ecological impact disturbed her; Anita had, perhaps, inherited her father’s unusual priorities. The demolition crew did a thorough job, but traces remain. I kicked around like a tourist at a Greco-Roman dump, trying to piece it together. I ignored the forest until an odor crossed my path. Butterscotch, or vanilla—always hard to say. That meant Jeffrey pines. The Jeffrey is common in the Sierra, and identifying one is easy: bury your nose deep in the bark and inhale. If it smells like butterscotch or vanilla, it’s a Jeffrey. I always check over my shoulder to see if anyone’s watching when I make this test, because it must look odd.
I entered a stand of the trees. They got bigger as I walked away from the shore. I thought there must be some other species involved, but each individual proved to be a Jeffrey, until I found myself within a stand of giants. The trees were three or four hundred years old. They looked like sequoias, but they were all Jeffreys. I walked on, disbelieving, as if I had found a temple in that Greco-Roman dump. Quarantine areas are often beautiful, in places—frustrating for purists.
They are the only old-growth Jeffrey pines I have ever seen. They are here because of Lucky Baldwin. He bought this tract in 1880, when forest nearly everywhere else around the lake was going or gone. Because of his foresight, parts of the Tallac Historic Site look like Redwood National Park. Baldwin’s jaundiced eye was an unlikely place to have found anything but dollar signs, and standing there, I could only imagine what spoke to him, what made him see this place differently. I suspect it was the place itself. It had power once. It still does. Tahoe is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a museum, playground, business, or church, depending on who you are.
In Tahoe, the environment shapes humanity, not just vice versa. Think of it as a conversation. We tell the place that it will have to change, but the place tells us where and how to build our houses. When we ignore its demands, we pay the price. During one of my research trips, I drove up Fallen Leaf Lake and over the high ground to the east, where I seethed again at the sheer sprawl of greater South Lake Tahoe, and the perfect sameness of its vacation homes, done in a style I think of as Total Wood. And one week later, all those homes were swept away in the Angora Fire, a terrifyingly intense blaze that destroyed over 300 structures. Total Wood burns, and the only way to stop it from doing so is to cut down all the trees around the houses. Or not build in the forest in the first place.
Let us also consider the habit Tahoe people have of building into the sides of slopes. It is a source of grim mirth among geologists, for an undercut slope always collapses eventually. No matter what Rube Goldberg bulwark you have constructed to protect your house, the mountain is coming inside. If the bulwark has held for twenty years, check back in another twenty.
Up here, ice and gravity and fire call all the shots. It can be rough, yes. But some people find that roughness beautiful.
I started by calling Tahoe art, and ended by making it sound like a plague-ward. While the most gaudy works of art that nature produces usually turn into quarantine zones, it’s also true that the tacky tourist trap can keep the backcountry—starting twenty feet past the last dumpster—as unpopulated as that grove of Jeffrey pines. So I would simply like to say a word in favor of those relatively small, compact nuthouses: they serve to keep the rest of the landscape relatively sane—and as unshaved as it was when Lucky Baldwin strolled through it, checkbook in hand.
Brenda Hillman, Practical Water. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009, 124 pp. $22.95
William T. Vollmann, Imperial. New York: Viking Press, 2009, 1,344 pp. $55
The preeminent California missionary Father Junípero Serra (1713-84) is famous for his erudition and religious zeal, but we might never have heard of him (or been here to hear) had these qualities not been combined with a keen nose for water. Serra, who spent decades in the arid expanses of Baja California and Querétaro (home to a massive aqueduct) before coming north, applied the hydrological wisdom he had acquired to finally make a success of Spanish colonization efforts in the upper part of the state. As records of his labors reveal, he was careful to site his California missions to take maximum advantage of the comparative abundance of fresh water that poured into the Pacific from coastal rivers, even going so far as to relocate the San Carlos Borroméo mission from Monterey to a better spot along the Rio Carmel. Irrigation was as much on Serra’s mind as salvation, and these twin obsessions have come to define the territory and state whose mythic purpose is to water the parched hopes and germinate the dreams of wave after wave of immigrants from north, south, east, and west. From the hydraulic mining that underwrote the gold fever of the 1850s to the massive drainage, flood-control, and irrigation projects that commandeered vast human resources and laid the groundwork for the agricultural fortunes of the twentieth century to the ongoing legal and political contests by municipalities, developers, and agribusiness for shares of a water empire that now extends far into the territory of other states, the Golden State has always been understood through its other official color: blue.
That we are utterly dependent on the presence and proper management of freshwater resources is something Californians have frequently been told, in tones by turn bureaucratic, boosterish, and apocalyptic. The explorer John Wesley Powell, surveying the far western territories in the 1860s and 1870s, was clear-eyed about the value of surface water for transport, power, and limited irrigation, only to be outlobbied by the railroad barons, who stood to profit from more optimistic views of the habitability of their vast landholdings (over 180 million acres). The writer Wallace Stegner, historians Donald Worster and Norris Hundley, Jr., and journalist Marc Reisner have since drawn upon Powell to tell widely read cautionary stories about violence, graft, and disenfranchisement associated with struggles to control water in the West. Collectively, these authors and others like them were responsible for a shift in conventional wisdom away from the boom mentality that fueled nineteenth-century projects of drainage and levee-building and massive twentieth-century investment in the Central Valley Water Project. From them we are fortunate to have inherited a growing cultural emphasis on conservation of both water resources and the often wild lands where they originate.
It remains for twenty-first-century water writers to find a means for the state’s citizens to come to terms with damage that has already been done, to learn how to live in the hydraulic mess that now defines contemporary California. The best place to begin that task is with David Carle’s contribution to the California Natural History Guides series, Introduction to Water in California, which offers the most concise summary available of the state’s current water situation. Helpfully laying out the entire story in fewer than three hundred small and copiously illustrated pages, Carle presents the fundamental geological and ecological facts underlying our waterscape before conducting an eye-opening tour of the reengineered system we have built atop it. All of the major water issues are here-from giardia parasites to global warming, soil subsidence to selenium contamination-briefly but accurately conveyed in accessible prose. Want to know what water supplies your community depends on? Check Table 3, which lists them in order of importance for the 400 or so largest cities. Ever wondered how water from the far northern part of the state makes it over the mountain ranges south of Bakersfield? Carle includes graphic charts and photographs detailing the massive penstocks that use 7.5 billion kilowatt hours per year to pump water to southern coastal and Mojave communities. If California high-school students were required to study this inexpensive treasure as part of their fundamental curriculum, the state would be well on its way to more effective water policy.
For more advanced courses, though, we need the humanities. The poet and teacher Brenda Hillman’s most recent collection is the third installment (after Cascadia, 2001, and Pieces of Air in the Epic, 2005) in her series of meditations on the four elements. Practical Water is just what its title proclaims: a staged confrontation between our traditional and even mythic understanding of water and the reality of California’s endlessly plumbed, intensively managed, and anxiously watched water systems. Mindful of the powerful vision of untroubled human oneness with an interfluent Nature— “whate’er / I saw, or heard, or felt, was but a stream / That flowed into a kindred stream,” wrote Wordsworth—Hillman starts by establishing the conventional connection between the stream of consciousness and the flow of water:
The mind was split & mended
Each perception divided into more
& there were in the hearts of the water molecules
little branches perpendicular to thought
But this commonplace analogy (linked by Hillman to the Romantic version of modernism favored by Wallace Stevens) quickly transforms itself into a dare to take the metaphor with utter literalism, to accept the often tragic and absurd career of those water molecules as they flow around the geological, architectural, historical, and political facts that are conventionally excluded from the poetic page. As Angela Hume Lewandowski has elaborated in her penetrating discussions of Practical Water and the phenomenon of “contaminated” poetic form, the reader of Hillman’s poem is asked not to indulge in a flight of fancy but to face facts: to prepare, in Hillman’s words, to be “Uncomfortable & act like you mean it.”
Hillman embraces this challenge most directly in the longest poem in the collection, “Hydrology of California: Toward an Ecopoetical Alphabet,” in which she travels across the state watershed by watershed, meditating on the future of poetry while coming to grips with the environmental and historical details of its rivers, the Klamath, the Smith, the Mattole, the Navarro, the Trinity, the Sacramento, the Feather, the American, the Putah, the Cache, the Cosumnes, the Napa, the Tuolumne, the Merced, the Owens, the Mojave, the Kern, the San Joaquin, the Fresno, the San Gabriel. . . . Along the way, the speaker of the poem limbers up her mind and tongue to cope with the paradoxes and complexities of the hydroscape before her.
They had to shower / They had to eat i said to main Brenda
Now don’t start just ignorantly criticizing state dams the
You drink gallons of it you know you do
There have been moments before in nature writing of this kind of unanswerable self-indictment, but Hillman’s goal is not just to register the banality of her (and our) complicity in the disruption of the environment but to steep her poetic practice in it, to really think through the ways that poems are made of stoppages, cataracts, and trickles of breath, the tongue damming and diverting the often polluted spirit like the levees, check-dams, and irrigation ditches that define our physical landscape. Something rare, the voice of poetry here is in sustained alliance not with the pure and wild nature so easily imagined but with the far less picturesque and perhaps ultimately incomprehensible reality of sewage-treatment plants and algal blooms coexisting with sulphur butterflies and fluff grass. The “future of poetry,” a refrain through Hillman’s poem that ties the aesthetic avant-garde to the environmental status quo, lies in imagining the real flowing and pooling of the world we already inhabit:
Future of poetry there’s a stream between a & b as i write
this a dream
of a west that would outlast us
To judge from William Vollmann’s Imperial, time is already running out on the West our plumbing has created. Sprawling over 1,300 pages, hundreds of informants, and several genres, the most recent book of contemporary American literature’s most excessive author focuses on the precipitous rise and steady decline of the vast agricultural region surrounding Imperial County in the southeastern corner of California. This was a sparsely populated corner until 1901, when the first in a long series of projects diverting water from the Colorado River capitalized on its fertile soil, perpetual growing season, and nearby railway to turn it into a major food-exporting district. Within a decade investors and immigrants—from Japan, China, the Philippines, Mexico, and later Oklahoma—began to pour into the area, launching a classic California boom, this one in lettuce and other warm-season row crops. The All-American, still the world’s largest irrigation canal, was built in 1930 to bring more water to the southern end of the Salton Sink, where it begins a gravity-fed journey northward through ditches and aquifers and two manmade rivers (the New and the Alamo), watering cantaloupe and cotton fields en route to the saline basin of the artificial Salton Sea, 226 feet below sea level. “WATER IS HERE,” crowed the boosters of the time, a phrase Vollmann repeats in lamentation and irony throughout the transcript of his ten-year exploration of the world this water made possible. Within a few generations irrigation projects led to overproduction, soil salinity problems, and labor exploitation and unrest. The consequences of the boom and slow bust are written all across the physical landscape, from the border fence erected to keep out Mexican workers drawn to the onion fields and date groves to the communal ejido farms south of it that are drying up because of water diversions to San Diego to the maquiladora factories and the narcotraficantes that have become stock figures in representations of the borderlands. As a social and environmental experiment, the Imperial Valley has few rivals even in a state as radically transfigured as twentieth-century California. And though Vollmann surely owes some of his popularity to the public’s impulse to voyeuristically consume the misery of the underclass, the true value of a work like Imperial lies in the way it witnesses and documents the human and environmental consequences of our gritty water history.
Vollmann’s accomplishment lies partly in his documentary depth and extensiveness (his report on the longstanding Chinese community in Mexicali deserves its own book-length treatment), but it is also in the perspective that slowly emerges from his disciplined unwillingness to screen out centrifugal personal histories, literary citations, or historical details in surrender to the requirements of argument and narrative. In the numerous and prominent reviews of Imperial there is a shared note of disappointment at the sheer bagginess of the book, its uncouth manner of repeating itself, revisiting its own toxic history apparently without much regard for the patience of its readers. Our understandable desire to round off the problems Vollmann confronts, even if only in aesthetic terms, can breed irritation not just at the interminability of the prose but at its stubborn refusal to dig deeper into causes and possible solutions. But—and here is the lesson that the new writers on California water are bringing to us—there is nowhere left to dig. We have tapped the accessible aquifers, dammed the available rivers, built the impossible canals, tiled the vast marshlands. There is no Carmel River down the way where we may begin again with our grand mission. Imperial does not tediously attend to the minutiae of raw sewage, pesticides, and border crossing in order to prescribe a solution that will rinse them away and allow us to go back to our legendarily carefree form of utopianism. Its unprecedented feat is rather to forcibly immerse us in the turbid waters of our shared California, present and future. Whatever we do after such a rebaptism, there can be no more evasions of the past.
These new writers on California water have begun to recognize that, for all of its age-old associations with the stream of time’s endless renewal, the purification of the body and the soul, and the mysteries of the unknown, water ultimately speaks to us of the inescapability of history, our unavoidable contamination by the world, and the patient accumulation, somewhere, of all that we have pretended to discard. In the world that Father Serra set in motion for us, water molecules descend like a heavenly host to dissolve, transport, and redeposit the unattended truths of our existence—the flushed pharmaceuticals, bits of rubber tire, heavy metals from border factories, the sweat of migrant workers—and then, evaporated by that storied sun, abandon the desert to us. B