I’m relatively new to the enormous body of work covering the history, politics, and geography of water in California. Given the severe drought gripping most of the state (great 8-second animation here), and the oft-repeated cliché that water is the oil of the 21st century, it seems like a good time to start paying closer attention! I decided, after some research, to go and have a look, taking the opportunity that most of us fog-bound San Franciscans do to escape to the searing heat of the Central Valley at least once during the cool, windy summer we get here on the coast (though to be honest, this year has been relatively warm and sunny until the last few days). Adriana and I borrowed a car and rode along levees from the mouth of the Sacramento River at the edge of the once-enormous Delta, all the way to Sacramento (only pausing there to visit “Old Sacramento” which I had somehow never done), and then back on to the levees north toward our first night’s destination of Marysville at the conjunction of the Feather and Yuba Rivers.
I’ve been giving myself a crash course during the summer, in preparation for teaching a new class at the SF Art Institute called “Dredge.” One of the unusual finds I made was the Dutra Museum of Dredging in Rio Vista, at the edge of the Montezuma Hills, a old geologic formation that forces the Sacramento River around it south in its path through the Delta to the Bay. The folks behind the museum are an old family-run California dredging company, and they’ve published a beautiful book “The Tule Breakers,” which is an exhaustive history of their industry, and includes a general overview of the terrain and conditions in which their business has been conducted.
I also read Battling the Inland Sea by Robert Kelley, a fascinating account of the politics of water and rivers in California in the 19th century. Kelley goes through the saga chronologically to show how the Democrats who dominated state politics after the Civil War were the standard-bearers of laissez-faire individualism. They were opposed by the Republicans, who carried on the politics of the defunct Whig Party in favor of a more centralizing and coordinating role for government. In a nutshell, the two parties in the 19th century held reversed positions compared to today. The Republicans were the party in favor of publicly funded infrastructure which would improve conditions broadly for “everyone.” Read in a more class conscious way, we would say they were the party of Capital in its broadest interests, while the Democrats tended to defend the interests of individual property owners against encroachment by the state, seeing the individual owners as the logical descendants of a Jeffersonian agrarian democracy and the state as beholden to the interests of the monied interests and large corporations that were emerging in the late 19th century. The Democrats were also more brazenly the party of white supremacy, although it must be admitted that racist ideology was the norm across the political spectrum until well into the 20th century.
The domination of laissez-faire inspired localism led to a decades-long failure to assess California’s hydrological reality in systemic terms. Instead of looking at the interlocking river system as a whole, and seeing the entire Sacramento Valley (the northern part of the Central Valley) as an integrated watershed draining a dozen rivers eventually into the Delta and Bay, each individual farmer and landowner was encouraged to take individual responsibility for building levees to protect their property. This led to a kind of “arms race” as one would build levees to a certain height, forcing the landowner across the river to build a bit higher, that would in turn force the original owner to build his even higher, and so on. It was exacerbated by the fact that county lines often ran down the middle of rivers (e.g. the split between Marysville in Yuba County and across the Feather River sat Yuba City in Sutter County), so property owners would also have different local governments from which to seek legal remedy or support. The first legal entities formed in California beyond the elected legislature and local governments were “reclamation districts” who gained the right to tax property and even seize it under eminent domain if needed to execute plans for water channeling and farmland protection. These entities were dominated by land speculators who often used their political power, not surprisingly, to direct Reclamation Districts to projects benefiting their landholdings.