Long before California’s current historic drought even began, Rita Sudman and Stephanie Taylor talked about writing a book that dealt with the complicated and contentious topic of water. In 2016, they published Water: More or Less, which includes essays by 20 top scientists, policymakers, water agency officials and educators who reflect on the state’s changing landscape when it comes to this valuable — and limited — natural resource.
Sudman is a former journalist who served 34 years as executive director of the Water Education Foundation in Sacramento. As her professional background indicates, education is critical for understanding and being involved with local water politics. “If you don’t even know … where your roots are, where your water comes from, then you can’t make an educated decision,” Sudman says. Taylor, a Sacramento native, is an artist and photographer; she created the original artwork and provided most of the photos for the book.
The Sacramento Valley: Fighting Floods and Politics
By Rita Schmidt Sudman
California’s Sacramento Valley today is a far different place than the early pioneers found. Their struggle to bring water to grow crops while avoiding terrible floods helps us understand the area of the vast Central Valley and its people. The history of the Sacramento Valley is also the story of how prevailing social movements shaped the land and people of the Valley.
After the influx of pioneers during the Gold Rush years, land was cleared for farming. Wheat became the Valley’s dominant crop since it did not require any irrigation and refrigeration to bring it to market in the East. With the arrival of the railroad’s new refrigerated cars, Valley- grown fruit could be chilled and preserved during the journey east. As fruit became a major crop, wheat prices dropped and wheat farming diminished. Fruit required irrigation. If the land had access to Sacramento River water or if the farmers could dig productive wells, land increased in value.
But for the historic cycles of drought and flood that hit the Valley, things might have worked out smoothly. They had been warned by the native people that great floods periodically covered the entire Sacramento Valley and were often followed by periods of devastating drought in which animals died and plants withered. In fact, floods from the Sierra Nevada often created a huge inland sea covering the entire Valley in the winter months. Captain John C. Fremont actually camped on the Sutter Buttes in the winter of 1846 as it was the only land not under water.
The floods had their benefits. During overflow periods, woodlands of oak, cottonwood, willow and ash lined the river banks up to five miles wide creating a rich and shady environment for salmon and wildlife.
But to the settlers fishing wasn’t important. Farming was their livelihood. After statehood, Congress passed the 1855 Swamp and Overflow Act to encourage American farmers to drain and “reclaim” river marsh lands, turning them into productive farmland. The cost of $1 for an acre of land that money would be refunded to the purchaser when the land was drained and transformed into dry land. At first, there was a 320-acreage limit to qualify, but in 1868 that limit was dropped. The land boom was on — with one catch. The caveat; it was also up to the buyers to build the levees to protect their lands from the dreaded floods.
Thus began a time historians call the Laissez-faire water period, a time in which individuals — not governments — had the authority and responsibility for flood control and water impoundment infrastructure. Several attempts were made to give the state some authority over the ensuing levee construction confusion through the creation of swampland districts. These attempts failed although some swampland districts became the reclamation districts of today.
As the land boom continued, inexpensive wetland marshes were snapped up by speculators. By 1871 almost a half-million acres of these overflow lands in the Sacramento Valley were owned by just 30 people. To claim the land, the prospective owner had to prove that the land was wet most of the year. Abuses were notorious. For example, one speculator known locally as the “admiral,” supposedly secured his swamp and overflow land by testifying he traveled over the land in a boat, leaving out the fact that the boat was sitting atop a horse-drawn wagon!
For farmers in this time, periodic flooding was aggravated by the debris from hydraulic mining practices that flooded settlements and farms. Huge mechanized water hoses destroyed mountainsides in an industrial-scale extraction of gold. Farmers — and the railroads that carried their produce — fought the powerful mining interests for years to stop this destructive practice. They succeeded in 1884 when a federal court essentially outlawed hydraulic mining. Even so, the remains of this destructive practice adversely affects Valley water quality to this day.
Also around this time, in another effort to unify the development of water projects, the state legislature enacted the 1887 Wright Act to allow the formation of public irrigation districts to acquire water rights, construct water projects and sell bonds and tax property. It was an important start toward a more unified approach to building water projects, though many private water projects continued with mixed results.
As the irrigation movement grew, California became part of a new social movement sweeping several states as Progressives gained power. In California, Progressive Party Gov. Hiram Johnson believed in organized, large-scale water development, and ordered the gathering of information and data for the first state water plan. In a 1914 California election, which was in fact a Progressives-enacted referendum on already passed legislation, the public approved a new water code that asserted state control of water and set up a permit system. The state engineer William Hammond Hall had previously devised an integrated flood control and water development plan for the entire Central Valley. Although that plan was not developed during this period, it signaled the end of the Laissez-faire water period. Finally, the 1919 state Marshall Plan laid out a comprehensive flood and irrigation program. The public now supported bigger unified water solutions that would involve the state and federal governments.
The era of the large water projects was beginning.
Another big Sacramento Valley water fight in the early 20th century involved support of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to narrowly channel the Sacramento River for flood control, boat navigation and to allow for the scouring of the remaining hydraulic sediment. The opposing idea was to allow some breathing room for the river by creating a bypass system — essentially parking water off the river to relieve flooding, an idea championed by Colusa newspaper editor, Will Green. He strongly opposed the Corps’ narrow channel approach to flood management. His idea eventually gained support in the Progressive era and the Sacramento River Flood Control Project was enacted by Congress in 1920. Today, when driving over the Yolo Bypass between the cities of Davis and Sacramento, we are looking at a simple system that diverts a tremendous amount of flood water away from the city of Sacramento. Several other nearby bypasses protect land and people the same way.
The comprehensive planning period of water development accelerated during the Great Depression. The state proposed a massive and expensive state Central Valley water project and voters in the early 1930s actually approved the idea. However, the state could not sell the bonds during the Depression. So the government stepped in and the huge federal Central Valley Project was created under the new Roosevelt administration. When Shasta Dam was built at the north end of the Sacramento Valley in the 1940s, the water in the Sacramento River finally was controlled during times of drought and flood.
Thus the dream of the early settlers to control and use the water of the Sacramento River for farms and cities finally was realized.
At the time of these immense public water works, little thought was given to negative effects on fish and wildlife. By 1980, the salmon and other fish were diminishing mainly due to dams and water diversions. Concern for the fish, along with the new attention to environmental degradation across the country, led to the growth of a new social movement. Those growing environmental issues would be part of the next big water fight in the Sacramento Valley and the rest of California.
But that’s another water story.
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The Coast: The Fisherman
By Stephanie Taylor
Dungeness crab is a California tradition, and now that I’ve seen what it takes to get them to market, I’ll never question prices again.
His face was etched with history, leather bound, rough around the edges. Busy on a boat, I interrupted him. He didn’t mind, and after my query that I was curious about the crab fishing industry in California, he invited me on board.
I followed him into a cramped, overly warm cabin, a stark contrast to a chilly hint of rain and cloud filled sky above. Getting ready to go fishing, he said. Just inside the door, foul weather gear hung red and yellow, pulled tight with bungee cords. On a narrow galley counter, groceries, cans of soup, bottles of water rested, recently unloaded. I squeezed onto a bench at a tiny galley table.
He introduced himself. He looked older than his 46 years, the sun, wind and I guessed more than a few years of very hard living. A full head of dark hair matched a neatly trimmed beard. He wore copper bracelets on both wrists, sleeves of a cobalt blue tee pushed up, and an earring in his left lobe. He wasn’t a big man, not as big as I thought a fisherman ought to be, though solid, not beefy, with obvious strength in wrists, arms, neck and back.
He looked a bit like what a pirate might look like, graced with the air of a rebel in blue jeans, a stereotype, a non-conformist, a living-on-the-edges-of-society, itinerant kind of guy.
He confirmed this in degrees, starting with how he began fishing at 21. He was working at a Kmart somewhere close to a harbor as he paused to watch squid boats heading to sea. He had an epiphany, went to the docks in Monterey and signed onto a sword fishing boat. This is how he learned to fish, infatuated with the challenge of landing 400 pound, thrashing swordfish.
This is how he learned to listen, he said, and I thought at the time, what an odd thing for a fisherman to say. Listen to what?
He had blown into Bodega Bay on a violent storm in 1990. Eighty miles off Point Arena, it had taken three days to find safe harbor, twelve hours straight at the helm. Exhausted, he staggered to the nearest bar, and has been crewing for local fishing families ever since. Except for the 10 years he worked as a painter after the trauma of losing seven friends to the sea — in six years.
We stepped out of the cozy cabin onto the impossibly cramped deck so that he could demonstrate how he catches California’s famous Dungeness crab. The season had just started, and he was enthusiastic about prospects for a year of abundance, including high prices. Most years are a struggle he said, to meet the needs of a precious young daughter, to pay rent, to keep his car working, paying his mechanic off on the honor system. He lived 20 miles away, 10 of them along the steep cliffs of scenic Highway 1.
At the stern, crab traps were piled four and five high, starboard to port. He showed me how he attaches plastic bait traps to traps, identified by uniquely colored buoys. He bent over, and with his knees, lifted a trap to his thighs, and then higher, to show how he hurls them overboard, at 120 pounds empty. I couldn’t lift one past my thighs.
He showed me the mechanism that pulls the pots up at 6 feet per second, weighing over 400 pounds full, demanding a man’s unfailing focus. He’ll catch 7,000 pounds of crab in two days, often working 18 hours straight. He pointed to pole structures, standing like sentries on each side of the mast, that descend at 45 degree angles to stabilize vessels, and said that overloading can roll a boat, pots can pull men to deep deaths — 98 percent of the accidents are caused by human error, he said.
He was a cowboy in Texas and a sheet metal worker in San Francisco, but he loved fishing and the sea. “It’s peaceful,” he said. “I wake up every morning at 4:30, put my boots on and look forward to an adventure.” He sighed. “I leave my problems on the dock.”