Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape

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San Francisco Takes Water from Lobos Creek, September 17, 1888

Figure : The major federal, state, and local water transfer structures in California. Source: California Department of Water Resources. Cartography by Margarita K. Pindak

During the early years of the gold rush, San Francisco grew so rapidly that by 1852 it had outgrown its own local supplies of fresh water. In that year the city approved a petition to tap a source of permanent water from another drainage system. After several delays and changes to the original plans, in 1858 water was transported by flume from Lobos Creek five miles to the mains of downtown San Francisco (Delgado 1982, 31-35). On completion of the project, San Francisco became the first major municipality in California to receive a pennanent water supply from another watershed. The tapping of Lobos Creek provided the precedent that inspired subsequent efforts to acquire more distant and widespread sources of fresh water by San Francisco and other urban areas throughout California (Figure 5). California’s exceptional urban growth may be traced to it and few events have initiated processes more importan to the shaping of the state’s contemporary landscapes.

The Lobos Creek diversion and subsequent projects allowed San Francisco to increase from a pre-gold rush population of 300 in 1846 to 80,000 by 1862. Additional water was again required, and the cit y expanded its infrastructure to impound and import more water. First from the peninsula to the south and then from the southern East Bay (Leonard 1978, 38-39, 42-43). By 1900, the city had reached a population of 340,000 and was now looking to the Sierra Nevada, and specifically the Tuolumne River, for additional sources (Hundley 1992, 120, 169-170). The lynch pin of the Tuolumne system would be the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park (Kahrl 1978, 29-31; Brechin 1999, 71-117). After considerable controversy, San Francisco was victorious and by the early 1930s was importing most of its municipal requirements from the Tuolumne watershed through the 148 mile long Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct. For years following the initiation of the project the system continued to be upgraded with a spectacular array of tunnels, dams, pipelines, inverted siphons, and powerhouses.

Imported water provided San Francisco with the ability to modify national parks, national forests, cities, and farmlands. Reservoirs such as Hetch Hetchy, Crystal Springs, Don Pedro, and Calaveras cover hundreds of square miles, and the intervening landscapes are laced with pipelines, powerhouses, and transmission lines. Many of these facilities and their rights-of-way boast a variety of recreational functions including camping, hiking, boating, and fishing (Benchmark Maps 1998, 14-17). These attractions, in turn, have generated an array of business and administrative landscapes along access routes and within gateway communities. San Francisco’s jurisdictional authority to dictate land use and management practices around the project’s facilities is extensive. The city has considerable land and water rights in a number of peninsula and southern East Bay counties and county, state, and federal fiats guarantee its influence over other lands. One result of this control is maintenance of open space by the city in some Bay Area suburbs (Brechin 1999, 88; Leonard 1978, 24-25).

Although Tuolumne water temporarily renewed San Francisco’s urban growth, further expansion was eventually curtailed more by political and physical constraints than by a lack of water. Nevertheless, the city’s influence is still felt in its ability to control water resources and as a precedent for other metropolitan environments. San Francisco currently possesses substantial water and power surpluses and it sells the excess to nurture continued urban expansion in more than fifty neighboring communities. Virtually all of San Mateo County’s residents, for example, depend upon water sold to them by San Francisco (Leonard 1978, 25; Selby 2000, 194). Additionally, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) mimicked San Francisco’s urban water system and imported Sierra water from the Mokelumne watershed. This water in turn continues to fuel urban expansion in the vicinities of Walnut Creek, Concord, and Danville and the growth has inspired EBMUD to consider other distant sources such as the Feather River (Littleworth and Garner 1995, 9-10).

The urban water system in Southern California conforms to the overall pattern of San Francisco’s diversion of the Tuolumne and the East Bay’s diversion of the Mokelumne River; however, the impact is of a greater magnitude. Control of the watershed of the Los Angeles River had sustained Los Angeles in its youth. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, Los Angeles had nearly exhausted its ability to extract more water (Gumprecht 1999, 41-81, 85-129). To sustain growth and prosperity, the city tapped the streams and ground water from the Owens and Mono Basins far to the north by constructing the Los Angeles Aqueduct. This storage and conveyance system is half again as long and delivers nearly six times as much water as San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy project. The landscape impacts in the areas of extraction and consumption are far greater as well (Kahrl et al. 1978, 51).

The aqueduct allowed the population of Los Angeles to increase twelve fold and expand in area ten fold between 1900 and 1950 (Kahrl 1976, 115). Like their counterparts in Northern California, the storage and conveyance facilities have spawned bountiful recreational and commercial landscapes (Benmmark Maps 1998, 19, 25, 25). However, the consequences of urban water extraction have inflicted unparalleled changes on preaqueduct environments. Due to the Los Angeles diversion, Owens Lake is completely drained and Mono Lake severely depleted. The exposed lakebeds and shorelines are disconcertingly dramatic, and the sky over the southern Owens Valley is now turbid with dust. Moreover, the modification and elimination of riparian vegetation in the Owens Valley and along the former courses of Mono Basin’s diverted streams are notable byproducts of the aqueduct system (Gaines and DeDecker 1982; Reisner 1993, 101). The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) exercises jurisdiction over 300,000 acres of land in Owens Valley and continues to curtail urban expansion around settlements such as Bishop and condone the deliberate removal of numerous rural farmsteads. Furthermore, the fields of irrigated crops that once carpeted the valley have been rendered into scrublands and pasture (Hart 1996).

Unbridled urban expansion in Los Angeles and other cities in southern California immediately prior to and following World War II created the need to import additional water from the north by the California Aqueduct and from the east by the Colorado River Aqueduct. Although the majority of the water is utilized for irrigation elsewhere, the Colorado River serves water to over fourteen million people inhabiting 500 cities spread over 5000 square miles (Selby 2000, 199). As a consequence of this fresh abundance of imported water, Los Angeles doubled its population again between 1940 and 1970 (Kahrl et al. 1978, 42). Furthermore, its neighboring cities stretching from Ventura to San Diego have expanded even faster, sustaining rapid growth into the twenty-first century.

Many settlements in California require varying amounts of fresh water from subterranean sources. However, interbasin water transfers have supported most of the state’s urban expansion and sustained a booming economy. Indeed, cities over large areas of the state have benefited from water projects that were constructed primarily for agricultural purposes such as the Central Valley Project. Since San Francisco’s fateful diversion of Lobos Creek in September 1858, California cities have contributed heavily to the construction of over 1300 dams and associated facilities currently scattered throughout the state (Selby 2000, 194, 203, 209). This reciprocal relationship between cities and water is a driving force behind the state’s continuing population explosion and the expansion of its urban landscapes.

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