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California's Flooding: A History

California's Flooding: A History

The breakdown of the Oroville Dam in the spring of 2017 and the temporary evacuation of close to 200,000 Californians from the shadow of the lake catapulted Northern California (north of San Francisco) into the national news. Mostly, it inspired liberal paeans on our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, or conservative grumbling that those elite coastal Californians finally got what was coming (despite the fact that Butte and Glenn County are overwhelmingly red). But the roar of the water cascading down the scrubby face of the emergency spillover at the Dam also speaks to a long forgotten past of the state and the region: flooding.

Flooding used to be a regular hazard of life in the Golden State. Though it won’t bring those nearly 200,000 evacuees any comfort, they have joined a long line of Californians who have fled in the wake of flooding. Indigenous Maidu, Yahi, Nomlaka, and Ukhotnom would flee the flooding to the sierras or even to the Sutter Buttes. Spanish and later, Mexican Ranchers did the same, and mourned when the rivers would swell and wash away their crops or scatter their herds like dust in the wind. The inauguration of California's first American governor in 1850 had to be moved to San Francisco because the capital was flooded. 49ers turned Sacramento into an American version of Venice in 1862 when arguably the worst flooding in the state's recorded history turned the city into “Lake Sacramento” for three months. Residents traveled through the streets not on horseback or buggy, but in canoes, barrels and door frames.

 

 flooding in Sacramento, CA

flooding in Sacramento, CA

During the short period people have called the region home, from the time when early humans traveled across the Beringian land bridge and began to cascade through North and South America to the twentieth century, flooding was a regular feature of the state. It wasn’t all bad. The regular flooding turned the Sacramento Valley into a place of embarrassing bounty and riches, a Nile River Valley of the Americas. When Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra led a ragtag group of Spanish soldiers and proselytizing priests north from New Spain (now Mexico), eventually finding San Francisco Bay, they found natives living essentially as hunter gatherers. The land was so rich it could support them, with huge numbers of salmon regularly swimming through the rivers and creeks, game in the forests, and nuts and berry's easy to collect. The Spanish, as well as the Mexicans, could never generate enough immigration to the state, only 7,000 Mexicans were living in Alta California in 1848, but those who came found what the indigenous people always knew. Using enslaved Indian labor, and devastating indigenous communities in the process, they grew wheat and grapes and raised cattle and horses. Most of the 49ers who followed and got rich in the nineteenth century, did not gain their fortune in the mines, sifting gold out of the Comstock Load, but instead found riches planting and harvesting wheat and tending cattle herds, all to feed the hungry miners who staggered into Sacramento, Marysville, San Francisco and Oakland. Most of those 49ers wrested land from Spanish ranchers through squatting or manipulation of their "floating" land grants, in which land deeds loosely described the boundaries. Even today, the rich soil of California's arid farmlands is unbelievably bountiful. The Central Valley is the third most productive agricultural region in the world. Most of the fruits and nuts consumed by Americans comes from California. Agriculture accounts for two percent of the states economy, a GDP that also happens to be the sixth largest in the world.

 newspaper rendering of "Lake Sacramento"

newspaper rendering of "Lake Sacramento"

 

California historians have likened the state to a “Cadillac Desert.” Donald Worster argued in “Rivers of Empire” that California was like the Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian Empires, survival depended on control of a limited amount of water supply. A huge man made plumbing system would have to be made to slack the thirst of people who had flocked to Los Angeles in the twentieth century, a natural desert that under normal circumstances would not support the amount of people who now call it home. Modern California is a very artificial rearrangement of nature to make modern California possible. Between 1870-1900, Los Angeles grew from a sleepy town to a massive metropolis. Railroads, the Southern Pacific and the Sante Fe, arrived in 1885, and started a successful ad campaign for the city. They emphasized the city's healthy climate, and then later assisted the citrus crop boom that followed. In 1895, Los Angeles became a major port city when a deep water port was built at San Pedro. There was quickly more people in Los Angeles than there was water to slack their thirst. Starting with the LA-Owens aqueduct-which drained the Owens Valley and turned Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, and Lone Pine into ghost towns, to hydrate the City of Angels-California launched on a massive public works project to capture the water from Northern California and shuttle it to the southern part of the state. Owens Valley was once a well watered with run off from the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power first built an aqueduct that ciphered the water at Tinemaha and shuttled it 250 miles south to Los Angeles. Later they expanded this network and tapped the waters of the Mono Lake Basin. They built a man made lake and a series of reservoirs designed to hold Mono Lake water. Despite some serious human and environmental costs, this system was hugely successful and allowed the Golden State to flourish. Other huge water capturing projects followed, capturing, storing and shipping water at Hetch Hetchy, Hoover, Folsom, Shasta and Oroville, among other places.

These public works projects have also wiped away the near annual flooding and the occasional devastating flood in the Sacramento Valley. Gradually, historical memory of California’s great floods disappeared and we have all but forgotten that the state used to be so damp. Sadly, climate change is predicted to make flooding an even more distant memory. Climatologists predict runoff from the Sierra Nevada Mountains will be lower, and the natural deserts in the South will begin to spread into the Central Valley.[1]

[1] Much of this was drawn from notes taken from the History of California, taught by Dr. Michael Magliari at California State University, Chico in 2007.

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