Fables of the Central Valley

The sign reads, " San Joaquin Valley California Subsidence, 3M 1925 - 1977."

A faculty member in the Division of Science & Environmental Policy at CSU Monterey Bay, Marc Los Huetos teaches a wide range of courses including Aquatic Ecology and Environmental Monitoring. In his research, Los Huertos works with farmers and resource agencies in the region to study nitrogen biogeochemistry and algae in freshwater systems. Los Huertos has recently become partners with several agencies to develop an integrated management plan for Pinto Lake, Watsonville, CA.

Recently, we began to chat over the Internet about the subsidence of the California's Central Valley. We ended up at the confluence of history, culture and science, discussing the cultural divide at the heart of the battle over California's Water.

- Enid Baxter Ryce, co – editor, Water, CA

"This land is your land, this land is my land From California to the New York Island From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters This land was made for you and me." - Woody Guthrie, 1944

Photos: Jenny Stark

Enid Baxter Ryce The land is sinking in the California's Central Valley?

Marc Los Huertos Yes, it is... perhaps we have sucked it dry?  

California is a strange place, mountain building in the Sierra Nevada, sediments from the gold mining almost 2 centuries ago, coastal erosion, active tectonic activity, drained wetlands, and deep aquifers. The modifications to the landscape are both provocative and hidden.

Who in the central valley pays much attention to the subsidence (i.e. the sinking of the land)?  There are the normal government officials and some left-wing environmentalists.  Yet, the changes in the central valley are will not go unnoticed as the effects of sea level show themselves.

EBB Aquifers are glacial water, correct? They are non-replenish-able, like oil fields? I imagine them as mysterious underground lakes…

MLH Underground lakes are not the best analogy.

Better is to think about a complex mix of rocks, sands, silts, and clays where water can accumulate in the spaces between the particles.

Many areas are replenish-able, but the time frame is long... thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years!

 Unfortunately, in spite of our dependence on these waters, we don't know much about them. To put it differently - we might know a fair amount about a place, but one mile away from it, we know nothing.  Thinking about how to manage these systems is tough when our understanding doesn't match the scale of what we need to manage.

EBB In 1860, The Climatology Theory, "Rain Follows the Plow, took hold, convincing Americans that the activity of agriculture will increase rainfall levels in the arid West.

It was supported by figures like Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, Samuel Aughey, and Charles Dana Wilbur who wrote:

"God speed the plow.... By this wonderful provision, which is only man's mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains ... [the plow] is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts a desert into a farm or garden.... To be more concise, Rain follows the plow." ("Rain Follows the Plow – Episode Seven 1877-1887, The West Film Project, 2001)

Photos: Jenny Stark

In 1890, during the Indian Wars, Edwards Powers published a popular book, War and the Weather. In it, Powers explains that the ongoing Indian Wars are changing the climate of the American West. The noise of violence and genocide is increasing moisture, encouraging further colonization.

In 1904 Charles Hatfield, Rainmaker, was said to have successfully conjured a storm in San Diego. Water remains magical in Californian's consciousness.

This belief that mankind's activities can determine climate – this magical thinking – does it persist in the West?

MLH I like to think about the great conflict between two perspectives on human progress. The optimists are convinced that god or fate or something is going to ensure everything works out, in spite of - or rather- because of - human behavior.  Pessimists are more nostalgic, and see that the world has declined. They believe that continuing on our current path will lead to some kind of disaster. I think the real battle for the American west is between these perspectives.

The optimists are angry with the pessimists because of the failure to appreciate human ingenuity, progress and the wealth created by exploiting the earth. The pessimists are angry because wealth does not compensate (at least for them) environmental loss.

These optimists would not subscribe to a belief on magic per se, but given their unquestionable faith in the human endeavor, I think magic describes it well. Of course, I must admit the construction of this contrast is artificial and contrived. Few are so extreme as to not have conflicting thoughts.
 The magical thinking collides with the nostalgic, creating strange bed fellows. For example Ducks Unlimited and wetland conservation in the SF Bay delta, Stripped base fisherman and proponents of the delta smelt. I think these alignments undermine the magical thinking of optimism, but instead reflect what kind of nature we desire. It seems much more sophisticated than the "water follows the plow."

EBB In 1941, the federal government hired folk singer Woody Guthrie to help
them gain support for construction of dams on the Columbia. Guthrie spent a month in the Columbia Basin and wrote 26 songs. "Roll on, Columbia, became the signature song to rally support for the federal government's Columbia Basin Project. He was paid $266.66 for his talent. At this point in time Guthrie was relatively unknown. His career was boosted by his Columbia River songs and he later became famous. In 1987, "Roll on, Columbia" became the official song of the state of Washington. (Reisner, 1986)

Photos: Jenny Stark

There is a tradition in American Roots Music, of exalting Death, or longing for the afterlife as a relief from the suffering of this world. For contemporary Dispentiationalists, the Rapture represents the moment of release, reward, and also comuppance (to those who have marginalized the righteous).

Many Dispensationalists interpret the book of Numbers, which describes man's domininian over the earth, as a directive for man to be separate from nature. Some believe that once Nature is exhausted, Christ returns.

Some feel this was a guiding principle of the last administration, and of many contemporary 'wise use' groups...

MLH Sigh...yes, I have battled this ideology most of my adult life.

There have always been segments of Christians who withdraw from making the world a better place to live. I don't find much evidence for that as a moral imperative from the teachings of Jesus, but there are more interpretations of these teachings than ... grains of sand on the beach or hairs on my head, pick one!  :-)

Every generation has claimed the end times are upon us, and each in their own idiosyncratic way decided to behave appropriately for that outcome. In hindsight, they appear pretty naive and views are in disrepute. However, it is my fear that some day, some one will have the power to convince enough people that the end is upon us, people will behave that way and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I can't pretend to understand the previous administration and what they considered to be rational decisions. In part because the "wise use" movement and dispensationalist have so combined with the anti-regulatory wings of conservative thought so I have trouble distinguishing between them. Has one cooped the other or are they really part of the same in a way that I haven't appreciated it in the past?

Thus, for me the W. Bush administration was a strange mix of disparate values that were able to link an anti-intellectual, anti-science, when it suited economic growth (for certain sectors) that also seemed designed to accelerate nature's demise.

Is this an answer?  Probably not, but I don't know if I can peek much deeper into the Bush mind. For there are anomalies that defy this interpretation. He created the largest marine sanctuary in the country, surrounding the Hawaiian Islands.  This seems to contradict a strict dispensationalist agenda.

Photos: Jenny Stark

EBB The meanings of these words has changed:

Conservation (c. 1800): To ensure that not a drop of water reaches the ocean without being put to human use.

Reclamation (c. 1800): To reclaim the rich topsoil submerged under lakes and other bodies for human use, and to harness water for irrigation and development.

And we've been talking about the Wise Use movement. How has the term ‘Wise Use' been reappropriated? By whom? To what end?

MLH The funny thing about re appropriation is that is can be undone pretty easily.  I actually don't find the term very hard to work with.

Sustainability has dozens or (hundreds?) of meanings, so there is no productive conversation to be had about sustainability without first defining the parameters--for who, how long, under what circumstances, what are the measures? etc.

I think it is more fun to redefine the term out from under the conservative movement, who have decided the word means. (i.e. private property rights, limited government involvement, stewardship of the land air and water for human benefit)

Extract with abandon.  I have to think they know their term is a vulnerable one and to hold too tightly to definition would weaken their position.

EBB  The lost (perhaps suppressed) verse of Guthrie's most famous song, This Land is Your Land, (1941) is:

"There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me; Sign was painted, it said private property; But on the back side it didn't say nothing; This land was made for you and me."

Can you describe the conflict between Wise Use advocates and environmentalists over the interpretation of public land and private property?

MLH Again, desire that public land to be used for extractive purposes is hardly new. But couching it in this term, "Wise Use, "is very problematic.

Similarly, when some environmentalists talk about conservation of public lands, they might be suggesting conserving land so I can go there and use it for recreation.

 I think the real issue is between the urban cores versus the rural perimeters. When resources are used to support the core, those at the perimeter want to hold on to the scraps. Their fights for power and control over their lands puts them in a conflict with the engorged and growing metropolis.

The rural, small, libertarian David fights the arch-enemy: the Democratic mephisto, who comes to rob. The only compensation to the communities on the perimeter are visits from un-invested recreationalists. They backpack, take pictures, and leave only their excrement behind.  

I think the frustration and the loss of power and control in rural America defines these conflicts.

Photos: Jenny Stark

EBB Another lost verse of the song:

"In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple; By the relief office, I'd seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?" (Guthrie, 1941)

Many feel that their livelihoods, towns, histories and dreams are being compromised for a fish called a Smelt. The pain of the loss of this water is deep and devastating. The promise of dominion over the land and unfettered plowing of the West is broken. What can happen next?

MLH This makes me pause and take big sigh, because I don't know. The planet's size has shrunk, highlighting the need to conserve species. This endeavor stems in part from a judeo-christian tradition- (Yo, Noah spent time finding a bunch of animals to protect!) but is in direct conflict with our economic goals.

There is a devious personification of these animals  They take livelihoods away from hard-working Americans.  Delta smelta, snail darter, red legged frog... become the enemy of rural Americans and their progress toward the promise of the American Deam. These animals deny them access to the traditions of land and water exploitations appear to have the wealth and power.  

Yes, the demonizing of the delta smelt allows these arguments to continue, distracting and dividing what could be natural allies. It is my view, that under the correct circumstances, the conflict could resolve itself.

This would require Americans to look carefully the role of class -- even if this sounds like reified marxist thought. And, the stakeholders on both sides must quit yelling at each other (claiming that it is the other side that is the problem) and listen to each other.

Those who is not in the room, the voiceless and obscured, are the ones who most need to be included. 

- February 10, 2010

Image Sources

‘Woody Guthrie by Charles Banks Wilson' Art of the Oklahoma State Capitol. http://www.arts.ok.gov/capitolart/permart/paintings/wilson/guthrie.html

‘Congress Created Dust Bowl, CA'

‘Poverty and Hunger in America.'


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