A Bit of History; Levees, Water, and the 49ers, OK Mark Twain too.

Mark Twain

The Diablo Range of mountains is due West from the waterside porch across the valley; of which I do not know the name of. Along the base of the foothills is a distinctive line, it marks the edge of the ancient inland sea stretching from the Cartenize Straight South to the Tejon pass (Grapevine) 400 + miles. I spend a considerable amount of time here; how much depends upon how I am feeling, some mornings from 6 am until noon; others just long enough to gulp down some coffee. Wednesdays I find myself spending more time studying the landscape, yesterday was one of those days. I’ve paid attention to that beachlike border many times over the years, wondering when the sea emptied into the ocean.

Searching for information my attention was grabbed when I noticed a publication explaining how the Levee system was constructed. The book being referenced ” Battling the Inland Sea: Floods, Public Policy, and the Sacramento Valley by Robert Kelley ” was paraphrased into a 45-page book report. I will order the paperback, normally I read the e-version but when the book deals with the water systems I may need to reference it.

It begins prior to the 1849 California Gold Rush when hydraulic mining was first introduced; continuing until the 1950s. Although it was a short paper a lot of history was covered making me recall Mark Twain’s quote “Whiskey is made for drinking, Water is made for fighting.” And fight they did, not only in the saloons but they weaponized the Levee systems.

The entire attitude towards public lands is astounding, underlining how Politics and the views about protecting natural resources have evolved or not so much. Landowners were no more concerned with their downstream neighbors then the man in the moon, whatever they dumped in the river system was no longer their problem. The miners with their hydraulic rigs believed in that philosophy wholeheartedly blasting away the landscape with high-pressure water in tens of thousands of gallons per minute, often eroding entire mountains.

Tailings were sent downstream raising the bed of the rivers sometimes as high as 20 feet with one guarantee, every bit of land downstream would flood. The River Beds no longer existed, the water flowed freely causing a seasonal lake 20 miles wide and 100 miles long. Sacramento was only one of many cities continually inundated.

The situation was exasperated by several factors; It was a rural area with a small population every farmer had a different idea of how a levee should be built, most consisted of whatever material was laying around. In this part of the country, most of the building material was peat built up over eons when the Tule Reeds decomposed in what was almost entirely swampland. Enabling their land to drain then dry out enough to plant crops they would estimate how high to construct the berms. Meanwhile, on the other side of the River, it multiplied the water flooding that farmers field. So the affected farmer would build a Levee of his own, several feet higher and much longer than the one on the far side. The higher Levee would place pressure on the lower one causing it to either fail or the water to flow over the top eroding the earthen dike. That, in turn, would cause that affected farmer to form a small army bearing explosives, shovels, and picks to destroy his neighbors’ protection. Meanwhile, the bed of the Rivers continued to rise.

With righteous indignity the miners’ attitude was “too bad for you”, they felt they had a God-given right to exploit the mountains for personal gain. Compounding that belief the court system backed them up, all of the way up to the Supreme Court. The reasoning was that the Government had no right to dictate what a property owner did with their land, or how their actions affected anyone. The streambeds continued to fill, and the mish-mash of Levees continued to reach higher.

Adding to the situation was everyone involved had an opinion worth fighting for. They fought Civil Engineering because those book-learned know it alls had no idea what they had to contend within the “real world”. They discouraged the farm children from being educated as there was no need for it, everything they needed to know could be learned on the farm.

See there? We can just go over to that side and knock it down, that’ll teach em’ We’ll put the dynamite right there.

Others refused to contain the seasonal floodwaters, or the increased flow from the mines, in a way they had a point, the silt deposited each year was the best fertilizer anyone could want, they were against the Levee system. The Politicians remained on the sidelines, refusing to act, but that was soon to change.

Arkstorm, (Link) the great deluge of 1861-1862 nearly the entire West Coast flooded, from Southern Idaho, much of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern Oregon. The Central Valley of California was 30 feet underwater, it took six months to drain, still, it didn’t sink in, the miners did not take a break. They took advantage of the increased flow sending more tailings downstream raising the river beds even higher. These people did not listen to anyone especially the Native Americans when they told the settlers every 5 years a major amount of rain fell. Finally, in the 1870s after several more major floods, none compared however to Arkstorm; the loosely knit water districts started to agree something must be done. Civil Engineers were enlisted to standardize the Levee systems.

The cross-country Railroad had been completed being compromised by the regular flooding they were the new players and started to demand action. The roadbed was Engineered after a datum was established, it wasn’t mentioned where however I suspect it was on top of Mount Diablo, it remains so today. From Redding to Bakersfield all surveys’ refer to the Diablo Datum, every home, farm, and factory are in reference to it; I am able to see it from my back porch.

The Civil Engineers standardized the construction of the Levee system, the State, on the other hand, could not afford to build them.

One thing Politicians are good at is gathering money from everyone else, this monumental construction project would be no different. It was decreed that each farmer would be responsible to pay for and build Levees around their property, some had to pay millions of dollars. To add to their grief it would have to be built according to the Civil Engineering plans, needless to say, that did not play well in the small water districts.

Some of these buildings still stand in Old Sacramento, twenty feet higher.

That is a situation that exists to this day on our Island, that 50 feet of Levee I look over every day is my responsibility, we pay annual taxes to maintain it. Combined the residents through our Water District subsidized by the State do a good job keeping it up to snuff. From my perspective, it’s easy to understand why the farmers were upset about the majority of the system paid for on their Nickel. The reason is understandable, the entire State benefits from the water that is controlled by my Levee if it fails it affects the water supply from Oroville to San Diego. Everyone should pay to ensure that their water supply is safe, it’s still a huge political and social mess. everyone wants more water, the politicians are always fiddling with it.

Enter Mulholland in the early 20th century, he’s the guy that wanted to take thousands of photographs of Yosemite then Dam it Up! He succeeded with the Hetch-Hetchy Dam to supply water to San Francisco which is still working today. He built the California Aqueduct, supposedly to send our excess water South to the desert known as Los Angelos. That environmental disaster area has stolen water from every place in the West devasting thriving areas; Owens Lake is merely one. In the South he is a hero in the North he is a Pariah, John Meir had major issues with him as one can imagine.

I added that last paragraph to demonstrate how the feelings and attitudes of 150 years ago prevail to this day. Some have tried to turn it into a political issue, however, if there is one thing Californians rally around is their water and No Body is going to move it around. We are still fighting over it, two conveyance tunnels each 30-foot diameter were proposed 8 years ago by Governor Brown, fought vigorously finally when he could no longer run for another term the new Governor Gavin Newsome brought an end to the battle. Now however the new plan is to build One 30 foot tunnel, the battle has been renewed, it would be funny if it wasn’t so dang frustrating. I live in the middle of that war and have been fighting since the 1970s, my kids will continue to fight then my grandkids, I will still be here long after my demise.

That’s how the water war goes, it will never end, for me, it’s fascinating to study about providing an endless source for articles and blogs, as in the Olden Times, everyone and I mean everyone has an opinion and we all feel it’s worth fighting for. Unknown to most the 100th meridian is the beginning of our water woes, that’s in the middle of North Dakota running South through Texas; it affects the entire country.

After all “Whiskey is made for drinking, and water is made for fighting.” to that, I say “Amen.”

Jacques Lebec Natural Self Reliance

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