Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed
Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed drew from local, state, and national archives as well as private collections to tell the story of water resource management in California’s Central Valley and Sacramento River Valley in particular. Maps, navigational instruments, letters, photographs, planning documents, and artifacts are presented as historical evidence of civil and environmental engineering as integral to shaping freshwater systems in California.
Politicians and boosters galvanized western expansion, speaking of “manifest destiny”—coined by John O’Sullivan in 1845 in reference to a growing belief that God preordained the American people to occupy as much land on the continent as possible—to galvanize western expansion. by invoking the idea of“manifest destiny,” a term coined by John O’Sullivan in 1845 to refer to a growing belief that God preordained the American settlers to occupy as much land on the continent as possible. Manifest destiny was similarly advocated by William Gilpin, who mythologized the West as a land of infinite promise and promoted the fallacy that “rain follows the plow.”
The history of civil and environmental engineering in the West is a history of exploration and discovery; success and failure; effort and protest. Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed explores this history, following the origin, development, and ongoing management of major water infrastructure works in the Sacramento River Valley and beyond to describe the ways that water infrastructure has transformed the landscape. Early engineering activity is characterized by evaluation for valuation, as surveyors and engineers made maps and located valuable gold, water, and other resources for human exploitation. At this stage, little explicit attention was paid to the environmental and social consequences of terraforming--such as disruption of river ecosystems and displacement of indigenous cultures--through processes like water conveyance for hydraulic mining and irrigated agriculture.
Major John Wesley Powell advocated for a slower and more scientific approach to development in the West, predicated on his experience with the arid region and its indigenous peoples. But Powell’s admonition to manage the West in accordance with its water resource constraints was not widely heeded. The engineering community instead matured through the 1950s by building large, growth-oriented water infrastructure like the Central Valley Project (CVP). The professionalization of civil engineering is visible not only in the number of works built in the early- to mid-twentieth century, but also in the increasingly scientific approach to design and testing characterized by expert control and opinions with a tendency to view environmental rhythms as obstacles.
The social and environmental turn of the 1970s prompted a major shift in the engineering profession through both internal and external channels, including new legal requirements and increased public participation. Stanford’s Civil Engineering Department, now Civil and Environmental Engineering, hired a wave of environmentally focused faculty starting in the 1970s. Today civil and environmental engineering projects, like groundwater geophysics and wetland restoration are increasingly embedded in social and environmental contexts, working with and for environmental rhythms. And the field continues to develop in the face of challenges like climate change. Responsible water management is a challenge that no single discipline can meet alone.
Opening the Frontier
America’s Westward Expansion into Gold Country
Just weeks after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, news of the discovery of gold in Sacramento Valley spread, spurring the largest wave of westward migration in American history. The U.S. government had begun its reconnaissance of the far western territories decades earlier. Wilkes’ United States Exploring Expedition (1835–1842) showed a good understanding of California’s coast and some waterways, but little respect for the humanity of indigenous peoples in the region. The expedition’s Map of Upper California reported that, amid the great sandy plain, “A few Indians are scattered…the most miserable objects in creation.” Such attitudes led to decades of racism and violence against California Indians during the Gold Rush and afterwards.
The Maidu, who are native to Sacramento Valley and the north-central Sierra Nevada, are an immensely diverse people with social and political orders that differ from locality to locality. This diversity is, in part, a response to the environment. In gathering materials used for coiled basketry and ceremonial dress from riverine plants, animals, and birds in the surrounding area, for example, the Maidu have developed deep knowledge of the surrounding ecology.
As engineers arrived to California to support resource extraction, rivers in Sacramento Valley and the Sierra Nevada became targets for hydraulic mining: a process that uses directed water pressure to rapidly erode rock material to expose gold and other mineral resources.
Mapping the Arid Region
John Wesley Powell Argues for Science and Slow Development
The completion of the transcontinental railroads, built in the decades after the American Civil War (1865–1890), brought millions more people and their water needs to the western United States. Major John Wesley Powell is a significant historical figure from this period. Despite losing his right arm in the Civil War, he became famous for running a lightweight flat-bottomed wooden boat down the Colorado River on a geographic survey expedition through the Grand Canyon in 1869. Embellishing his memories of that experience, he garnered support for a second expedition down the Colorado River in 1871 and solidified his reputation as a capable and charismatic explorer of the West.
Powell became knowledgeable of the geology, climate, and indigenous cultures of the Rocky Mountain region on his survey expeditions in the 1870s. He was recognized for his good rapport with tribes in the area. The Paiutes called him Kapurats (“He who is missing an arm”) and when Congress founded the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, in 1879, they named him its Director. He was also named Director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1881. And in both roles, Powell promoted basic scientific research as a government responsibility. In his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878), he argued that science and slow development were especially critical to the future of water in the West, later advocating for local self-government by hydrographic basins as fundamental to its prosperity. But Congress resisted a course of development supported by science and democratic principles, prompting Powell to resign as Director of the Geological Survey in 1894.
The Central Valley Project
A Comprehensive Water Supply and Flood Control System
In response to the rapid influx of people to California in the late 1800s, state surveyors and engineers began developing proposals for a comprehensive water supply and flood control system in the Great Central Valley. William Hammond Hall, who served as California’s first state engineer from 1878–1888, conducted an official study of the conditions of the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Tulare, and Kern Valleys and the bordering foothills. Like Powell, Hall faced numerous obstacles to developing practical and legal solutions, including competing interests in agriculture and mining. The economic potential of California agriculture became evident by the turn of the twentieth century, pending an ambitious plan to transform one million acres of swamp land into fertile plains of alluvial soil, turning the threat of catastrophic floods into a controlled asset for greater wealth.
The Central Valley Project (CVP) was initially conceived as a State project. But in the 1930s, the federal government intervened to instead develop the CVP as a public works program for Americans affected by the Great Depression. Reclamation of land for water development projects in the West had begun in 1902 with the founding of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The federal agency would supervise the building of a vast water storage and transport system that now comprises twenty dams and reservoirs as well as canals and other built infrastructure that irrigates approximately three million acres, produces over two thousand megawatts of hydropower, supplies cities with municipal water, and protects many Californians from the havoc of floods.
Folsom Dam on the American River
A Case Study in Design and Construction
Folsom Dam is one of the Central Valley Project (CVP) dams, built at the juncture of the north and south forks of the American River, which runs from the Sierra Nevada to its confluence with the Sacramento River in Sacramento Valley. Proposed in 1944 and authorized by the Flood Control Act that same year, the dam was built between 1949 and 1955, opening for use in 1956. Folsom Dam is a notable CVP case study because both major federal agencies involved in dam building, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, contributed to its design and construction.
Folsom Dam combines proactive and reactive design. To prevent downstream flooding, the dam proactively retains water in a reservoir during high rainfall events. Operators can control its release to enable year-round irrigated agriculture and supply drinking water. The reactive design, on the other hand, restrains the ongoing flow of debris from mining operations in the Gold Rush era at the base of the reservoir. One of the nation’s first environmental laws, passed in 1899, was a ban on hydraulic mining.
Despite an appraisal of archaeological resources at the Folsom Dam site that cited A.L. Kroeber’s Handbook of Indians of California (1925) in reporting that, “the reservoir area occupies what was formerly an important segment of Southern Maidu territory,” the government seized the land and inundated sacred indigenous sites. The National Historic Preservation Act, passed in 1966, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, now require that federal agencies evaluate their actions in light of such knowledge.
Construction of Folsom Dam began in 1949 and was completed in 1955. Records relating to Civil Works Projects of the Sacramento District, Record Group 77; National Archives at San Francisco, San Bruno, CA. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Foundation Report, Folsom Project, American River, California, 20 September 1954.
Folsom Dam on the American River
Testing and Establishing the Safety of Materials
Dams and reservoirs change the conditions of surrounding landscapes in both expected and unexpected ways. Engineering professionals use empirical data based on measurements, experiments, and scenario analysis to anticipate and mitigate potential risks. Concrete is a composite of coarse aggregate and fluid cement that advanced as a major structural material for dams and other large-scale infrastructure in the 1900s. The Grand Coulee Dam and Hoover Dam, completed in 1936, were the first large concrete dams. Folsom Dam is modeled after the Grand Coulee. Both are concrete gravity dams that utilize their own weight to hold back the waters of the American River and Columbia River respectively. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers required testing to evaluate the structural integrity of specific combinations of materials that would be used at the Folsom Dam site.
The U.S. Army Corps also studied the spillway for Folsom Dam, which is controlled by eight gates, prior to authorizing its construction. Their aim was to choose between two different types of energy dissipaters to be used at the toe of the spillway: a flip-bucket that deflects water upwards to induce disintegration in the air or a conventional stilling basin that is carved deep in the river channel to reduce the turbulence of the flow. Tests showed the flip-bucket type was adequately safe for the dam itself, but engineers adopted the stilling basin to afford greater safety to the powerhouse and reduce maintenance costs. Ongoing research on floods led to construction of a new spillway at Folsom Dam completed in October 2017.
The Social and Environmental Turn
Satellites, Geospatial Data, and an Involved Public
In the 1970s, civil engineers began to question the guiding tenets of their profession, concurrent with a broader turn toward social and environmental consciousness in the United States. During the 20-hour lunar orbit of the Apollo 8 mission on Christmas Eve in 1968, American astronauts became the first humans to photograph an “Earthrise.” This image of an isolated and fragile planet motivated the federal government, under pressure from the environmental movement, to pass new legislation protecting air, water, and endangered species.
Assemblywoman Pauline Davis, dubbed California’s “First Lady of Water,” was an early advocate of fish and wildlife enhancements in planning State Water Project facilities under Governor Pat Brown in the 1960s. When Jerry Brown became Governor in 1975, he too championed an environmental approach to public water projects, spearheading The California Water Atlas (1979) as a means to distribute satellite imagery and geospatial data and involve the whole of California in managing its water. Governor Jerry Brown also contributed to advancements in social justice by supporting organizations like the United Farm Workers, which Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta founded in the Central Valley to organize and advocate for agricultural workers’ rights. Grassroots activism continued in California through the 1980s with a notable campaign by the Sierra Club protesting Auburn Dam on the North Fork of the American River, upstream from Folsom. The collapse of Auburn cofferdam during a winter storm in 1986 drew further attention to the issue, but construction ultimately halted due to seismic evaluations of the dam site.
New Surveys of Freshwater Depletion and Saltwater Intrusion
Today civil engineers recognize ecosystem sustainability in addition to water provisioning and human safety as part of their profession. The field is increasingly styled as Civil and Environmental Engineering. Moreover, mapping that historically focused on surface water increasingly incorporates groundwater as a vital area of study. Groundwater depletion is a serious problem in California, where groundwater serves as the sole source of water for many communities and a critical reservoir during times of drought. This supply problem is amplified by ground levels that are sinking as empty pore spaces previously filled by groundwater collapse. Surface subsidence in the Central Valley is damaging infrastructure, including canals needed to transport surface water to farms and cities.
New geophysical survey instruments are raising awareness of this invisible drought. GRACE (the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, a joint U.S.-German satellite mission) monitors variations in groundwater from outer space on decadal time scales. Stanford geophysics professor Rosemary Knight and Adam Pidlisecky from the University of Calgary have led a team to investigate a method called electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) to calculate the salinity of groundwater along California’s coast where saltwater intrusion can contaminate aquifers.
New legislation is also raising awareness of California’s vital freshwater aquifers. In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed a three-bill package collectively known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which nods to Major John Wesley Powell’s earlier insight that management may be best accomplished locally.
What is the Future of Wetlands?
Restoration and Adaptation for Climate Change
The Sacramento Valley is a floodplain where a hundred-mile long inland sea used to form regularly during the rainy season. Historian Robert Kelley has chronicled human influences and alterations to the Valley since the 1850s. Battling the Inland Sea looks back at the interplay of American political culture and reclamation policy leading to its transformation from a seasonal floodplain with a mosaic of habitat types including wetlands, riparian, upland, and pond areas into an intensive irrigation economy with dams, canals, levees, and drains.
Maps of the San Francisco Bay region from the early 1900s show the wetlands were still relatively undeveloped. Enthusiasm for filling and altering the shoreline reached its zenith in the postwar era with civil engineering projects like the Reber Plan (1945), which proposed to dam San Francisco and San Pablo Bay to prevent saltwater from intruding on the farmlands of the Central Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Scenario planning at the Bay Model in Sausalito discredited that plan. But the region lost an estimated 85% of its historic wetlands in the twentieth century.
New maps of sea level rise by state planning and regulatory agencies such as the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) show that climate change may inundate and “restore” the tidal marsh habitat. State agencies and grassroots organizations increasingly focus on adaptive measures that combine long-term human interests with ecosystem sustainability. California’s Tribal Consultation Policy, issued in 2011, also ensures that state agencies will engage indigenous communities in management of the State’s natural, historical, and cultural resources for current and future generations.
Water at Stanford University
Surveys and Acquisitions in the San Francisquito Watershed
Stanford archaeologists have excavated several areas of the San Francisquito Creek watershed occupied by the ancestors of the Muwekma Ohlone and other local Ohlone groups more than 5,000 years ago. Permanent year-round villages were widespread in the region by 2,000 years ago, with evidence of extensive resource management including the use of fire to clear brush, encourage the growth of seed-bearing plants, and improve forage for game animals. The arrival of Spanish soldiers and missionaries in the late eighteenth century disrupted these communities, and the closing of mission properties after the United States took control of California in 1846 scattered the remaining descendants into "rancheria" settlements.
In the 1850s, American pioneers established a small lumber town called Searsville adjacent to Corte Madera, Alambique, and Dennis Martin Creeks, which at their confluence become San Francisquito Creek. But the economy slowed in the 1870s after lumbermen cut the majority of redwoods in the surrounding area. Local water companies subsequently turned their attention to upper San Francisquito Creek and began acquiring tracts of land to construct a dam and reservoir as well as water mains, pipes, and aqueducts that could store and transport the waters of its tributaries for other purposes. An 1889 contract signed by Spring Valley Water Company, Leland and Jane Stanford, and the Manzanita Water Company controlled by the Stanfords details their early negotiations over water rights. They agreed that Spring Valley Water Company would build and operate the dam, and supply the University with 344 million gallons of water per year, its entire original capacity.
Water at Stanford University
Design and Construction of Searsville Dam
Spring Valley Water Company (SVWC) was one of the most powerful water monopolies in California until 1930 when the City of San Francisco purchased and transformed the company into a public agency. In the 1860s, under the leadership of Swiss engineer Hermann Schussler, SVWC took control of San Francisco’s water supply and then expanded into the watersheds of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. The 1889 contract with the Stanfords and Manzanita Water Company granted them the right to construct a dam on San Francisquito Creek.
Schussler modeled the interlocking concrete block construction of Searsville Dam after Crystal Springs Dam, which captured the waters of San Mateo Creek. The dam was completed in 1890 and reported to be the world’s largest concrete dam at the time. Schussler was unaware that an 800-mile fault line ran directly beneath the Crystal Springs Reservoir, but the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake did no damage to the 150 foot-tall structure. Workers finished construction of Searsville Dam in 1892, and a recent study reports the dam is also in sound structural condition. It performed well in both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes. But accumulating sediment carried by its tributary creeks has substantially reduced its storage capacity.
Stanford University purchased Searsville Dam in 1919 and allowed leaseholders to manage the reservoir area as a recreational lake until 1975, when the Board of Trustees designated the area Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Recent studies have addressed complex issues surrounding the long-term future of Searsville ranging from sediment management to flood protection and habitat conservation.