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Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed

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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.

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Engineer’s mining transit manufactured by Heller & Brightly c. 1884–1885 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This instrument is designed for underground mine surveying of vertical shafts, stopes, winzes, and rises. It was stored in a carrying case when not in use. On loan from the collection of Dennis K. Bird and Peggy A. O’Day.

Opening the Frontier

America’s Westward Expansion into Gold Country

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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.

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This Maidu basket with centipede design was made c. 1900 using willow and redbud. Differences in coiling techniques and materials are often based upon regional variations of autonomous Maidu villages in the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada. Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, 1996.225. Gift of the Franklyn and Evelyn Clerk Trust; obtained from the Mary Starkey Family, Auburn, CA.
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This photograph from the 1880s shows Maidu dancers dressed for the Earth Renewal Ceremony, still performed today by tribal members in the Sacramento Valley. In reflecting on this photograph, with her great grandfather in the center, Diana Almendariz says it “expresses the abundance of the wetlands. The skirts are made from tule, cattail and cottonwood fibers. The bighead headdress is made from tule and the feather fluffs are of snow goose feathers. Dance outfits…are a reflection of the environment, and how many animals were there.” Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California, and the Oakland Museum of California.
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Extensive gold deposits formed in the Sierra Nevada Foothill Metamorphic Belt (Mother Lode Region) between 150 and 120 million years ago. American prospectors in the mid-1800s largely depleted the surface placer deposits concentrated in the gravel of California’s rivers and streams, but underground mining continues. These gold quartz vein specimens come from the Harvard Mine, Jamestown, CA. On loan from the collection of Dennis K. Bird and Peggy A. O’Day.
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Map of Upper California by Charles Wilkes and the United States Exploring Expedition (1838—1842) published in Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, Vol. 5 (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1845). Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, Stanford University Libraries.
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Map of the Valley of the Sacramento including the Gold Region traced from the map of John Bidwell by Thomas Larkin Esq: late Consul of the U.S. for California; and by him stated to be the best for reference in California (Boston: T. Wiley Jr., 1848). Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, Stanford University Libraries.
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Hydraulic mining, like this operation at Gold Run along the North Fork of the American River, choked streams and riverbeds as Sierra drainages picked-up the disturbed gravel and dirt, and carried it downstream. Valley landowners and farmers turned to lawsuits against mine operators to protect their holdings and farms from debris inundation. Center for Sacramento History, James E. Henley Collection, 1981/149/0158.

Mapping the Arid Region

John Wesley Powell Argues for Science and Slow Development

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Map of the Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Districts published by Powell and the U.S. Geological Survey in the Eleventh Annual Report, Part 2 (1891). Courtesy of Branner Earth Sciences Library, Stanford University Libraries.

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.

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Powell and Chief Taugu overlook the Virgin River in 1873. Native American governments were in some ways similar to that of the United States. Among the Paiutes in Utah and Arizona were fifteen or twenty bands that recognized Taugu, or Coal Creek John, as their principle chief. Courtesy of the National Archives.
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Early typewritten manuscripts of Beyond the Hundredth Meridian by Wallace Stegner, the celebrated writer and environmentalist who founded the Stanford Creative Writing Program and Writing Fellowships, show the trail-and-error process of writing an insightful biography of Powell. Wallace Stegner Papers, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
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Powell received this letter from Professor Theo B. Comstock, Director of the School of Mines at the University of Arizona, at the time of his resignation as Director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1894. Comstock writes, “It would be a glad day for geology when its investigation in the United States should be entirely divorced from political manipulation.” Courtesy of the National Archives.

The Central Valley Project

A Comprehensive Water Supply and Flood Control System

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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.

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Portrait of William Hammond Hall, the first State Engineer of California from 1878–1888. Courtesy of California State Library.
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Folsom Powerhouse predates the Central Valley Project. Built in 1894–1895 on the American River with labor supplied by nearby Folsom Prison, it was one of the first alternating current hydroelectric power stations in the United States. This governing machinery includes a pump that powered a hydraulic aiming system for a nozzle that shot high-speed streams of water on the cups of a turbine that spun electrical generators. Water turbines are still used in dams to generate electric power. Courtesy of Steve Hubbard, Gold Country Images.
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This report to Congress on the development of water and related resources of the Central Valley Basin, transmitted by the U.S. Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Reclamation in August 1949, conveys the prevailing attitude towards development in the West: “Total Use for Greater Wealth.” Courtesy of Robert Crown Law Library, Stanford University Libraries.
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Topographical and Irrigation Map of the Great Central Valley of California by William Hammond Hall (Sacramento: California State Engineering Department, 1887). This was probably issued in conjunction with Hall’s report on irrigation and water supply that was published in 1888. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection.
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Sacramento residents navigate flooding along Donner Way and East Curtis Park Drive in 1934. The city built its first levee to protect itself from the Sacramento and American Rivers in 1850, and lobbied for the Central Valley Project to increase flood protections in the late 1940s even though the Bureau of Reclamation’s Folsom Dam proposal conflicted with the city’s water rights. Center for Sacramento History, Sacramento Bee Collection, SBPM 5535.
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Dense tule marshes, which grew to heights above six feet, had to be drained, mowed, dried, and burned before any plowing and planting could be done in the Central Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Center for Sacramento History, Robert Heringer Collection, 1985/005/0005.

Folsom Dam on the American River

A Case Study in Design and Construction

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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.

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Plans of Folsom Dam, developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in March 1947, position a 1,400-foot long and 340-foot tall concrete gravity dam across the American River with earthfill wing dams extending to high ground on each side in order to complete the closure. 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, Preliminary Definite Project Report, Appendix “A” Design and Cost Estimates, Folsom Project, American River, California, 28 March 1947.
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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

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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.

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Workers at the Folsom Dam site rake gravel for testing prior to construction. 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, Report of Filter Studies on Proposed Borrow Materials, Folsom Project, American River, California, July 1950.
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Soil samples, comprised of coarse and fine river gravel, were collected from several excavation sites near Folsom Dam to be tested as suitable and economical “borrow material” for construction. 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, Report of Filter Studies on Proposed Borrow Materials, Folsom Project, American River, California, July 1950.
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Mud sampled from the riverbed at the Folsom Dam construction site is placed in a compression chamber and subject to measured pressure as part of a study on cofferdam construction carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in August 1951. 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, Experimental Grouting of River Gravels, Folsom Project, American River, California, August 1951.
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The second phase of the study on cofferdam construction carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in August 1951 involved field-testing gravel banks. 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, Experimental Grouting of River Gravels, Folsom Project, American River, California, August 1951.

The Social and Environmental Turn

Satellites, Geospatial Data, and an Involved Public

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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.

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Pauline Davis with fellow Assemblywoman Dorothy Donohue in the mid-1950s. A former telephone operator from Nebraska, Davis became the longest-serving woman in the California Legislature and an effective advocate of local water development as well as fish and wildlife. Courtesy of the private collection of Rodney Davis.
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As a congressional hearing on Auburn Dam was held inside, the Capitol building’s west steps played host to this July 25, 1987 protest. Concerns over the seismic stability of the Auburn site have plagued dam proponents since the August 1, 1976 earthquake at nearby Oroville Dam. Center for Sacramento History, Sacramento Bee Collection, SBPM 4631a.
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The “Earthrise” photograph taken by Apollo 8 crewmember William A. Anders in 1968. Courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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California Governor Jerry Brown and United Farm Workers (UFW) President Cesar Chavez participate in a UFW rally in Salinas on August 11, 1979. Photo courtesy of the Monterey Herald.
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The 250-foot earth-filled cofferdam at the shuttered construction site of Auburn Dam gave way to the rapidly rising North Fork of the American River during the flood of February 1986, as captured by Sacramento Bee photographer Morgan Ong. Center for Sacramento History, Sacramento Bee Collection, Morgan Ong 2-18-1986.
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The California Water Atlas, published in 1979, incorporates satellite photography, geospatial data, and descriptive text for use by professionals as well as the general public. The publication involved many individuals in and outside the government of then Governor Jerry Brown, including William L. Kahrl, William A. Bowen, Stewart Brand, Marlyn L. Shelton, David L. Fuller, Donald A. Ryan, and many others. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, Stanford University Libraries.

Groundwater Geophysics

New Surveys of Freshwater Depletion and Saltwater Intrusion

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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.

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Saltwater intrusion in the upper aquifers in the Salinas River area has moved farther inland since the 1940s. Courtesy of Monterey County Water Resources Agency.
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On September 16, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to strengthen local management and monitoring of groundwater basins most critical to the state’s water needs. Courtesy of Justin Short and the Office of Governor.
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This Science magazine cover from September 26, 2014 features a NASA GRACE satellite image showing cumulative water storage changes from June 2002 to June 2014. Courtesy of Jay S. Famiglietti and Matthew Rodell.
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In 2014 Knight and Pidlisecky led a team to embed metal electrode sensors along the coastline from Aptos down to Monterey to determine the extent of saltwater intrusion into the freshwater aquifer. Running a strong electric current through the cable connecting the electrodes produced a detailed ERT image of the subsurface published in Groundwater (Vol. 54, Issue 2). Courtesy of Rosemary Knight, Adam Pidlisecky, Stacy Geiken, and Eric Johnson.
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Dr. Joseph F. Poland (pictured), a retired Senior Scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, identifies the approximate location of maximum subsidence in the United States in the San Joaquin Valley. Signs on the pole show approximate altitude of land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977. Courtesy of Richard L. Ireland and the U.S. Geological Survey.

What is the Future of Wetlands?

Restoration and Adaptation for Climate Change

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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.

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GIS map of San Francisco and San Pablo Bay, updated by BCDC’s Elizabeth Felter in November 2016, drawing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to visualize 1-6 feet of sea level rise. Courtesy of Elizabeth Felter and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
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Atlas sheet engraved and printed by the U.S. Geological Survey documenting San Francisco and San Pablo Bay areas in 1913–1914. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, Stanford University Libraries.
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The Reber Plan developed by John Reber in the late 1940s proposed to the construction of barriers across San Francisco and San Pablo Bay to create two freshwater lakes. Courtesy of the National Archives.
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Robert Kelley’s Battling the Inland Sea (1989) looks at the ongoing struggle to transform Sacramento Valley from a seasonal inland sea into an intensive irrigation economy with California’s capital city at its center. In this frontispiece, Todd Bimstock and his dog are caught in a small aluminum boat on the Feather River during a winter storm in 1986. Courtesy of Cecil H. Green Library, Stanford University Libraries.
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In the 1990s, a campaign to restore 100,000 acres of marshes, wetlands and sloughs around San Francisco Bay was born, including a marsh area in Redwood City covering 3,000 acres of former wetlands called Bair Island. Courtesy of Save the Bay.
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Grassroots organization Save the Bay formed in the 1960s when about four square-miles of San Francisco Bay were being filled each year. Courtesy of Save the Bay.

Water at Stanford University

Surveys and Acquisitions in the San Francisquito Watershed

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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.

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Contract signed by the Spring Valley Water Company, Leland and Jane Stanford, and the Manzanita Water Company on October 31, 1889. Manzanita Water Company Records, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
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Ancestral Muwekma Ohlone grinding holes in the San Francisquito Watershed. Stanford archaeologists have collaborated closely with the Muwekma Ohlone descendants since the founding of the university in the 1890s. Photo by Sara Kerr.
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View of San Francisquito Creek c. 1852. Stanford Historical Photograph Collection, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
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Plat of an 1876 survey showing D. Hoag property south of Searsville Road, Santa Clara County. Stanford University Map Collection, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Water at Stanford University

Design and Construction of Searsville Dam

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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.

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Map of Stanford University lands c. 1950, including the three dams on Stanford property—Searsville, Felt, and Lagunita—that supply non-potable water to an infrastructure system of pump stations and pipelines for delivery to the campus, mostly by gravity. Stanford University Map Collection, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
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Daybook records of rainfall at Searsville Lake, c. 1905–1913. Spring Valley Water Company Records, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
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Looking west over the concrete walkway above Searsville Dam in 2016. Today the reservoir’s volume is about 10 percent its original capacity and is a hub of academic research at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Photo by Sara Kerr.
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Drawing of Searsville Dam at Stanford University, designed by H. Schussler in 1890 and built in 1892 with modifications by F.C. Herrmann in 1919. Stanford University Map Collection, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
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Aerial view of Searsville Lake in the 1930s. By that time, the reservoir had lost half its original capacity due to accumulating sediment from upstream. Stanford Historical Photograph Collection, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
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The Lietz alidade ruler is a survey instrument typically used with a plane table to sight distant objects and to draw lines of sight. The leather carrying case for this alidade is stamped “Stanford Geol. Survey” indicating that it was once the property of Stanford’s Department of Geological Sciences. Courtesy of Paul Saffo Cartographic Instrument Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University Libraries.