The California Water Atlas
Battling the Inland Sea: American Political Culture, Public Policy, and the Sacramento Valley, 1850–1986
A Companion to California
The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland
California, From the Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee in San Francisco: A Study in American Character
Josiah Royce: From Grass Valley to Harvard (1992)
Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915
Politics of Land: Ralph Nader's Study Group Report on Land Use in California
Up & Down California, 1860–-1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer
The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats: A Study in Ruling-Class Cohesiveness
The Greatest Men's Party on Earth: Inside the Bohemian Grove
Impact of Defense Cuts on California
A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up. The Sacramento River, the main source of surface water in a state where distrust of centralized governmental authority has historically passed for an ethic, has its headwaters in the far northern ranges of Siskiyou Country. It picks up the waters of the McCloud and the Pit rivers above Redding, of the Feather and the Yuba and the Bear below Knight’s Landing, of the American at Sacramento, of the San Joaquin below Steamboat Slough, and empties through San Francisco Bay into the Pacific, draining the deep snow-packs of the southern Cascades and the northern Sierra Nevada. “The river here is about 400 yards wide,” one of my great-grandfathers wrote in the journal of his arrival in Sacramento in August of 1850.
The tide raises the water about two ft. and steamboats and vessels are here daily. From this place to San Francisco is about 150 miles by water. All of this distance the river has low banks and is subject to inundation for several miles back.
That the land for which he had four months before left his wife and two children was “subject to inundation” seems not to have presented itself as an argument against immediate settlement. Yet this was a river regularly and predictably given, during all but the driest of those years before its flow was controlled or rearranged, to turning its valley into a shallow freshwater sea a hundred miles long and as wide as the distance between the coast ranges and the Sierra Nevada: a pattern of flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers declared in 1927, more intense and intractable than that on any other American river system including the Mississippi.
The creation of the entirely artificial environment that is now the Sacramento Valley was not achieved at one stroke, nor is it complete to this day. This remains a war, for those waging it, in which no armament can be too costly, no strategy too quixotic. There are, according to The California Water Atlas, 980 miles of levee, 438 miles of canal. There are fifty miles of collecting canals and seepage ditches. There are three drainage pumping plants, five low-water check dams, thirty-one bridges, ninety-one gauging stations, and eight automatic shortwave-radio water-stage transmitters. There are seven weirs opening onto seven bypasses covering 101,000 acres. There are not just the big headwater dams, Shasta on the Sacramento and Folsom on the American and Oroville on the Feather, but all their predecessors and collateral dams, their afterbays and forebays and diversions. The cost of controlling or rearranging the Sacramento, which was to say the “reclamation” of the Sacramento Valley, was largely borne, like the cost of controlling or rearranging many other inconvenient features of California life, by the federal government.
The extreme reliance of California on federal money, so seemingly at odds with the emphasis on unfettered individualism that constitutes the local core belief, was a pattern set early…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.