Musings about climate change, water, and society
On Saturday, November 15th, several CCWAS students, along with students in Jay Lund's water management course and Rick Frank's environmental law class, took a tour of the Delta. From seven in the morning until five at night, we drove over bridges, on top of levies, and all around the islands that make up this hydrologic empire. Mountains and water, fog and sun, rural areas and urban-- it can all be found here. The last stop we made before returning to Davis was Locke, a former Chinese worker town where those who built the levees lived. Visiting the town reminded me of how the ecological richness of this estuary reflects and is responsible for the equally rich social history embedded in the landscape.
As Rick Frank explained, in the comparatively “unenlightened” social world of the later nineteenth century, white men may have capitalized reclamation efforts and owned the land in the Delta, but it was Chinese gang laborers who actually completed the work. Thereafter and until the Great Depression of the 1930s, Delta farms produced high-value specialty crops such as asparagus, potatoes, and sugar beets, which were planted, pruned, picked, and canned by Chinese, then Japanese, and then Filipino workers. Each successive group of people came to fill the labor void left by restrictive immigration laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the United States.
In addition, prevailing racial ideologies of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries viewed people coming from Asia as naturally suited for the “exacting” stoop labor required of “inferior” truck crops. Such work was too menial for white people and did not suit their bodies, went the thinking of the day. This should give us pause and force us to think about how the terms “nature” and “natural” were used and how those meanings have changed over time1.
“Nature” meant something very different to nineteenth-century Americans than it does to us today. Not only were there “natural” racial hierarchies, but the non-human world was imbued with symbolism and meaning foreign to our own thinking. The businessmen and farmers who sought to “improve” the malarial wetlands in the Delta and Central Valley believed they were “finishing nature” and fulfilling God's plan on earth by bringing order to a chaotic landscape. Federal and state laws supported them. Their actions consisted of a subset of the human species altering a landscape to meet material wants and needs. Was their work unnatural?
On Saturday we saw a different arrangement of water, soils, plants, animals, and human settlement than existed one hundred, two hundred, or even two thousand years ago. Does that make it unnatural?
As we were leaving the Delta smelt research and breeding facility, Alejo and I visited with a law student who seemed discombobulated about everything we had just learned. The smelts' entire life cycle and breeding patterns are concocted and controlled by biological engineers. Researchers and resource managers do not want the hatchery fish released into the wild unless there is a severe drop in wild Delta smelt populations because uncertainty remains as to whether breeding between the two would produce adverse genetic effects. And yet, engineered Delta smelt are fish just like any other fish—they swim, eat, behave, and have fish genes just like any other fish. But are they natural?
Historians do not provide clean, neat answers to questions or problems that arise. In fact, our job is to complicate and add nuances to stories and ideas. The terms “nature” and “natural” are not static and unchanging; they, too, have a history and are culturally constructed. But I think we would do well to heed what eminent historian Richard White wrote in his introduction to The Organic Machine: “We might want to look for the natural in the dams and the unnatural in the salmon” and “find, paradoxically, along those blurred and dirty boundaries ways to better live with our dilemmas." 2
1 Matthew Morse Booker, Down By The Bay: San Francisco's History Between the Tides (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 104-105; Cecilia M. Tsu, Garden of the World: Asian Immigrants and the Making of Agriculture in California's Santa Clara Valley (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 28-30.
2 Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), xi./table>
Under recently enacted legislation, local agencies in California are required for the first time to manage groundwater pumping and recharge sustainably.
The law empowers local groundwater agencies to manage and use groundwater “without causing undesirable results,” leaving it up to them to determine how to best achieve this goal. Within the next six to eight years, agencies in groundwater basins subject to critical overdraft must adopt plans that put these areas on a path to sustainability by 2040.
A major factor complicating such long-term water planning is climate change. Failing to account for a changing climate will put agencies -- and the people whom they serve -- at risk of “undesirable results,” even if they are otherwise well prepared.
The solution: a long-term approach to groundwater management will result in more resilient groundwater basins and a more secure water system for California.
To read more about climate change, groundwater security, and the new package of groundwater legislation, read the full post, “Groundwater security, for the long term” on the California Water Blog at http://californiawaterblog.
Triumphs and pitfalls of adapting/mitigating climate change at international, national, and local scales
Matt Weiser has become the Sacramento Bee's go-to guy for detailed coverage of water and environmental concerns. His growing corpus now includes an article on the proposed Delta water diversion project from the perspective of SoCal water users. Sunday's edition also included an opinion by editor Joyce Terhaar on the rationale underlying the Sacramento Bee's reporting on water issues.