Politics and Pipelines
If it’s relevant to California’s water history, past or present, it’s on the shelves of Berkeley’s Water Resources Center Archive
| 24 September 2008
(Carol Ness photo)
California is beset by a two-year drought. Water rationing is spreading, while a thirsty population swells. Sea levels are rising, and levees protecting low-lying land from flooding are under siege.
Water, a charged issue as long as California has existed, faces a crisis that has parallels to the current meltdown on Wall Street in that the stakes are high, powerful interests are fighting for position, the outcome is potentially catastrophic, and solutions are murky. One big difference, besides the obvious: There’s no bailout for the state’s water problems.
An invaluable resource at this critical time — for the many minds at work on California’s water woes, as well as those studying climate change — is Berkeley’s Water Resources Center Archive, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
|Diving into the archive|
WATER RESOURCES CENTER ARCHIVE
“For anybody looking into the history of water use and water development in California, it’s probably the premier research facility,” says Stephen Wee, president of JRP Historical Consulting. The Davis firm is currently using the archive to help the state Department of Water Resources plan levee reinforcement in the Delta with an eye on the tide-raising effects of global warming.
Housed on the fourth floor of O’Brien Hall, the archive’s shelves hold an unusual amalgam of documents, historical and current, that together offer a detailed account of just about every aspect of water in California and around the West.
First, valuable collections of historical documents, personal papers, and photographs show first-hand — often through the lenses of the engineers themselves — how California’s sprawling system of aqueducts, dams, and reservoirs harnessed the natural flow of water through rivers, creeks, and bays.
Second, the archive collects the ongoing ephemera of water use — reports and unique, hard-to-find documents of all kinds, from government agencies, engineering firms, environmental groups, and individuals. The information ranges from micro to macro: decades’ worth of hourly-rainfall figures for 200 weather stations around California; every bulletin ever issued by the state Department of Water Resources and its predecessors.
To take a quick plunge into California’s water issues, a neophyte need do no more than check one item out of the archive’s circulating library: the four-DVD set of the PBS documentary Cadillac Desert, based on the Marc Reisner book by the same name, which chronicles the way water, and the powerful forces around it, have played a central role in the California story. Students, staff, and faculty can also borrow publications as varied as Bottled Water Reporter, an industry magazine, and thick Environmental Protection Agency reports on water pollution caused by crowded cattle feedlots.
The archive’s blog, On Water, posts daily updates of the state’s water news — from stories on plans to develop a new peripheral canal through the Delta to a recent one about a Sacramento homeowner fined $931 for not watering her lawn, drought notwithstanding.
The archive came into being in 1958, after a legislative act established the UC-wide California Water Resources Center. Based at UC Riverside, the center serves as a research unit on water problems.
The innovative idea came from two longtime Berkeley engineering professors, Morrough O’Brien, the archive building’s namesake who is credited with turning the College of Engineering into a world-class program, and Joe Johnson, whose expertise was waves and beaches, says Linda Vida, who is only the second librarian in the archive’s history. (The first, Gerald Giefer, spent his entire Berkeley career — 32 years — in that post. Vida took over when he retired in 1991.)
“[O’Brien and Johnson] thought water was so important that there should be a center and a library devoted to collecting information,” Vida says. “Our mission is to collect information about water — drinking, ground-, waste-, as well as wetlands, coasts, fisheries” . . . essentially, she says, any and all resources that relate to water supply and quality.
The archive set its sights on hard-to-find primary-source materials, with the idea of complementing other libraries in the UC system. It doesn’t buy many published materials like books or journals, leaving that to the College of Engineering and the Bancroft Library.
“So we do things that the others don’t, oddball stuff,” Vida says. “A lot of libraries don’t collect reports — they’re considered ephemeral.”
One of the first things archivers did after the center’s founding was fan out across the state to find historical documentation of the first 100 years of California’s water systems.
Neatly indexed and boxed in two locked stacks are some of the archive’s 135 manuscript collections. (The rest are stored in UC’s Northern Regional Library Facility for space reasons.)
The jewel of the collection are the documents, writings, and photographs of J.B. Lippincott, one of the leading engineers on the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct — an astonishing feat of politics and pipeline that drained the once-green Owens Valley in east-central California to let arid Los Angeles bloom in the early 1900s.
Lippincott never earned the renown of William Muholland, the Los Angeles water-and-power chief credited with raising the city in a desert, but his contributions were vital.
To flip through Lippincott’s yellowing, brittle photo albums brings the project to life 100 years later — and requires white gloves. The photos are also viewable online, as are all the archive’s photo collections, through the Online Archive of California. The archive’s documents are searchable through Melvyl, the UC libraries’ online catalog. (See “Diving into the archive,” this page, for online-access information.)
The Lippincott papers are just one of the archive’s historical collections, which contain some 25,000 photographs documenting California’s water development. The coastline is captured in another 45,000 aerial photos. Technical reports number more than 140,000, with 1,500 specialized newsletters and more than 5,000 maps and videos.
About 65 percent of the people who use the archive are UC students, faculty, and staff. The rest, according to Vida, are attorneys and hydrologists working on various aspects of California water.
David Zetland, now a postdoc in Agricultural and Resource Economics at Berkeley, found the archive invaluable to his dissertation on the economics of water allocation by Southern California’s huge Metropolitan Water District — work that’s relevant to the issue of how water is distributed today as supplies get tighter and tighter and California’s water market gets more and more competitive.
All the documents he needed were in the archive. “This is a fabulous resource. Without this you’re left surfing the Internet,” Zetland says.
History remains extraordinarily meaningful to today’s competition for water because discussions about who gets it, and who doesn’t, often come down to water rights. Tracing those rights is a big part of the archive’s importance to companies like Stephen Wee’s.
“There isn’t necessarily any public record of a diversion, so you have to establish it by fact. You have to show continued beneficial use over time,” says Wee, a historian whose clients are mostly government agencies and law firms. That history is traceable through the kinds of engineering reports the archive collects — often records that are unique to the WRCA, he adds.
And even when those reports exist elsewhere, the archive has one other virtue: It’s public. “The issue with going to the Modesto Irrigation District or any other [such] entity is that they don’t necessarily have to share [their records] with you,” Wee says.
The WRCA also sponsors the California Colloquium on Water, a lecture series by scholars that’s held four times each semester. Next up, on Oct. 14, will be Gary Wolff, vice chair of the California Water Resources Board, on “Successes and Failures in California Water Regulation.”
Despite the archive’s size, its focus has kept its collections manageable, Vida says — “until recently, that is.”
Electronic publishing has both multiplied the amount of material available and made it more transitory. A report that may be posted online one day can easily disappear the next. Vida’s challenge is to capture electronic documents in the moment and make them as permanent as the Lippincott papers — real-time archiving.
“You grab it, catalog it, assign a persistent URL, and deposit it in the archive so that, theoretically, when you check on that link in 20 years it will be there,” Vida says. “There’s so much going on, I’m just going nuts.”
Among current papers Vida has her eye on are the working documents of the state’s advisory Delta Vision Task Force, commissioned by Gov. Schwarzenegger to develop strategies for the ongoing use of water from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, amid competing claims by farmers, fisheries, and fast-growing cities in Northern and Southern California as rising ocean levels push in more saltwater. Its strategic plan, a work in progress, is no less than a potential roadmap to much of California’s future water use — and one of its recommendations is a new peripheral canal or “through-Delta water conveyance,” an idea rejected by voters in 1982.
This is an example of how the WRCA can stay relevant, Vida says. “In 30 years, people are going to want to be able to understand every step the Delta Vision Task took — to see every map and document they studied, read the memos they wrote and exchanged, and to read the reports that were issued — in making their recommendations for California’s water future.”