Tag Archives: land conservation

The New Arid Regions of the United States

The southwest and states east of the Sierras magnify the effects of global warming in the intensity of their aridity. But global warming reveals a new relation of regions to overheating, and reveals the depths of inflexibility to accommodate water scarcity, as well as the tragedy of its effects. As aridity of the soil and reduction of groundwater reaches unprecedented scales, our passivity is accentuated as we are suspended before maps that try to visualize unprecedented aridity magnified by global warming and its magnifying effects.

For the cascading effects of warming on the land and environment might be mapped in ways that cannot essentialize the greater “aridity” of the region, but the effects of increased aridity of soil, air moisture, and dry air on a region that we have remade into a region of food supplies, agriculture, and livestock, but, beyond, on hydropower. While the Colorado mountains long provided an effective basin to gather rainwater for western states that have been funneled to state reservoirs for agricultural irrigation, the man-made irrigation networks were drying up as the snowpack determinedly fell, and warmer temperatures evaporated what snowpack fell.

The logic of this longstanding pattern of appropriation of water from across the Colorado Basin was in a sense begun with the Hoover Dam, but was, writ large, organized by very process of appropriating water rights to redistribute water that had been enshrined in California from the turn of the century, circa 1914 and the policies of filling reservoirs to redistribute water rights. While we have considered appropriative water rights a distinct feature of how water is redistributed unique to the Golden state, the appropriation of water rights by reshuffling of water in state’s now precarious supplies how diverts over 99 million acre feet of surface water diverted along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to farmland, created a powerhouse of national agriculture. Much of the 75 million acre feet that flow from reservoirs across the state evaporates before it arrives at crops, however–far more that actually reaches the farms or cities.

–and the growing heat of the Great Plains have likewise diminished surface flow of the Colorado Basin already reduced by diminished rainfall. The increasingly warmer atmosphere of recent years has created a new “Arid Region” of the United States, of even greater aridity than when it was first mapped by John Wesley Powell in 1890, and the renewed aridity of the region not only challenges the calculus of water distribution according by appropriative rights that is structured by the Interstate Compact, but the very logic of redistributing water.

The past two decades have seen the departure of seven trillion gallons from Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, holding rainflow from the Upper Basin before it crests the Hoover Dam. The drop will trigger hydrologic stresses across western states, as ever ever-increasing amounts of water are sucked up into drying out air and atmosphere, requiring more abundant irrigation of croplands and grazing grounds. This new and expanded “Arid Region” suggests a return of the repressed, returning at even greater scale and aridity to haunt the nation by a lack of groundwater again.

Evapotranspiration Rates in Colorado River Basin, Landsat 13

that is not to say it ever left. But the solutions of diversion have been undermined by the cascading effects of climate change and increasing temperatures, across an expanse of irrigated lands where water from the Upper Colorado, as from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, are funneled to cities, farms, and irrigation projects, and used to generate electricity. Even as Californians and westerners face the threat of further fires more destructive than any in recorded history–potentially enough to energize an implausible recall effort in the state of California–we face the problems of managing not only historic drought, mandated energy shortages, reduced water supplies. The climate crisis appears to have provoked a deep crisis in leadership, but one without easy means of resolution.

The most improbable political candidates–global warming skeptics after Donald Trump’s heart–have argued drought, wildfire, and electrical storms reveal Gavin Newsom’s lack of leadership, even as they stridently object to aggressive climate legislation aimed at emissions reduction as restraining the free market business,– preferring a free market approach for all climes that would be the laissez-faire redistribution of water to the highest bidder, monetizing a scarce resource to consolidate financial profits and gain in response to diminished water supplies.

As more water is being released from Upper Basin reservoirs to make up for the shortfall in Lake Powell, but the shortage of water in Lake Mead–the largest reservoir in the United States–to less than 40% capacity by 2022 will mean reducing water for lower basin states like Arizona of 812,000 acre-feet, Nevada–by 21,000 acre feet, and Mexico, by 80,000, that have led to the call for new “water markets” to be created across the western states. Indeed, even western states no longer carry the brunt of increased use of freshwater for irrigation–

High Country News

–the demand for conserving water in agriculture is increasingly incumbent on western states, so much so that the shift to less water-intensive crops–like California’s almonds–at a time when many crops require more irrigation, and a shift toward fewer acres of pasturage for livestock–good luck–have become a necessity. Increasing the efficiency of irrigation systems is necessary–ending customs of flooding fields, increasing drip irrigation, center-pivot irrigation, or micro-irrigation, in a New Deal for agriculture, even regulating irrigation systems before water markets price rural communities out of their accustomed access to freshwater. The increased trend toward shifting the distribution of water by “water markets” from lower- to higher-value use is dangerous for farmers, and indeed all rural areas, but also for the western ecology, as it would be the most difficult to preserve water in rural communities or farming areas less able to pay for pricing of water for higher use-value, although they currently consume over 70% of the water in the Colorado basin, or encourage sustainability in regions that are increasingly facing realities of sustained drought, if not megadrought of unprecedented intensity.

United Stated Drought Monitor for Western States, October 2021

Yet the systems of allocating water from the Colorado River by a system of dams, diversions, and canals have led to broad calls to end further projects of water diversion, as the diversion of water to western states may be drying up itself by up leads to calls for new policies of allocating water, not based on the highest bidder, as the river we have made increasingly mobile across boundaries will be divided or redivided between agriculture, urban use, indigenous Americans, and land trusts, as we are in need of redefining the working basis for conserving the redistribution of water rights beyond capture and diversion, and outside of existing water markets and appropriative water rights within states. While the Bureau of Land Reclamation has run the reservoirs, dams, canals, and hydroelectric plants and contracting with individual districts, a broad reconception of practices of regulating water markets, allocations of water, and costs of large-scale water diversion, as demand for water outstrips supply.

Yet as increased farmers are withdrawing water from the ground, or from rivers, from California’s Central Valley to the Lower Colorado River Basin, in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada, the need to reduce the eighty percent of water dedicated to agriculture across the west will demand new practices of conservation, beyond what John Wesley Powell mapped, in 1880, when he advocated new practices of land use, as climate change increasingly destabilizes the Basin, including the thirty sovereign Native American tribes along the river basin. The need to manage demand and riverflow that will begin with the start of the “Tier One Shortage” from 2022, will introduce new rules on water-use and supply that stand to reduce the amount of water flowing to Arizona by a third. Water diversion from the Colorado River has transformed the land west of the hundredth meridian by re-engineering its flow to make the “desert bloom.” Yet the recent dramatic reduction of rainfall, river flow, and increased aridity of the lands, leave us contemplating the viability of relying on water diversion.

John Wesley Powell, “Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Zones” (1880)

The new arid region is reflected in weather maps, but will be a region of radically reduced piped water and a new landscape of hydrologic diversion. If the “Arid Region” was mapped in earth-tones of clear distinction as a cautionary way by explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell, to alert the government to the distinct climate of lands west of the hundredth meridian, the recent area is both based on more detailed and specific remote sensing records, often from satellite observation, but suggests a far more complex area to manage.

For the western states are linked, both by projects of water diversion, and by hydropower, to a region where rainfall and snowpack has declined, and far less water enters into the river-flow of the rivers whose diversion allowed the expansion of agriculture and livestock across the western states. Due to global warming, the earlier “arid region” expanded, returning bigger and better than ever since it was described as extending west from the hundredth meridian by John Wesley Powell, in one of the foundational maps of climate aridity. In today’s parched California, dangerously low levels of rainfall across the central valley seem to belong to the Arid Region. But we have hardly come to terms with its new expanse or migrating edges. The “lands of the ‘Arid Region'” that Powell had hand-colored with earth-tones to communicate the dramatically falling rainfall west of the hundredth meridian long ago mapped a biting response to the eagerness of homesteaders to Go West, cautioning about constraints on water-rights that division by states–rather than drainage districts–would bring. If current rainfall maps of USDA or EPA seem to engage in dialogue with Powell’s old polemical cry, the limited traction of mapping policy against increased pressures of climate change place most maps in a sort of Scylla and Charybdis, located not in the Straits of Messina, but the scissors of decreased rainfall, rising temperatures, and lack of groundwater retention.

1. The problems of managing water rights and ensuring flow are now far greater than what Powell’s creative palette of before the fact overlays even imaged was able to depict, and was a puzzle beyond the interlocking pieces of drainage districts that he–as if akin to the first puzzle-boards composed of hand-painted maps, as this forty-nine piece puzzle map of ca. 1849, painted by Kelly & Levin, of the similar region, that curiously compressed the western United States. Was Powell’s map indicative of the difficulty of solving the puzzle of allocating water resources across arid western states?

Puzzle “Map of California, Mexico, Texas and the United States,” ca. 1849, Kelly & Levin. Boston MA

While the puzzle pieces rarely echoed the shapes of individual states, undoubtedly because o the difficulty of their cutting the contours of states, the puzzling of how the rivers of the west would align with states in this roughly contemporary 1880 Milton Bradley map-puzzle, an “Outline Map of the United States,” posed by including light blue rivers across a map with little sense of varied topography.

ca. 1860, M. H. Traubel, Lith., Philadelphia PA/American Antiquarian Society

In contrast to the resolution of assembling individual pieces of a map of fixed bounds, the expanded arid region mapped by remote sensing spans a farther territory and expanse, and raises deep questions of access to water or even soil moisture in a region that developed as an agricultural breadbasket and locus of husbandry of livestock.

The growing puzzle broached by how the water supply of the west will be reassigned is rarely faced or addressed, although it is ruminated upon as the sub-text–or super-text?–of terrifying maps of rising aridity and low rainfall across the western states, that magnify a new “arid region” with less clear suggestion of an outcome of land management but pause before the cyclically compounded effects of rising heat, low soil moisture, limited run-off, and the specter of drastic irrigation cuts.

Current remotely sensed maps use far less clearly set boundaries or edges of water-shortages, but pose similarly pressing puzzles of how to resolve the appropriative logic of water rights, as drought intensity reduces the water that once flowed from the “upper basin” of the Colorado, feeding the river and redistributed water, and even more surface water is lost to evaporation.

Snow drought is worsening the American West's water woes | The Economist

The puzzle of hydrological access to land-water has become so curtailed across western states, that increased pumping of groundwater risking depleting aquifers by draining vital aquifers, irreparably damaging rivers and riverine waters. The New Arid Region, afflicted by far more aridity and low soil moisture than at any time, parallel to increased global suffering of warming and increased heat, the persistence of private water “rights” to agrarian expanse stand increasingly on a collision course with global warming throughout the new arid West in ways we have yet to address, even as we recognize that we are facing a climate emergency of the sort without precedent in modern memory.

2. No single visualization can, perhaps, adequately come to terms with the unprecedented aridity of the recent years. For no visualization can fully capture the cascading and magnified effects of declining water and soil health, and their effects on ecosystems, as much as on livestock or irrigated crops: the distance from reduced irrigation and new climate specters demands an intensified map. But the terrifying nature of the intense aridity of western states in part lies in how we have seem to forgot the semi-arid nature of the region. The deeper effects of a drying out atmosphere were evident in the huge deficit in water vapor in the past decade during the “fire season” from August to September, dramatically unlike how fire fighters navigated the same terrain in previous decades, when many fire containment strategies were developed and many active firefighters had trained. The map is one that should raise immediate fears of the loss of a landscape of future irrigation, and the need for tightening agricultural belts and shifting our conceptions of food supply and water budgets–as well as the same landscape’s increased combustability and inability to manage or control by an old playbook.

Decreased Water Vapor Present in the Air in Past Decade from Two to Three Decades Previous

The previous month has brought an even more pronounced record of drought across the Upper Basin of the Colorado on which so much hydropower relies, as do other schemes of water diversion.

US Drought Monitor for Colorado River Basin, September 23 2021/Brad Rippey, USDA

The revelation of a new intensity of exceptional drought in many pockets of the Upper Basin of the Colorado River presses the bounds of how we imagine dryness, aridity, and their consequences, even as we rely on older methods of fire-fighting, and fire-prevention, and outdated models of water diversion and energy resources.

The historical denial of what John Wesley Powell had already called the “Arid Region” west of the hundredth meridian, has become a snare for ecological disaster translating into a process of the drying out of long-irrigated zones, with consequences that the nation has not been able to comprehend–and demand a New Deal of their own to replace the diversion of water and generation of energy in the Hoover Dam. Or have we forgotten the intensity of a differential of climate, soil moisture, and increased aridity that Powell long ago mapped in order to illustrate the new regime of government its unique atmospheric conditions it would require, using his uniquely designed palette to hint at the best way to organize the region of water scarcity according to the units that its drainage districts–rather than the state lines surveyed by latitude and longitude?

John Wesley Powell, “Arid Region of the United States, Showing Drainage Districts” (1890)

Powell had explored the canyons, rivers, and plains, as he addressed the Senate Select Committee on the Reclamation of Arid Lands in 1890, he crafted an eloquent seven-color map of rich earth-tones to impress readers with the sensitivity of the region’s texture and urge restraint for expanding the westward flow of homesteaders with hopes to make the desert bloom. Indeed, by circumscribing areas for which sufficient water in this “Arid Region” would be able to providently allow future settlement, Powell neatly divided areas for settlement in a region by hydrographic basins collecting sufficient rainfall for farming. Whereas rainfall maps of previous years mapped a blank spot of water scarcity, Powell hoped to direct attention by a devising a map of the region’s subdivisions that called attention to its soil quality and decreased moisture, focussing on its distinctly variegated terrain in ways foreign to Senators in Washington. Powell hoped to convince who were removed from the region to acknowledge the commanding constraints created by these drainage districts for all future agricultural development and settlement–an unpopular position that ran against the notion of allocating free land in an age of expansive homesteading. If the image of a “drainage district” was foreign to existing state lines, Powell’s image of an “arid region” long haunted the geography of the American West–and contributed in no small part to the subsequent reengineering of the waters of the Colorado River.

In light of the dramatically increased aridity now endemic to the western states, Powell’s map gains terrifying relevance as western states enter severe drought, placing the breaks on once-expanding developments across western states. Powell’s map articulated a historical vision of the limited infrastructure of water in the American west. While the technologies of irrigation that allowed such a massive project of damming and canalization only later developed, did his map inspire the need for a project of such scale as a better model of land management? The intensified aridity that afflicts the western states responds not only to low levels of rainfall. We continue to hope groundwater depletion that afflicts the lower basin won’t extend to the Upper Basin of the Colorado River that has captured water on which so many farmers rely–and thirty-five million north of the border and three million living in Mexico depend, across its Lower Basin. The escalating megadrought has created pressures across the overpopulated west that the water-sharing model Powell proposed for drainage districts cannot resolve, but the distinct forms of water management he advocated have been forgotten, as the declining water level on the Colorado River seems a time bomb as its waters have fallen so far below capacity that while the waters that drain from the Upper Colorado into Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the western states, are only 37% full, and Lake Powell stands at 34% capacity. As less and less water enters the river system of a drying-out west, the future of the river on which so many rely for irrigation and energy is all but uncertain.

The water-level of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US and a critical source of water for millions across the Southwest, has fallen 140 feet since 2000, a third of capacity.  Can we come to terms with the increased aridity across the west that the drying out of the Colorado River may bring?   The western states are haunted by the return of the "Arid Region" John Wesley Powell once mapped.
Lake Mead, May 2021

Demand for water in the upper basin and older technologies have meant far less water reaches the lower basin, but what does has been redistributed across western states–absolutely none reaches the ocean at the river’s old delta. Supplies of surface water and groundwater barely provide for the border region, as the overdraft of the basin’s aquifers have made trans-border water management a crisis often overlooked in favor of water management north of the border. As unprecedented soil aridity currently seems to run off the rails, after three summers of no rainfall have depleted soil moisture, may remind us how we have missed the lesson of Powell’s map of instilling new set attitudes toward the land, as the volume of riverflow consistently dropped as it crosses the Mexico border since the filling of the Glen Canyon Dam.

Does selective amnesia underlie how we map the drying out of the west? Most data vis of rising temperatures and low rainfall across the western states is already magnifying and escalating the effects of unprecedented heat over twenty years in a deeply melancholic vein, daunted by the scale of dryness across such an interstate expanse, and passive before an absence of atmospheric moisture that seems a modern casualty of global over-heating. If we were already “living in the future” in California’s frequent and increasingly extreme fire regimes, the multi-hued data visualizations electrify the landscape–and not with power or hydro-energy, but by the all-too familiar color ramp of the extremes of climate change we have been trying hard not to normalize. These images chart a landscape that has gotten away from us, outside seasonality changes, making the American West a cautionary case study for global climate change inspires melancholy.

The additive logic and graphic syntax of maps, long before the separate map-“layers” that accommodate information from GPS, provided a basis to define the fungibility of water and the emergence of “rights” to water across the Arid Region, enabling the idea of governing the transference of water and water “rights” across the region, that separated water from the landscape and environment. The flow of water had long been understood and reconstrued in the west by a logic of irrigation needs–and the “rights” to unpolluted water for livestock raising, pasturage, and agricultural needs of land owners–that was removed from conserving groundwater needs. The increased nature of the fungibility of water as able to be transacted across basins, state lines, and counties reflects the legal fiction of considering water as a “good” tied to the needs of property owners, that, long before global warming, had already sanctioned the removing water from the ground.

If we use metaphors rooted in temporality that try to come to scale with the new era of global warming that cut down and perhaps minimize the era of water scarcity. in which we are entering–“heat waves,” for example, that broke records in states from Washington to Idaho in June and July, breaking or matching records of hot temperatures, the levels of aridity that have allowed the ground to grow arid and degrade have not only led to a spate of western wildfires, but have changed the levels of soil moisture over the long term in ways we have difficulty to map in the scale of our weather maps, or even the maps of the U.S. Drought Monitor, as the cascading influence of such unprecedentedly dry conditions–where stresses on river water create extraction of groundwater that stresses aquifers and groundwater supplies–can be scarcely imagined, or confined to the conventions and color ramps of weather maps.

We have struggled for decades to process the cascading effects of waves of unprecedented heat that over time have produced a drying out of soil and reservoirs over the past twenty years, resulting in an expanded and far more destructive fire season and parched lands whose effects we cannot fully come to terms or comprehend, as we have not seen or experienced the extent of dryness of subsoil, soil, and low rainfall which the US Drought Monitor seems to have mapped, as drought expanded not across the entire Pacific Northwest, from Oregon to Idaho, or 86% of Idaho–by the land’s combustibility, impossible to read without premonitions of lost forests–including old growth forests–melancholic fears more than tinged by an acute sense of a lack of agency.

The sense of struggle with an absence of agency–at the same time as an almost moral urgency–reflects the difficult to process such absence of water as a landscape we have inherited from the rapidly accelerating dynamics of climate change. The history of the increased aridity is all the more poignant as a source of melancholy not only because exceptional drought was the standard before President Trump, and a national emergency before his Presidency. We have failed to register this national emergency with the same immediacy, even as the theater of the border was magnified in disproportionate ways in public discourse on migration. The sense of melancholy is compounded as the map seems haunted, if only tacitly, and perhaps without acknowledgment, by the fact that the head of the USGS in 1890 admonishingly illustrated virtually the same basins now suffering severe and moderate drought as distinguished by semi-aridity–if the current levels are nothing like those faced over a century ago, when the transition of public to private lands. We have recently mapped the substantial threat of increased aridity to the Great Plains–less than a tenth of whose croplands are irrigated–where farmers depend entirely on rainfall to grow soybeans, sunflowers, cotton, and winter wheat, the fear of greater “dry spells” as anthropogenic emissions drive decreasing rainfall and groundwater reserves–a term that tries to convince us they are not permanent–led red flags to be drawn in broad brushstrokes in those states, where extreme and exceptional ‘drought’ .

But climate change has created a new concept of “water stress”–stresses best be pictured not by the isotherms of weather maps, but the watersheds and drainage districts that were the basis of Powell’s revolutionary map, and matching the very region of the Arid Zone where the soil scientist Powell turned viewers’ attention to the crucial index of ground and soil moisture, the true determinant of the future of agrarian settlement and the future of food. The regions determined of greatest future stress were the very basins that Powell mapped, and suggest the relevance of his map, as well as his caution of the difficulties of governance in an area of severe water stress-stress being understood and indexed as a relation between supply and demand, as well as rainfall, in national watersheds.

3. The “Arid Region” of the Untied States had been austerely and admonishingly described by John Wesley Powell as a geologist to caution against the administration of its future settlement with a level of clarity that reveals his Methodist upbringing. It is hard to know how clearly we can ever parse aridity, in an age when rising temperatures have unremittingly drained soil of water. As if informed by a deep respect for the map as a clarity of record, possessing the power to reorient readers to the world by preaching a new relation to the land, Powell had placed a premium on cartographic form as a tool to re-envision local governance–and prepared his striking eight-color map of the limited rainwater that arrives west of the hundredth meridian, the eastern border of what he baptized as the Arid Region, an almost zonal construction akin to a torrid zone.

The imposing title of this reclassification of the interior of the United States revealed Powell’s own keen sense of the map as a visual record of the territory, whose transparency as a record of the quality of the land would be a basis for all discussion of settlement. Powell parlayed his own deep study of the geography of the Colorado Basin to query the value of parsing the administration of water rights by state lines in 1890, convinced of the need to oversee later apportionment outside the jurisdiction of the arbitrary boundaries of western states, but joined them to his sense of duty of preparing a legible map of striking colors to convey the constraints and difficulties for its future settlement– not only by the scarcity of the threads of rivers curled against its topography, but the few watersheds.

Powell trusted the map might mark the opening of the “Great American Desert” in order to alert the US Congress that the dry lands west of the hundredth meridian was a divide. Even if the meridian no longer marking as clear a divide of reduced rainfall, as we confront the growth with unprecedented degree of global warming of a parched west–both in terms of reduced rainfall and declining soil quality–it may serve as a model for the map we need for the future governance and administration of already contested water rights. Powell’s place in the long story of soil quality reflects how neatly the American west as a microcosm of global warming is rooted in the conversion of public lands to private ownership, into which warming has thrown such a significant wrench.

Arid Region of the United States, Showing Drainage Basins (1890)

For the Arid Region’s aridity has since been unremittingly magnified, producing a region more arid than we have ever experienced and struggle to find an adequate color ramp adequate. But we would do well to try to map the forgetfulness of that arid region, even as we confront the quandary of the stubborn continuity of sustained dryness of a megadrought enduring multiple years, compounding the aridity of the soil, and multiplying fire dangers–and the conditions of combustibility of the region–far beyond what the west has ever known or Powell imagined possible. If aridity of soils and poor land quality has spiraled out of control due to “global warming,” raising questions about the future of farms and livestock, the absence of groundwater and surface water alike, global warming demand we shift from national lenses of water shortage to beyond American territory,–but also to discuss the warping nature of national lenses on the remaking of the sediment of the west–and Colorado Basin.

The difficulties of parsing river-flow by “states” as helpful political aggregations for future settlement was rebutted by the map, which sought to direct attention to the aridity of the ground’s soils to orient its administration in a region where water was destined to remain front and center on settlers’ and residents minds for the foreseeable future. The subsequent attempt to jerry-rig the question of scarcity of water by entitlements that rely on re-apportioning unused water escaped the constraints Powell located in the basic common denominator of groundwater.

As much as the region needs to be mapped outside a national context–despite the national nature of climate tracking–the hope of revealing imbalances of the drought indeed exist across borders, and impact water-sharing agreements, much as the smoke from recent northwest fires has traveled across the Pacific northwest. National territory is as meaningless an analytic category for global warming, or water scarcity, which, this blogpost argues, exists in a global contest of migration, as the migration or transborder transit of fires’ smoke.

4. The conditions of aridity that Powell described in the Colorado Basin and its neighbors offer an oddly productive image of the dryness of the ground, in an era before irrigation, that may be useful for how we can come to terms with the fear of a suspension of irrigation across western states. But it is as if the very definition of aridity was forgotten, as infrastructures of irrigation have re-mapped the region that John Wesley Powell in 1890 mapped as an area of difficult agrarian settlement, as farmlands of agrarian fertility and wealth. Powell proposed to view the “arid region” of the United States east of the Rockies with a clarity approaching scripture in a powerful eight-color map to instructively show how limited water constrained settlement of the region after surveying the Colorado Basin.

Powell probably imagined his map in somewhat revisionary as much as rebarbative, reorienting attention to the dry nature of the soil of the semi-arid region of the Colorado Basin by parsing it in areas by which the availability of water constrainted the settlement of the “open” government lands of the west, obscuring that they were seized from indigenous, to correct the mythic geography propounded by official state-sponsored geologists. Unlike Powell, most state geologists had boosterishly endorsed a site for future pasturage, to be enriched by unknown artesian springs, and ripe for settlement by homesteaders, and Powell’s map posed a more tempered image of resettlement that would obey the laws of the availability of water in the Colorado plateaux and other regions he knew so well, cautioning against the encouragement of settlement and sale to prospective farmers in ways that have improbably made the map something of an icon of conservationist thought. Against promise of prospective bucolic lands of pasture, the dry colors chasten viewers by communicating scarcity of water of drainage basins.

The arid region that Powell correctively propounded was long inscribed in the psycho-geography of the United States to be forgotten, but the arrival of irrigation infrastructure allowing irrigation of western states continues to inform, even in our own era of global warming, the return of the boosterist sloganwhere water flows, food grows,” that is still raised in Northern California’s San Joaquin Valley, to protest “cuts to farmwater” in the recent order of an “emergency curtailment” across rivers of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed — essentially the entire Central Valley. The recourse to an engineering “miracle” of making water flow uphill and redistributing more water from reservoirs contest calls for conservation–and only demand the further construction of dams, reservoirs, and water storage for better irrigation. The very promises that the flow of the Colorado River would irrigate lands, that made good on the promises made to homesteaders by describing the region to settlers as a New Canaan, where the growth of future streamflow and even rainfall that had never been documented, would make it suitable for the expansion of animal pasturing and farming, suggests a mythic geography of timeless bounty has replaced its actual conditions.

Friant-Kern Canal Flowing past Kern Dam/Septmeber 2020, Eric Paul Zamora, Fresno Bee

The mythic geography led to a rewriting of America’s irrigation infrastructure that in itself may be one of those pieces of infrastructure just no longer adaptable to extreme climate change. And as we face the scale of the national emergency of water shortages about to be triggered by falling reservoir levels, the crisis of using and recycling water, and the inefficiency of desalination plants of riverwater and groundwater, on which the world currently relies–and were predicted by the US Bureau of Reclamation back in 2003 to provide a “sustainable” solution to the dwindling water provided by the Colorado River, which had allowed the unexpected expansion of the settlement of western states. While desalination plants currently generate worldwide over 3.5 billion gallons daily, with 50 million gallons produced daily in Carlsbad, CA alone, desalination plants in one hundred and twenty counties, only half using sea-water, its energy expense justified as Colorado River decreased, promoted as a “sustainable and drought-proof water supply in Southern California” in an era of climate change, as if to calm our concerns at the dramatically decreased groundwater of western states.

Reclamation scientists assured the nation in 2016 of future recharge in the Upper Colorado Basin would offset temperature increases in their modeling scenarios through 2099, projecting basin-wide precipitation, the fears of the persistence of a mega-drought of extreme aridity with little recharge that may last decades has left fifty-sevens million living in drought conditions across the west according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, that has brought a new era of mega-fires. The thin blue line of the Colorado River is but a crack or thread coursing through a combustible landscape in this recent map of the expansion of unprecedented extreme drought in western states from National Geographic:

For all the disturbing and disquieting elegant if terrifying spread of deep red isotherms in Riley D. Champine’s map, the consequences of such exceptionally below-average levels of precipitation and aridity are difficult to comprehend as cumulative and deep in our nation’s history, as well as the effect of man-made climate change.

The utter saturation of this data vis of growing dryness of a region where rain far below previous norms fell forces the viewer to process an undue range of measures of aridity that they must struggle to process-if the deep orange and reds approaching emergency warning to suggest that surely a climate emergency is at hand. The absence of text in the visualization invites viewers to acknowledge they stand an eery remove of familiarity with an irrevocably landscape, posing unspoken if also unanswered questions about hydrological infrastructure in the Colorado basin, and greater west, that all but erases the geopolitical formation of this landscape–interruption of a rich color ramp at the southwestern border compartmentalize the large-scale decline in precipitation apart from national categories; but the danger lies in its focus on the economically developed north, more than the global south, as if it lacked adequate resources to prudently respond to groundwater shortages, but as an emergency for the developed world.

The focus of the climate emergency is on a large scale, daunting the possibility of individual response, but focussing on prudence at a local level, even if its scale is not defined, questions whether state politics can even resolve the intensity of the dilemma of declining rainfall levels below a thirty-year norm, a deviation on so broad a scale to be impossible to process save in local terms, but that omits the way the basin has been engineered as a site where groundwater now all but fails to accumulate, increasing the basin’s deep aridity more than the color ramp reveals.

The trust that Powell placed in his maps stand in sharp contrast to the “purple” coloration of regions of extreme heat introduced across western states to suggest so many “red-flag” warnings of excessive heat. In a year already tied with 2017 for receiving “excessive heat” warnings from the National Weather Service, already in early summer at a rate that is increasingly alarming, purple designates the need for caution when leaving air-conditioned environments, and suggests the booming of electric cooling across the west: the metric of a prediction of temperatures reaching 105°F for a two-hour stretch has paralleled the debate in Washington on infrastructure spending that suggest a similar disconnect that Powell confronted when he tried to describe the need for constraints on planning settlement west of the hundredth meridian in 1890.

Four Excessive Heat Warnings issued from late May 2021 have introduced yet a new color to prominence in National Weather Service maps, the new deep purple was introduced in weather maps in 1997 as a venture of the NWS into health alerts; rarely used in other weather maps, which in recent years have shifted from urban areas to large stretches of the nation, shifting from a use of red to designate high temperatures to purple to designate risk of triple-digit temperatures, especially in man-made surfaces like asphalt (able to rise to 170°-180° Fahrenheit–territory of third-degree burns–or cars which can rise thirty degrees above air temperature.

Heat Advisories, July 11, 2021/National Weather Service

During the decade before 2003, the water-level of Lake Mead had begun to decline precipitously, inaugurating a historical decline that led it to fall to but 35% of its storage abilities. While the decline was not more precipitous than the two earlier declines in its water-levels in the reservoir from the mid-1950’s and mid-1960’s, the current decline in storage capacity of what is the largest reservoir of water in the United States has raised the unthinkable and unimaginable arrival of water cutbacks, as Arizona’s share of the Colorado River’s waters will be reduced by 7%, and Mexico–where the Colorado runs–will lose 5% of its share, in a scenario never foreseen in the dam’s history, but that reflects the increased aridity of the watershed from which the Colorado River draws. The decline to 1,075 feet in the reservoir’s depth that triggered the Tier 1 reductions in flow may only be a harbinger of the arrival of future Tier 2 reductions, should Lake Mead drop to 1,065 feet, as is expected in 2023, and raises the fear of a Tear 3 reduction, should the lake level fall below 1,025 feet, reducing the water allocated to western cities. In ways that the infrastructure of irrigating the Arid District of the United States could never have foreseen, the arrival of the driest period that the basin has ever experienced in 1200 years has brought longer periods of drier weather without rainfall that have reduced the riverwater that fills the reservoir.

The declining level of Lake Mead plunged below average lake elevation of 1173 feet, by 2003, in ways that should have sent alarms across the west, were we not consumed by a war against terror. The Bush administration’s attacks on global warming grew, questioning the science of global warming and the dangers of increasing aridity. But the disconnect between the expectation for irrigation by the farming industry and farming states was dismissed, with global warming and climate change, as temporary shifts that wouldn’t alter the landscape of irrigation or river flow.

Robert Simmon, based on data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

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Filed under border studies, climate change, data visualization, Global Warming, mapping global warming

Clipping Bears Ears

The recent demotion of Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante as national monuments pose risk of a deepening widespread and almost inevitable alienation from public lands.  The tenuous status of public lands was apparent in the mandate of protection after intense lobbying of the American Petroleum Institute and other players in the energy industry to cut the limits of National Monuments across the United States, in ways that stand to redefined American West.  And even as our so-called President touts his relation to the common people, apart from the political class, the removal of protected status from national monuments suggests a proprietary relation to public lands at odds with the longstanding protection of monuments. The Trump administration’s hasty decision to remove Bears Ears from the list of protected lands suggests an abandonment of that image of the heroic cowboy, replaced by the disillusioned world-weary post-industrialist capitalist character we seem to have as American President.

Rather, they conjur the image of the identification with the legends of the white man in the open space of the American west’s sun-drenched outdoors, whose landscape was open to the grit of white, male conquest of an empty space.

Trump and Wayne in western backdrop.jpg

For Trump has definitively moved away from that imaginary, and the image of the open frontier, or of this land is your land, this land is my land, into a vision where the very same land is now poised to be opened to mineral extraction and prospecting, reducing the area once identified with the West to an area defined by the priority of industrial claims, and transforming it to a terrain inviting the colonization by extractive industries.  With his pursed lips, and evasive eyes, turning his back on a monumental landscape of the West, President Trump appears oblivious the destruction of space to occur across the national monuments opened to prospective mining, extraction of resources, and mineral industries, as if to deny their history, and allow the big rigs of extractive industries to enter to repossess those areas they have claimed on the map.

The preservation of a national monument that would rejoin fragmentary Indian Lands, indeed, was the strategic scope of the declaration of the two regions as part of our protected national heritage, in an attentive to remove previously protected lands from mineral prospecting in southern Utah, with the aim to improving the local economy and attract investment to the state now represented by Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, who have both advocated the proposal to open the region to prospectors, with far less concern for its future of the country–responding to heavy lobbying by uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources, which provoked a widely criticized Interior Department review, Trump issued executive orders that shrunk the monument to newly reduced boundaries.  For Hatch, eagerly labeling the designation of the national monuments as “unjustified federal land grabs,” evoking the increasingly militant anti-federal lands movement, particularly strong in Utah, who act as if the government had hidden interests in staking claims to a territories form wildlife refuges, conservation areas, national parks, or national monuments, summons a misguided anti-government credo as a basis for ending public lands.

Protection of National Monument of Bears Ears would expand claims to native lands in Southern Utah/Joe Burgess for New York Times

In replacing a sense of “goods” for the nation worthy of protection by the federal government–the purpose of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which expanded executive ability to conserve areas for preservation of their historical or scientific interest–to a vision of the executive asfacilitating abilities for exploitation of national space, and ensuring energy extraction.

The result is to threaten fragile material evidence of the region’s prehistoric inhabitation in a site recently put off-limits to oil and gas exploration on account of its use value to extractive industries, contesting the inherent value of preserving an area that has been considered among the most “endangered” historical sites in America. There is a well known precedent of prospectors seizing the sacred grounds of the Lakota Sioux native peoples, that were in fact ceded to them by the United States government in 1868, in the Black Hils of South Dakota, to create out of the former sacred site that became the National Park of Mt. Rushmore, after gold deposits were found underground, leading to a renegotiation attempt that led to a massive slaughter of hundreds of women and children, until the national monument of Mt. Rushmore confirmed the imperial acquisition of the land, by engraving iconic images of past Presidents on the Black Hills to affirm its incorporation into the nation’s body, with five faces of United States Presidents presiding in regal fashion over the region by sculpting their faces out of the Black Hills where GEn. Custer had defeated the valiant defensive acts of Sioux Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse:

If the same logic of prospecting has caused the National Monument of Bears Ears to be reduced to a rump, to allow extractive industries with ties to the current President to erode the Presidential Declaration of his predecessor, the point-based logic of GPS maps of underground reserves has determined a new perimeter to be drawn, reducing the size of the monument to allow rapid extraction and export of oil and other fossil fuels on rigs, to accommodate the request of oil and gas company requests to drill in the monument that have been advocated from 2013, allowing access to over 100,000 acres of land, often filled by sacred ruins, within a mile or inside of the declared eastern boundary of the National Monument, that stand to attract increased road traffic, vehicles, and workers in close proximity to the eighty-eight parcels of national lands that President Trump seeks to auction off–setting a terrifying precedent for privatizing public lands, and for privileging commercial interests regarding sites deemed of value without consideration for the landscape that lies above them.

Expresssed Aeas of Interests for Oil and Gas Drilling in Bears Ears National Monument\\

After a long and intense attempt to resolve inclusively an accord with the Inter-Tribal Council of areas that were deemed too sacred to be sacrificed for commercial interests, no matter their economic benefit, that led many native lands to be affirmed as a National Monument, the rewriting of the map of national priorities with which Donald Trump entered office has led to a wholesale revision of the map of protected lands, and the rewriting of federal land management and protection, as well as the power of the Antiquities Act to accommodate lands deemed of unique in their historical interest for the country, by economic criteria, rather than historic worth.

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Filed under American West, Bears Ears, environmental preservation, federal land protection, national monuments

Mapping Open Waters: Bay or River?

The relation between land, sea, marsh, and landfill provided something of a dilemma of cartographical rendering in the Bay Area, mirroring the fluid relationship that has long existed between land and sea.  But if fluidity of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay was less understood in terms of erosion, global warming, coastal flooding, and king tides back in the 1950s, the human fiction–and graphical statement–of the map of expanded bay fill provided a potent image to engage the shifting contours of land and sea.

The grassroots community activists reacted to it to protest plans for a radical narrowing of the Bay, whose success created the first inter-city compact for shoreline preservation with broad consequence for habitat conservation in the Bay Area–preserving tidal flats, coastal marshes, and wetlands that stand as a living model for conservationists, in close proximity to the city and coastal highway–as well as a legacy of the protection of open waters.

The subsequent designation of a large strip of coastal lands as a margin including Regional Protected Areas would later cover 1,833 acres of coastal lands and tidelands from the Bay Bridge to Richmond, along eight and a half miles of coast; the removal of all hazardous chemicals and garbage from 1998 restored the seasonal wetlands that were developing atop landfill in the seventy-two acre meadow, which was restored for $6 million over five years in a model to protect habitat and open space, as well as restoring a protective barrier of coastal wetlands that has long helped to protect the shoreline and bay. But the buy-in of 4,000 stakeholders in the multi-year project of habitat restoration and native habitat types however began from a protest map.

The complex bayshore that bridges four to five individual cities in the East Bay presents a complex picture of landscape and shoreline preservation and conservation, one whose sense of wonder and interest was in fact fought out in maps: if the mosaic of shoreline restoration, habitat preserves, parks, and greenspace that dot the coastline of San Francisco Bay between Oakland and Richmond offers a unique way of respecting open space on the margins of developed land, offering a landmark constraint for building out into the bay, the battle of visions for bay conservation were very much waged out through how mapping redefined the individual’s relation to local space and the world.

The story of coastal preservation that has often been cited as a model of a broad range of stakeholders began from a map. When the Save the Bay organization was formed by an improbably interested Berkeley patricians and Sierra Club members to prevent the waters from development and city housing that proposed building out into the bay in the post-war period. The military engineer John Reber drafted a plan that would reduce the bay dramatically, eliminating wetlands by adding landfill West Berkeley into the San Francisco Bay, in a monument of post-war engineering. The project of landscape modification bore all the hallmarks of modernity, and would have dramatically shrunk the bay’s open water, as much as open space, narrowing them by a massive fill to dramatically shrunken size, as well as the expansion of shipping lanes in Marin and Sausalito, that would have altered the Bay Area.

Proposed Barriers in San Francisco Bay (Reber Plan)

The triumphalism of the Army Engineers seemed almost to unite the U.S. Army bases in Alameda as a guideline to shape a modernistically sleek shoreline, punctuated by shipping corridors the open waters would accommodate. The expanded plan identified with Reber and the Department of Public works was announced quickly in the postwar era, as a massive project of infilling tidelands for a deepwater port, airports, and military bases by 1949, that would imagine an expansion of greater pierspace and nautical traffic in a Bay Area that seemed poise for financial growth as a hub of trade, as well as military outpost, expanding an “industrial site” in the smaller cities of Berkeley and Richmond, now equipping them with a airport terminals and a permanent Naval Base, and a Torpedo base in Hunter’s Point, expanding the military presence in northern California far beyond the military base in Alameda.

Reber Plane for a deepwater port, airports, and military bases (1949)[1580 x 1224]

Although the proposal for a contraction of the open waters was set as a landscape view, as if to naturalize it within the scenery, the 1949 proposal attracted heightened possibilities of greater infill that led to the reduction of the San Pablo Bay after its development of a massive landscape intervention for ten years that is rightly included among possible destructions of San Francisco by overdevelopment, even if it would have impacted the entire Bay. But the proposal for subdividing and radically reinventing the San Francisco Bay and bayshore as a basis for further development came to a rather sudden halt after over ten years of expansion, stopping in its tracks the promotion of a a modernistic streamlining of bayshore and bay waters as sites of economic development, as the plans were adopted to proposae an alternative model of conservation.

The questions about conservation that were posed at the local level on the East Bay mounted a staunch opposition, applying pressure as it coalesced through the compelling rendering of an alternative map, questioning the public commitment to a new level of landscape change and leading to a sense of reckoning about bay waters. The logic of remapping the plans of development, and the effectiveness with which a map that posited the problems and dangers development posed, however won buy-in from multiple stake-holders–now exceeding 4,000–of huge consequence.

1. What allowed the revisioning of the Bay’s open waters to be preserved? The Reber Plan would famously attract condemnation as an artificial reduction of the open waters to a shipping land, the power of the map in mobilizing resistance suggests an episode of cartographic creativity as much as public mobilization.

But the very possibility of local resistance to such rebuilding preservation of greenspace in Tilden Park had no doubt provided a stunning achievement for the Works Progress administration, allowing land procured from East Bay Municipal Water District to be converted into the East Bay Regional Parks, in one of the great New Deal projects of land conservation, leading to a decade of landscape transformation across 4,300 acres, the potential of converting lands by the precedent that invited residents to explore the local greenspace must have provided an encouragement to the preserving the bay. And the cartographic celebration of the conservation of lands and expansion of East Bay parks was able to provide a powerful, and indeed liberating way to contemplate and engage the material landscape.

The luxurious relief maps created by the Civil Conservation Corps who had administered the East Bay parks through 1942, since restored, invitingly celebrated pathways to explore and navigate the greenspace in plastic form–made during the 1930s–that preserved an image of a sense of rural versus urban space, back in the days when the hills were far more green.

While the relation between the shore and bay is hardly the focus of the relief map made in the early 1930s for the East Bay Regional Parks–perhaps as a working model to demonstrate the easy linkage of city to open space that the acquisition of lands from the Water District allowed–the careful shading of the bay waters in a gradation from deep blue to the shore provided a quite detailed sense of the sensitive of land and sea that the detailing of several creeks underscores. The aesthetic contemplation of landscape was a consideration of land and bay–or demanded one, offering a rendering of the complex of open space, lakes, creeks, and estuaries as a unified whole, and aesthetic unity, that the transformation of the bay to a shipping channel–or “river,” as polemic maps of the Save the Bay project would affirm. The old piers of Berkeley’s marina was not clearly landscaped, but the shore was defined by the tracks of the railroad, in the restored East Bay Parks relief map in a model of conservation and what land conservation might achieve, and indeed the possibility of securing land against over-development, a plan accentuated by the addition of rustic architecture and monuments in Tilden, Lake Temescal, Sibley, and Redwood Parks. The monument to conservation that had become part of the sense of place contrasted in their ethos with the stark shipping lands that would have altered not only the shoreline, but the bay waters as well.

The counter-map of the Bay waters was inspired by the subsequent brutality of adding infill in the Reber Plan.

Reber Plan: Proposed Barriers in San Francisco Bay (1959)

Designed with the apparent abandon of a crayon coloring book, in order to maximize the piers for arriving container ships in the postwar boom, the Reber Plan suggested a startlingly bold intervention in natural space to accommodate economic growth, crudely imposing economic infrastructure as if saddling it on the bay. For the Army Engineering Corps, the shallow East Bay coast, and large tidal lands, beckoned re-engineering provided a plan to envision the region in terms of “areas susceptible of reclamation” by the year 2020, back in 1957; years before the Bay Bridge, the bay’s low waters seemed ideal for a long-term plan of engineering a shipping corridor from Richmond to Oakland, domesticating the bayshore to maximize its economic utility and shipping locks would contracted San Francisco Bay, in a vision of development imagined in Washington, DC, with the endorsement of the US Chamber of Commerce.

For the project of land reclamation that the Army Corps of Engineers envisioned in the postwar era were a program to transform the settlement of the Bay Area in ways that extended pathways of marine communication by shipping industries as well as the U.S. navy in areas that were long predominantly marshland, imposing a dualistic opposition between “land” and “sea” in an area where the barriers between land and sea were blurred and fluid, and indeed on which local ecosytems were dependent: the eclipse of the regions of the Sacramento River’s expansive estuary were defined by marshland, tidal flats, wetlands, and in the East Bay shoreline, especially in Berkeley, seep or wet soil that the Plan did not register or accommodate, in its premium on economic expansion and strategic development. The coastal mapping projects that the United States Coastal Service had long engaged were put aside, and the stark land/sea duality proposed a limited way of seeing or imagining ‘development’ that seemed a logic of urban expansion that ran against the ways that the conservation ofEast Bay parks ha provided an important precedent to to manage, indeed taking it in different directions than the mapping of open space had set a powerful precedent by the 1940s–and a future that they would want to resist. If a full third of the bay had been diked off, infilled and built out that radically shrunk its open waters, Save The Bay was founded in 1961 to stop the acceleration of projected infill that would severely compromise the Bay, and has survived as an ecological monitor on infrastructure expansion and one-sided plans for development that would adversely affect the integrity of the Bay. The proposed reduction of wetlands and wetsoil along the Berkeley shore became a precedent for the ecological vulnerability of wetlands and bayshore to expansion, at a time when only a small fraction–but a tenth–of the Bay Area’s wetlands remained, and almost none of its shores were publicly accessible to residents, in the manner that the preservation of parks in the hillls provided such an important precedent that led directly to the 1965 foundation of The Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) to restrict or limit future projects of adding infill to reduce its open waters.

The relative murkiness of the areas the Army Corps of Engineers projected as ripe for infill envisioned a narrowed body of water without coastal access, in sharp contrast to conservation of greenspace around the expanding city:

The vision of the massive constriction of wetlands, tidal marsh, intertidal plains, and shallow sea or seep soil marked 325 square miles a “potentially fillable bay” as if it was an area for potential economic expansion, as much as urban growth, developing the port city as a set of functional shipping channels, seeking to crystallize a notion of functionality that offered no space for conservation. While the infill would have doubled Berkeley in size, the dramatic disappearance of San Pablo Bay by a hundred miles, even if it wouldn’t have obviated need for the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, already opened in 1956, would have been a development project of San Francisco’s coast that expanded the considerable growth of San Francisco by landfill to the entire Bay Area.

The logic of development that the vision of the Army Corps of Engineers promoted publicly in 1961 Save the Bay crystallized around a cartographic revision of Reber’s map was, in a sense, a critical turning point, or crossroads–suggested by the etymology of the word “crisis”–in how the bay could be actively remapped in the face of development, more recently culminating in how San Francisco Estuary Institute has mapped past against present landscape to orient us to historical ecology of the man-made nature of the shoreline we have inherited.

Viewed a bit differently, in materials that were provided by Save the Bay, to situate the organic place of the bay within the western landscape, the rivers whose confluence runs into the Bay join waters from the Sacramento to San Joaquin rivers run to the San Francisco Bay as a delivery of sediment from the landscape, uniting the Sierra Nevada and Coastal Range in its waters.

Save the Bay

If the bottom topography of the Bay had been dramatically altered by the flushing of sediment downstream rivers as the Sacramento, sending sludge into the Pacific Ocean, the arrival of sediment may have set a precedent for the proposed addition of infill that would deliver unprecedented sediment to the San Francisco Bay’s seabed.

But the “green shoreline” of the East Bay suggested a unique biophilic resistance to the addition of landfill, preserving the sense of open waters with which this post began.

So radical was the scale of the transformation of the Bay that Reber drafted to provoke a catalyst for the collective buy-in for opposition at the start of the environmental movement. The counter-map became a rallying cry of the defense of the bay’s open water against development by the shipping industry that affirmed the defense of a privileged relation to place for Berkeley residents, shocked by the alienating nature of the expansion of the lines of old wooden docks that dotted much of Richmond and Oakland, the two largest harbors in the East Bay. The plan would have both promised economic development, and expanded housing, into the Bay, eliminating open waters by amalgamating harbors to a straight manmade shoreline that would have connected the San Rafael Bridge and Alameda Naval Station, imposing expanded shipping lanes over the bay waters, that, as its effects were mapped, were realized to radically threaten habitat. The remapping of the preservation of bayshore helped radically change the perception of the water from the land, that helped to create a place where, when one walks today, the city and San Francisco indeed recede across the tidal flats.

2. The plans for developing the coastline by the addition of bayfill that would create either a vibrant port for pacific shipping industry were stayed as a rallying cry to mobilize opinion around the planned bayfill that would contract the East Bay, erasing wetlands that would be landfilled, dike or leveed for development, as growth of the Bay Area in the postwar period had already brought the filling in of entrance of the Sacramento River and five other rivers to the unique wetlands complex of the Bay Area–a lost environment that has been contracted by urban expansion and the reshaping of the shoreline ecosystem of so much of the bay, from the south Bay to the north bay to the estuary complex that framers of the contracted image of the San Francisco Bay to shipping channels that Reber envisioned took for granted as an inevitable process of development–but which we are now far more liable to map in terms of loss.

The protest to “Save the Bay” was animated by a counter-map that animated resistance that asked residents what sort of bay they wanted to live beyond. The abstract map of a landfill project of 1961 came to concretize the costs of development, and served–perhaps for the very reason that it was not detailed–to generate a broad coalition of protest against the imagined expansion of housing and shipping development in the East Bay. The printed map delineated how much was at stake in proposed coastal transformation so persuasively it became a powerful logo and rallying cry for the Save the Bay project from a new alliance of environmental groups and other stakeholders: if the military engineer’s map documented the modernistic redesign of the natural shoreline, in ways that extended the compromised habitat loss in other areas of the Delta and estuary, the convincing contrast between two visions of the bay–“Bay or River?” the map’s legend directly framed the future of the San Francisco Bay–put breaks on the continued development of much of East and South Bay. The map helped pose a simple question that asking readers to consider themselves stakeholders in a bulwark against massive environmental change in suggesting the near-apocalyptic scale of added landfill in dark black. While the story has been often told, the vital role an engineering map played in pushing back against vested propertied and industrial interests is arresting.

It was begun by a realization prompted from seeing a map announcing the future re-engineering of the San Francisco Bay, reprinted in the Oakland Tribune, and contemplating the possible extent of changes that would reconfigure the shore of an area that drains up to 40% of the land of the entire state, that prompted the preservation of its open waters. The prospect of such a radical remapping of the region’s open water–more than its shores alone–invested the planning map drawn up by the Army Corps of Engineers triggered the attention among three women over tea, contemplating the reduction o the Bay–and the beauty of vistas from their windows–against the areas up for potential expansion, that encapsulated and condensed the areas the Army Corps identified as susceptible for landfill.

The simple two-tone graphic generated a broad awareness of the region at a significant time in urban development, and helped to brakes on the inertia behind the radical reengineering of the bay as a shipping lane. The Save San Francisco Bay project that was the contribution of three women tied to educational groups and educators at the local university by marriage mobilized public opinion around the preservation as the wife of the past University President, Kay Kerr, herself “very disturbed about the filing of the bay” assembled a group disturbed by how “ongoing filling of the edges of the bay for airports, harbors, subdivisions, freeways, industrial sites and garbage dumps,” threatened to transform its open waters to a biological desert. Aptly, she calling an assembled group of conservationists and neighbors to order a meeting in a home overlooking the bay by a map of a produced by the Army Corps of Engineers calling for adding landfill that would leave “little more than a ship channel down the middle,” as she put it.

Proposed 1959 “Reber Plan” for Barriers Expanding East Bay Piers as Shipping Corridor

The City of Berkeley eager to expand to provide more housing, sought to double in size by filling in 2,000 acres of the bay shallows. Indeed, as late as 1980, the City of Berkeley hoped to expand the bay waterfront into a shopping center, resulting in the public trust over tidelands of the East Bay that preserved them from bay fill almost two decades later, in a suit that one of the first legal advisors of the Save the Bay Association directed as amicus curiae, in City of Berkeley v. Superior Court (1980) 26 Cal.3d 515, continuing to defend the bay wetlands’ integry against a defined shoreline.

The ability to stop the projected bayfill set a precedent that altered the relation of citizen groups and ecologists to the preservation of coastal habitat and parkland. The power of the rhetorical contrast between two maps of the future framed a vision of the local environment and access to a coast in an effective manner that one can forget looking out over the living landscape of the Bayshore Trail, but that provides a powerful reminders of how maps mobilize consensus and embodied the wetlands and tidelands as a features we have only more recently detected in the Bay as a wetlands ecosystem, truly far from built space.

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March 4, 2013 · 11:02 am