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Think Outside the Basin

by | Apr 16, 2018 | Blog | 0 comments

This is a longish post, but then I’m trying to encapsulate at least several millennia of human prehistory and history in California.  The point is to characterize factors that cumulatively degraded detention storage functions in the nonnative annual rangelands upstream of most overdrafted groundwater basins.  That’s much of the detention storage Rainfall to Groundwater seeks to restore, to augment natural recharge of those basins.

While California Groundwater Sustainability Agencies are required to spatially consider solely the basins under their purview in developing their Groundwater Sustainability Plans, the water budget requirement is where basin inflows must be considered and that’s where it’s most helpful to Think Outside the Basin – to the watersheds/ catchments in assessing where detention storage leading to groundwater replenishment can be most readily affected.

If you are reading this the day I post it, here’s a heads up that today is the final day for the Avant Garde Discounts offered here for Rainfall to Groundwater online course pre-enrollment. 

That said, I commence.  ‘Hope you like gazing at this satellite image as much as I do.  And yes, that’s smoke from southern California fires wafting out over the Pacific.

My first project in Professor John T. Lyle’s Regional Landscape class, fall 1985, was a team project in which we were to portray, in text and graphics, a sense of how people related to the California landscape in one of a sequence of chronological periods.  With a B.S. in Botany behind me and unsure how I’d do in the new-to-me field of landscape architecture, I leapt at the opportunity to do the earliest period, the aboriginal landscape.

The course being at Cal Poly Pomona and, as a newbie to the southland, I dived into the literature on local aboriginal groups, the richest trove representing the Chumash, along with the Tongva.  Early exploiters of fossil fuels, they rendered their canoes seaworthy with asphaltum from the later named La Brea Tar Pits and other local sources.

Memorable as that was, my mind was blown open by reading “Patterns of Indian burning in California: ecology and ethnohistory” by Henry Lewis (1973).  Lewis compiled evidence that aboriginal burning likely transformed many, if not most, California landscapes.  He included a 1923 quote by botanist Willis Linn Jepson suggesting that the “singular spacing” of valley oaks among the oak-dotted foothill savannas we’re familiar with today arose through the actions of aboriginal burning.   

Less ethnographic information was available concerning California grasslands, but Lewis cited evidence particularly concerning the ponderosa pine and white fir belts, including giant sequoias, of the Sierra Nevada.

Not coincidentally these areas are now afflicted with extensive tree mortality following the impacts of recent drought years on forests overcrowded due to fire suppression policies of the early to late 20th Century.

Having done the lion’s share of my botanizing in the Sierras while at UC Davis, these notions had never occurred to me before reading Lewis’ (1973) work.  And it brought home one of the poignant lessons of that Regional Landscape class – that humans have always impacted our environments and, often enough, to our own ultimate detriment.

Maybe a year or two later I sought that book out again, but the Cal Poly Library was undergoing asbestos removal and that was among volumes placed in storage.  The nearest option for accessing the book was UCLA’s Rare Book Library, so I ventured there, but the rule was that no more than 10 pages could be accessed/ copied at one time, so it was an exercise in frustration.  I fretted that this work that had been such a revelation to me might become lost to subsequent scholars.

So I was truly grateful to learn in 1993 that Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson had included it in their compilation, Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians (Blackburn and Anderson, editors 1993).  I even vividly recall learning that at a California Society for Ecological Restoration (SERCAL) meeting where Anderson spoke.

The apt title for that book drives home the point that the primeval “wilderness” Europeans saw when they arrived in California had actually been shaped by the aboriginal cultures thought too primitive to be consciously managing the lands they depended on.

Indigenous Californians’ intentional burning of landscapes had actually been documented numerous times in historical records, but was typically viewed as nonsensical behavior, at least on initial encounters.  That dominant viewpoint prevailed well into the 20th Century, with Lewis’ 1973 effort among the first to turn the paradigmatic tide.

So why would John Muir, for example, attribute those sumptuous spring flower fields to anyone other than God/ Nature?

As Before the Wilderness . . . and Anderson’s (2005) Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, among other sources, make amply clear, indigenous Californians had developed a host of strategies for maximizing the natural resources they most depended on and that decidedly influenced the nature of the landscapes the Europeans found here.

There is little doubt among archaeologists that intentional human ignition of range fires has been a landscape transforming pattern around the globe for the past 10,000+ years (Redman 1999).  So aboriginal Californians were practicing a land management style not unique to this continent.

Redman documents a general pattern for ancient cultures around the Mediterranean region.  As even “conservation”-minded agriculture, such as terracing, depleted upland soil productivity over time, those lands became relegated to pasturage.

Without an incentive to repair damage caused by livestock, it takes only a few decades for terrace walls to tumble and gully erosion to strip the stored soil and lay it down as sediments in the valley bottoms.

(Redman 1999, citing van Andel, Runnels and Pope 1986)

As the impacts compounded, settlements contracted.  Over time, the upland pastures would recover to “maquis” (Redman 1999), the Mediterranean equivalent of our chaparral and scrub associations.  Following such recovery human settlements would again expand back to intensively manage the uplands.  Rinse and repeat.

Here in California, sedimentary evidence for such a pattern during aboriginal times likely gets swamped by the impacts of mid-19th Century hydraulic mining, though might be worth assessing.

While ethnographic evidence for aboriginal burning of California lowlands may be limited, inferences may be drawn.  In her 2005 book, Kat Anderson includes “Map 3:  California Indian tribes that utilized chia (Salvia columbariae) for their edible seeds.  This is an example of a regional food complex.” (Anderson 2005).  Included are most of southern and central California, along with two tribal regions north of San Francisco Bay.

Chia seeds do not require burning for germination, but the plant is decidedly adapted to disturbance, often growing alongside trails, for example.  Burning would have been the most efficient way to ensure ongoing disturbance, proliferating chia plants over large areas.  It seems more than likely that aboriginal maintenance of this regional food complex through burning engendered the pattern of wildflowers and grasslands first beheld by Europeans.

‘Looked good to the Spanish for their needs.  But the Spanish also burned to enhance pasture.  In fact, Greenlee and Langenheim (1990) delineate five different fire regimes for the greater Monterey Bay region, in which burning was differentially concentrated in different vegetation types and distributed differently over time.  Those fire regimes are:  1.) Lighting, 2.) Aboriginal, 3.) Spanish, 4.) Anglo, and 5.) Recent.

The Mexican-American War, statehood and Gold Rush abruptly turned the tide in different directions.  The initial demand for beef to supply western  miners, in California and beyond, declined following the drought years of the 1860s (Dasmann 1998, Starrs 1998).

. . . but the decrease was more than offset by large imports of sheep from New Mexico.  According to one estimate, 100,000 sheep crossed the Colorado River, en route to California, during the fall of 1858-59. . . .

(Cleland 1998)

Cleland goes on to enumerate other large imports of sheep to California.

Up and Down California in 1860-1864 (Brewer 1966) is William H. Brewer’s immensely enjoyable journal of his travels with the Whitney Survey, the first geologic survey of California. The time period of the journey was fortuitous in capturing some of the worst drought years on record, followed by what is considered the historical benchmark in California flooding, the cismontane floods of January 1862, a “500-year” event.

It also documents some of the California ramifications of the Civil War and the declining tail of the precious metal mining mania, which had been the impetus for the survey.

One passage penned on May 12, 1860 at the party’s 31st campsite at Guadalupe Ranch, on their northward route from Los Angeles, describes the journey from San Antonio, vicinity of what is now Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation, into and northward through the Salinas Valley.  A couple excerpts convey the droughty context.  Traveling northward after leaving Mission Soledad,

We passed through a flock of sheep, the largest I have ever seen, even in this country of big flocks.  It was attended by shepherds, and must have contained not less than 6,000 sheep, judging from the flocks of 2,000 and 1,500 we have seen often before.  Some of our party thought there must have been 8,000.  Sheep are generally kept in flocks of not over 1,800 head.

(Brewer 1966)

Having planned to spend at least two additional weeks in the vicinity of Salinas Valley, the team was forced to travel to Monterey due to the lack of water they found in the valley.  On that Sunday evening, May 12th, 1860, before the final trek to Monterey, which they reached on Wednesday the 15th, Brewer wrote the following:

Today has been a windier day on the plain than any other day we were on it.  I am glad enough we were sheltered here in camp.  Clouds of gray dust, rising to the height of five or six thousand feet have shut out the view in the north all the afternoon, and even the hills opposite could not be seen at times, and all day they have been obscurely seen through this veil.  If it is thus in May, what must it be here in July or August, as no rain will fall for at least four months yet!  It was interesting yesterday, while on the peaks above, to watch this great current of air up the valley, increasing with the day until at last the valley seemed filled with gray smoke.

(Brewer 1966)

So, dust clouds filled the Salinas Valley six decades before the “Okies” fled there during the 1930s Dust Bowl we’re more familiar with.  Impacts on other environments in the state associated with sheep grazing are alluded to in the H. A. Jastro quotation in my last blog post.

Dasmann (1998) and Starrs (1998) both note the establishment of

transhumance, or migratory sheep grazing, which virtually devastated the southern Sierra Nevada up to its highest meadows.  . . .

. . . According to Roswell Welch of Porterville, a party traveling from Kernville to Mount Whitney in the 1890s found the land completely devastated by overgrazing by sheep.

(Dasmann 1998)

While the establishment of the National Forests at the turn of the century helped turn that trend,

in 1920 there were still nearly three million sheep in California and the numbers have not declined since.

(Dasmann 1998)

Establishment of the transcontinental railway did not prove the anticipated boon to California farmers due to its cost, but that of within-state rail lines did expand potential markets, including links to global shipping lines that greatly expanded markets for less perishable crops like wheat.  (Rice and colleagues 2012).

Wheat could be dryland farmed and a “bonanza wheat era” ensued from the late 1860s through the 1880s, touching most parts of the state (Rice and colleagues 2012).  Thus, the plow impacted many lands we’ve long considered rangelands.

“W J” McGee, who co-convened the 1908 Conference of Governors on conservation and edited the proceedings cited in my last post,  wrote Bulletin No. 71: “Field records relating to subsoil water” (McGee 1913), published posthumously, with summaries of seven specific areas mostly in the western U.S.  His summaries of eastern and western Washington are fascinating, but apropos here is his description of “The Modesto-Turlock District” including a helpful overview history.

. . .  After the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo American ranchers gradually replaced the Mexican ganaderos, and as they did so the oaks were removed and the grasslands were broken up and sown largely to wheat, and the world never saw more productive wheat growing than that of the district watered jointly by the San Joaquin and the Tuolumne about the present site of Modesto.  The yields were incredible; each sprouting seed grain stooled into 10, 20, even 100 stalks, each growing 5 to 8 feet (some say 10 or 12 feet) high and bearing a head of a hundred plump and hard grains.  At the outset there was much loss from dearth of markets and transportation facilities and means of handling the enormous crop, yet there were quickly developed new devices, including the header thrasher, moved first by 30 or 40 horses and later by the traction engine, which automatically clipped the heads and delivered the grain in sacks without other handwork than tying the bags.  No part of America ever saw more rapid agricultural development than that now including the Modesto-Turlock district.


For a dozen or a score of years (according to the time at which the lands were broken and sowed) the rich productivity continued; then throughout the whole countryside the straw shortened and the yield of grain lessened, until wheat growing failed.  For a time some farmers found that by leaving the ground fallow a fair to good crop could be obtained in alternate years, but even this soon ceased to be effective.  Having depended wholly on wheat, the rancheros were nearly helpless when the wheat failed them.  Even when they tried other crops they found the productivity little better, and the notion spread that the once fertile virgin land was exhausted.  Meantime the soil, always fairly moist a little way beneath the surface under its native grass, grew too dry to sustain pasturage, so that, in a dry summer the railway traveler looking out from the car window could not distinguish the animals frightened by the passing train, or sometimes even see them, for the clouds of dust raised by their flying footsteps.  Depopulation began; but finally a few persistent ones—industrial heroes, indeed—secured the enactment of an irrigation-district law, and under this statute developed in a sort of cooperative way the Modesto and Turlock projects for taking water out of the Tuolumne where it enters the valley from the mountains and reclaiming the once fertile but then sterile and half-desert lands by irrigation.  After herculean effort success came. …

(McGee 1913)

In January 2017 I attended the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition Summit and the excellent pre-summit field trip.  Our midday field stop was at the USDA NRCS California Plant Materials Center in Lockeford.

During lunch a group of us were discussing what prehistoric rangelands might have looked like and what had happened to them.  While an easy assumption is “overgrazing”, the foregoing hopefully conveys the much greater complexity and longer history of human impacts on these environments, a snippet of which I shared with the group.

Back out in the field after lunch, an attendee from the Farmington area shared with me his grandfather’s tales of the wheat fields going up in unstoppable flames.  Wow, that scary thought had not occurred to me before!  Can you imagine dry wheat fields going up???  Yet another of the complex historical impacts on these lands.

Among the fascinating research projects being conducted at the Plant Materials Center is one particularly germane to Rainfall to Groundwater.

This is actually a pollinator hedgerow trial established in 2009, in collaboration with The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and UC Davis Department of Entomology.  Researcher Valerie Bullard, CCA, Agronomist, told us that they were finding higher soil moisture and faster infiltration rates under the no-till pollinator hedgerow plantings than in the adjacent conventionally tilled areas on the same soil.

That’s a finding with relevance to the watershed/catchment restoration proposed by Rainfall to Groundwater.  Groundwater Sustainability Agencies take note!



Anderson, M. K. 2005. Tending the wild: Native American knowledge and the management of California’s natural resources. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, USA.

Blackburn, T. C. and M. K. Anderson, editors. 1993. Before the wilderness: environmental management by Native Californians. Ballena Press, Menlo Park, California, USA.

Brewer, W. H. 1966. Up and down California in 1860-1864: the journal of William H. Brewer, Professor of Agriculture in the Sheffield Scientific School from 1864 to 1903, edited by Francis P. Farquar. Third edition. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Cleland, R. G. 1998. Cattle on a thousand hills. Pages 205-209 in C. Merchant, editor. Green Versus Gold: Sources in California’s Environmental History.  Island Press Washington, D. C., Covelo, CA.

Dasmann, R. F. 1998. The rangelands. Pages 194-199 in C. Merchant, editor. Green Versus Gold: Sources in California’s Environmental History.  Island Press Washington, D. C., Covelo, CA.

Greenlee, J. M. and J. H. Langenheim. 1990. Historic fire regimes and their relation to vegetation patterns in the Monterey Bay area of California. American Midland Naturalist 124:239-253.

Lewis, H. T. 1973. Patterns of Indian burning in California: ecology and ethnohistory. Reprint 1993. Pages 55-116 in T. C. Blackburn and K. Anderson, editors. Before the wilderness: environmental management by Native Californians. Ballena Press, Menlo Park, California, USA.

McGee, W. J. 1913. Field records relating to subsoil water. Bureau of Soils Bulletin No. 71, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

Redman, C. L. 1999. Human Impact on Ancient Environments. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Rice, R. B., W. A. Bullough, R. J. Orsi, and M. A. Irwin. 2012. The Elusive Eden:  A New History of California. Fourth edition. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Starrs, P. F. 1998. California’s grazed ecosystems. Pages 199-205 in C. Merchant, editor. Green Versus Gold: Sources in California’s Environmental History.  Island Press Washington, D. C., Covelo, CA.

van Andel, T.H., C. N. Runnels and K.O. Pope. 1986.  Five thousand years of land use and abuse in the southern Argolid, Greece.  Hesperia 55: 103-128.