Water Heritage, Water Testament

by Tim Stroshane, December 6, 2010

Last evening, I attended a wake for a water resource that is every bit as precious to northern Californians as their rivers, aquifers, streams, lakes, estuaries, and coastal lagoons.

I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to face the fact I had to say my good-byes. I futzed for an hour, then went, because I owed my friends there my respects.

This water resource is a library, not a waterbody. The Water Resources Center Archive at the University of California, Berkeley, has been our testament, our common record of events and facts for the last 52 years in the world of California water resources, from climate to groundwater elevations, fish abundance to founding documents of our most controversial water projects.

In January, northern California loses this cultural water resource — the records of its rich heritage — to southern California. The Archive moves to the University of California, Riverside, over the winter where it will reopen in April 2011 and undoubtedly become a precious academic resource for southern California scholars, students and public.

Many of us have come to know California’s water heritage through the history, science, engineering reports, photography, and maps, many of which date to statehood in 1850 and which have been accessible from the Archive’s stacks and shelves and files for over five decades.

But the transfer of water resource information now mirrors the transfer of water — from northern California to southern California. Southern California has less rainfall and snow, fewer flowing rivers and streams. That region supplements its local supplies with imported water from our northern streams, and have since the 1960s.

And now they’re importing the collections of the Water Archive too.

A 1956 act of the State Legislature created this Archive at Berkeley. Our legislators passed this law to establish a library collection devoted to California’s shared heritage about what our water resources mean to us as a citizenry, and what environments our predecessors encountered here, so that we might find their efforts useful to our own today.

The Mono Lake Committee legal team used Archive collections (the testament) about the Los Angeles Aqueduct in order to challenge the city’s desire to increase diversions from the lake (the heritage). After wresting restoration flows from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Committee later donated its public trust litigation files to the Archive, to expand the testament.

I discovered the Archive in 1982 while with UC Santa Cruz, studying the proposed Peripheral Canal around the California Delta. I invested years as an independent student of water, getting to know the librarians and they got to know me. Drawing from its abundant and accessible collections, I launched the water newsletter SPILLWAY (still online at www.spillwaynews.net ) before joining with the feisty California Water Impact Network (www.C-WIN.org ) where we have filed our own public trust lawsuit to force the state of California to protect the Delta, while 15 years and billions of wasted tax dollars will not; but that’s another story. My point is: the stories I’ve told through SPILLWAY and on behalf of C-WIN would not have been told without the Water Resources Center Archive.

I’m not unique, either. The librarians of the Archive also nurtured the research needs of watershed and fish restoration groups throughout northern California, collecting and cataloging studies, convening or co-sponsoring conferences. In places, fish and whole rivers have rebounded.

But the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR), the largest division of a bloated University of California Office of the President in Oakland, could care less about aligning our water heritage with revealed testament. ANR’s huge budget supports highly paid executives, far exceeding the salaries of Archive librarians. Their power of decision on the Archive’s fate was irresistible.

At the wake last Wednesday, Linda Vida, head librarian at the Archive, extended her thanks to Professor Robert Wiegel for donating funds out-of-pocket to pay for the event, with ANR luminaries present. Professor Wiegel, a retired coastal engineering professor in his 90s, still comes to the Archive nearly every day to do research and write. Vida’s unspoken message to the assembled mourners was that ANR declined to pay for the event.

So the University of California will consolidate water resource-related archives and collections at UC Riverside. They’ve also blessed a collaborative arrangement with California State University at San Bernardino’s own water resource research institute. These decisions are supposed to take advantage of Internet and computing technology to consolidate collections and make them even more widely available to California’s public, and to scholars all over the American West.

Please do, I say. It will help, but will not fill the void opening now in northern California’s water testament. I propose that Northern Californians unite to build our own archive as well, and that we start immediately. Our shared public trust heritage in water depends on it. And California’s public university has clearly backed away from it. ¥¥

(Call Tim Stroshane at 510-524-6313 or write him at Tim.Stroshane@c-win.org . He is a researcher with the California Water Impact Network (for identification purposes only).)

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