A History of Bay Area Water Usage

Ohlone people using tule boats to navigate the waters of the San Francisco Bay.

Despite recent rainstorms, California is experiencing a severe drought. With the abundance of photos on social media, news articles, and nightly news coverage on the subject, the drought has been on my mind for quite some time. As someone who enjoys thinking about how humans interact with our environment, this drought got me thinking about how Bay Area residents have used water throughout time.

Over 8,000 years ago, the Ohlone people became the first human inhabitants of the San Francisco Bay Area. The Ohlone people lived in Northern California from the most northern point of the San Francisco Bay down to Big Sur in Monterey County. Since the Ohlone people lived a semi-nomadic life, they typically built their community villages near reliable sources of fresh water and moved when the seasons changed. Water was primarily used for drinking, bathing, and fishing.

In order to efficiently travel, the Ohlone people used a series of innovative boats made of bundled tule reeds to navigate the waters of the San Francisco Bay. When the seasons changed, the Ohlone people moved to smaller villages and camps to be near newly available plant and animal resources. Using functional land management practices, the Ohlone people would burn the brushy hillsides each year to encourage new plants to grow and have animals that fed on them. Today, Ohlone descendants are reclaiming the customs and traditions of their ancestors.

The population of the San Francisco Bay Area has changed dramatically since the Ohlone first settled along the shores of our beloved estuary. During the Gold Rush, San Francisco grew from a small settlement of 200 residents to a booming city of 36,000 residents in just 6 years. In order to supply enough fresh water for Bay Area residents, the state of California issued a series of dam building projects to provide fresh drinking water to the growing population. Today, there are approximately 1,400 dams in the state of California, with the majority of them located in the Northern and Central Coast.

Over the past 150 years, we have dramatically engineered our natural resources to accommodate a society whose members remain in one place. Unlike the original Bay Area residents, we can’t move with the seasons to find new sources of water. We have established a permanent society here, so it is in our best interest to protect and conserve these unique natural resources for as long as possible.

Notes from the Field | Landscapes and Languages: The shaping of California

Linguistic diversity of California
California’s ecological diversity led to linguistic diversity among its earliest inhabitants. Map credit: Brian Codding, University of Utah

The diversity of the California landscape has contributed to the diversity of all of its inhabitants, human and otherwise. It has also shaped and been shaped by the diversity of our human goals, desires, and cultures over time.

When I look out across the bay I am often struck by how our cities and infrastructure interact with the physical landscape.  We have engineered nature to create a static environment, taking human development outside the confines of our complex inter-connected habitat.  It’s hard to imagine the bay without the bridges or city skylines, but there was a time when the birds outnumbered humans 10 to 1, blackening the sky as they flew overhead. Grizzly bears, elk, coyotes, badger, gray fox, Tule elk, bobcat, and mountain lions were more common than smart cars. Instead of freeways and bridges,  a morning commute involved traversing streams, creeks, and rivers, which flowed uninterrupted, fanning out into the bay through a vast network of fresh and salt marshes.

The Bay Area was and still is an incredibly dynamic and diverse set of interdependent ecosystems.  The San Francisco Bay, with its immense safe harbor and 40% of California’s fresh water pulsing in from the delta, is one of the most productive landscapes on the face of the planet.

This diversity is echoed throughout the state. Nowhere in the world can one find such diverse and unique topography than in California.  From the high glaciated peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the parched Mojave desert, the volcanic history of Shasta and Lassen to the prairies and oak woodlands spread across the central valley, to the beaches of the rugged coastline, California seems to have it all.

A recent paper published by Brian Codding of the University of Utah and Terry Jones of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo took a look at how the California landscape was responsible for creating diverse cultures among the first human inhabitants.

8,000 years ago, the Ohlone and Coast Miwok people began to take advantage of the abundant resources the bay had to offer. They lived together in very loose groups, held together by language and the topography of the country much more than by any political or social organization; distinct tribes, as they occur in many other parts of America, did not really exist. The small village was the most common unit of organization among these people.

According to Jones and Codding,  the ecological diversity of the region created distinct languages and cultures among the people who inhabited the land. The indigenous people of California have spoken over 300 dialects of one hundred distinct languages. These loosely defined groups migrated throughout California and colonized the state, first settling the richest ecosystems, particularly along the Pacific coastline.

Human migration to California is still shaped by our relationship to the land. California is a bastion of diversity and creativity due in large part to the health and vitality of the natural world that surrounds us. The way in which we use these abundant resources here defines who we are as a people.  Looking at the history of the indigenous people who came before can help us understand our place in the landscape–both the opportunities we have to protect it and the risks we pose.

It’s up to us the protect and restore the natural wonders in our own backyard. One way to do that is to have a hand in directly restoring vital salt marsh habitat, for ourselves, wildlife, and future generations.