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.

Weekly Roundup | March 22, 2013

newspaperCheck out this week’s Weekly Roundup for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay.

The Daily Journal 3/19/13
San Mateo county merchants welcome plastic bag ban
By this summer, almost all cities in San Mateo County will have adopted a reusable bag ordinance, banning plastic bags at most retail stores. Many small markets in San Bruno, including Los Primos Produce and Grocery, are already displaying the informational signs provided by the city to inform shoppers of the change. “I’m actually in favor of it,” said manager Elisia Guzman, who thinks customers will start bringing in their own bags once the ordinance takes effect in San Bruno on April 22, Earth Day. The store wastes money by allowing people to request multiple plastic bags for very small items, said Guzman. “They get one lime and three bags,” she said. “[The ordinance] helps the store and helps out the environment and gets people educated.”
Read More>>

KQED 3/19/13
Tunnel Vision: Who Really Determines California’s Water Flow
This year, all eyes are on Governor Jerry Brown’s $23 billion water plan – what he’s calling a solution to California’s long-standing battles in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Two massive, 35-mile water tunnels would ensure the water supply for 25 million Californians. More than 100,000 acres of habitat restoration would bring back imperiled fish.
At the same time, a different state agency is quietly taking on a planning process that could have a much larger impact on the state’s water supply and wildlife.
Read More>>

San Francisco Chronicle 3/20/13
Nicholas Petris dies, longtime lawmaker
Nicholas Petris, who eloquently championed liberal causes as an East Bay representative in the Legislature for 37 years, died Wednesday at an Oakland nursing center after a two-year bout with Alzheimer’s disease, relatives said. He was 90.
The son of Greek immigrants, he advanced ideas that were sometimes so far ahead of their time that staffers referred to the years between proposal and acceptance as the “Petris gap.”
“Nick Petris was a hero to me as an elected official and as a Greek American man who set the highest standards,” said Art Agnos, who served with Mr. Petris in the Legislature and went on to become San Francisco mayor.
“He had a passion to fight for the needs of the poor, the sick and disabled,” Agnos said, “as well as the intellect to anticipate the future.”
Mr. Petris was a tireless advocate for environmental protection, affordable housing, health care, higher education, farmworkers and tenants.
Read More>>

Morgan Hill Times 3/15/13
Getting Out: Coyote Hills worth the trip
San Francisco Bay joins forces with the city skylines, the fog and the bridges to create one of the world’s most dramatic metropolitan settings. For many of us, that is where our thinking about the bay itself ends.
A recent viewing of the fantastic KQED four-hour documentary “Saving the Bay” ignited my desire to know more. In particular, I wanted to learn more about the primeval bay, before Europeans came and changed it forever. What would it have looked like?
Read More>>

The Tribune 3/20/13
Soap bottle from Japan found during Montaña de Oro cleanup
Two years after a powerful earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, debris from that disaster is starting to wash up on San Luis Obispo County beaches.
On March 9, during the first of four coastal cleanups targeting tsunami debris on the sand spit in Montaña de Oro State Park, volunteers with the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo found a yellow plastic bottle with Japanese letters embossed on its base. Any labels that were once on the soap bottle are long gone, replaced by bits of marine growth that had accumulated over the past two years.
Read More>>

The Contra Costa Times 3/21/13
Use Less Water, Bay Area, or We’ll Run Dry
Thirty-six states already expect water shortages this year, even without drought; and Northern California’s unusually dry winter is raising concerns that the state will experience the worst drought in modern history. The Natural Resources Defense Council expects water scarcity to be especially severe in the West and is predicting that six of the Bay Area’s nine counties will face “extreme” water scarcity by 2050
Read More>>


Notes from the Field: Why Native Plants Are Good for the Bay

Native plants
Native plants are good for the Bay and all of its inhabitants.
Photo by Rick Lewis

As I was commuting from Berkeley to our native plant nursery at the MLK Jr. Shoreline in Oakland, I had to use my windshield wipers on a perfectly sunny day.  A number of automated sprinklers were watering the grassy median strip, the road, and my car. This scene reminded of why I continue to advocate for the use of native plants in our landscapes throughout the Bay Area.  It’s just a little excess water, right?  What’s the big deal? And what does have to do with native plants and the San Francisco Bay?

According to the Save Our Water campaign, nearly 50% of California’s residential water usage is dedicated to watering lawns and ornamental landscapes.  Furthermore, over-watering is one of the most common gardening mistakes causing plant stress and other problems in your landscape. One broken sprinkler isn’t much in the great scheme, but excessive water usage adds up to a tremendous loss of California’s most precious resource.

Nearly 40% of the state drains into the Bay and this freshwater source provides critical habitat for many aquatic and wetland species. Many terrestrial species, such as birds, insects, and mammals, depend on native habitat and native flora that is usually removed in urban and suburban developments and replaced with lawns and non-native ornamental plant species. Although they may be aesthetically beautiful, many non-native plant species do not provide the same habitat values as native species.

Native Plants are good for the Bay for the following reasons:

  • Native plants use less water. They are adapted to our cool, wet winters and dry summers. There are many different species that thrive in all the various microclimates throughout the bay area region. Select the right communities of species for the right areas, and your landscape will thrive without supplemental watering, once the plants are established. This allows us to conserve water without damaging our gardens.
  • Native plants don’t require additional fertilizers.  Native plants are adapted to local soil conditions and can thrive without the addition of supplemental nutrient supplies.  Excess application of fertilizers leads to eutrophication- where excess nutrients flow into bodies of water and create excessive plant growth of both native and non-native, sub-aquatic vegetation as well as change delicate chemical balance in water bodies for fish and other organisms.
  • Native plants don’t need herbicides and pesticides to thrive.  Native flora have evolved to compete with other plants and animals in their communities. Planting at the right density, using mulch to control weeds, and a little hand pulling can quickly replace the use of herbicides.  Actually, less than 1% of insects are considered to be pests in your garden. The vast majority are considered to be beneficial insects, also called natural enemies — dragonflies, ladybugs, praying mantids, just to name a few — and beneficial insects help control pest populations. Furthermore, studies have shown many of the pesticides on the market, persist in the environment and end up in our streams, flowing directly into the bay. Many are known to be harmful to wildlife and aquatic species, but worse, there is much that unknown at the long term effects of these chemicals in our environment. Play it safe, try non-toxic alternatives in your landscape, support wildlife diversity, and protect the bay starting at your garden.
  • Native plants provide a sense of place and connect us to the Bay area. These plants are the authentic landscape of our region. Planting these species in your garden instead of choosing something native to other parts of the world, creates a deeper connection to where you live and helps make this region even more special and unique.

To learn more about native plants and how to protect San Francisco Bay,  join us at our native plant nurseries the first and second Wednesdays of each month.

Hope to grow with you soon!

– Doug Serrill, Nursery Manager