A History of Bay Area Water Usage

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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.