USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

April 16, 2013

Ogallala Aquifer

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 10:24 pm

While the widespread use of the centrifugal pump in the decades following WWII has rendered the ever-declining levels of the Ogallala aquifer more susceptible to contamination, hydraulic fracturing and potential oil pipelines put undue pressure on groundwater resources throughout the United States. And what are being placed within the relatively narrow frame of environmental debates, accelerated pollution of the Ogallala comes at the worst time possible: a nation-wide drought.

Hydraulic fracturing is a process in which fracturing fluid is injected under great pressure deep into wells and then horizontally through shale rock. This is done with the aim of fracturing the shale rock in which the methane is trapped and then collecting said natural gas. The controversy with hydraulic fracturing arises from the long and incredibly toxic list of chemicals that are mixed with salt water and then pumped into the ground.

cgv online pharmacy
A study of the Ogallala aquifer released by the EPA on 11/09/11 found very elevated levels of a chemical commonly found in the mixture of hydraulic fracturing fluid. MSNBC reported on the study of the Pavillion, Wyoming area. The EPA testing came a year after the agency had warned local residents to avoid drinking, cooking and showering with the water and found  “the wells also contained benzene at 50 times the level that is considered safe for people, as well as phenols — another dangerous human carcinogen — acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel” (Lustgarten). This confirmed the fears of Pavillion residents who had previously complained that the water smelled of gasoline, turned black. The residents also associate nerve pain and neurological issues to exposure to the pollution. While Canadian drilling company Encana has denied responsibility for the pollution, they have supplied fresh water to affected residents, which may seem like an admission of sorts to some.

This news does not come as a shock to many who saw similar results from hydraulic fracturing exposed in the academy award-winning documentary, Gasland. In fact, the horrendous mix of chemicals used in ‘fracking’ has gained national attention and turned public opinion against the natural gas industry. However, this news may have come too late in the case of the Ogallala aquifer as hydraulic fracturing is already established. Once the nasty chemicals have infiltrated the ground water and made their way into such a vast aquifer as the Ogallala, pollution can spread and have devastating health effects.

The region’s agricultural industries experience near-total reliance on the Aquifer’s resources. These farming communities are hundreds of miles from rivers and thousands of miles from the hope of silver-bullet desalination proposals. Their watery predicament is only being exacerbated by their continued pumping. Human exposure to these fracking chemicals, along with pollutants from large-scale agriculture and potentially oil spills from to-be-announced pipeline routes, increases as more of the water is drained. The concentration of the contaminants is equal to the mass of the pollutant molecules, divided by the volume of water remaining.


Hopeless as it may seem, a handful of opportunities have been suggested for water in this regions. For example, a 2009 paper by the Bureau of Reclamation recommended large-scale reverse osmosis treatment of water in separate aquifers below the Ogallala. In their recommendation these would be integrated with wind power production facilities. The authors note that RO is prohibited by relatively high electricity prices from grids. They foresee strong co-benefits between energy and water production in High Plains regions that experience persistent high winds. They created a small demonstration plant. Among the final recommendations are measurements for additional contaminants, especially arsenic, as well as a large-scale demonstration to estimate capital and operation costs. Since then, many advances are being made in reverse osmosis technology. Two major questions for future market relevancy include: what is the price of water Ogallala recipients are willing to pay, and what the lowest cost RO firms would be willing and able to offer. Indeed, market relevancy will be a vital question to any and all future Ogallala substitutes or restrictions.

With half of all US counties designated as natural disaster areas by Department of Agriculture, the regions that rely on the Aquifer have been some of the driest. For fracking, water is often trucked in for hundreds of miles to open up new methane wells horizontally. As mentioned, the increasing rate is increasing exposure to all of its contaminants. It is an open question whether the climate change benefits of natural gas harvesting might yield some long-term benefit to Ogallala’s replenishment, but evidence presently suggests that drought, depletion, fracking and pesticides offer significant incentives to consider out-of-box solutions.

By Kyle Ferree & Sean Hernandez

Beltran, J. Martinez. Koo-Oshua, S. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. “Water desalination for agricultural applications.” Land and Water Discussion Paper 5. Web. 2006.

“EPA Pavillion Groundwater Investigation.” N.p., 9 Nov. 2011. Web. 10 Apr.   2013. <


Gasson, Christopher. Global Water Intelligence. “What Is In America’s Drought for the Water Industry?” 02 Aug 2012. Web. 04 Apr 2013.
Lustgarten, Abrahm. “‘Fracking’ Chemical Found in Town’s Aquifer.”

NBCNews, 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 09 Apr. 2013.

Swift, Andy. Et al. “Desalination and Water Purification Research and Development Program Report No. 146. Wind Power and Water Desalination Technology Integration. Web. Department of Interior – Bureau of Reclamation. July 2008. Web. 14 Apr 2013.



Remember the Tetons

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Why the Teton Dam was Built

The Teton Dam, in Eastern Idaho, was built after a back-to-back drought and flood between 1961 and 1962 (Reisner).  The Teton Dam was designed to function as a means for water storage, as well as a tool for flood control.  Furthermore, the dam served the purposes of irrigation, power generation, and recreation.  The plan for the dam was proposed in 1963 and passed in 1964, with an Environmental Impact Statement being released in 1971; however, this EIS did not account for the possibility of collapse.

Construction of the Teton Dam

            The dam was designed by the Office of Design and Construction of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and was built by Morrison-Knudsen-Kiewit in December of 1972 (Delatte).  The total cost of construction was $100 million (Reisner).  The foundation of the dam was the first defense against the unsuitable geology of the region.  The foundation “consisted of four basic elements: 21-m deep, steep-sided key trenches on the abutments above the elevation of 1,550 m; a cutoff trench to rock below the elevation of 1,550 m; a continuous grout curtain along the entire foundation; and the excavation of rock under the abutments(Delatte).The actual dam was built in five zonesZone 1: impervious center core.  In other words, a core impenetrable by water. Zone 2: atop and downstream of zone 1, allowed for controlled water seepage through foundationZone 3: downstream and provided structural stabilityZone 4: storage areas downstream from the control structure, temporary enclosures built to permit the work to be done.  Zone 5: rockfill in the outer parts of the embankment After construction the dam was:93m above the riverbed, and held 356m2 of water (Delatte).

Teton_Dam Teton1 Teton2

The Teton Dam Failure

            On June 3rd, 1976, inspectors found the first minor leaks in the Teton Dam.  As a result, the Bureau of Reclamation had the dam inspected daily (Delatte).  The following day, June 4th,The right abutment had small but visible springs.  The first major leak began on June 5th. The dam was leaking from the right abutment, and seepage was noticed 40m from the top of the dam (Delatte).  A whirlpool formed upstream of the dam.  In an effort to stop the leak, bulldozers attempted to push debris into the hole, but this failed, and two bulldozers were swallowed by the leak.  On the 5th, around 10am, the dam failed.  By 8pm the reservoir, which held approximately 300,000 acre-feet of water, was completely empty, and only two thirds of the dam wall remained.  Approximately 200 families from the towns of Wilford, Rexburg, Sugar City, and Roberts lost their homes.  Tragically the failure caused the loss of 14 lives, and $400 million, to $1 billion dollars of property damage (Delatte).

Environmental Impacts


            The failure of the Teton Dam destroyed the lower part of the river, reducing canyon walls and washing away the riparian zones.  This damaged stream ecology, endangering the native cutthroat trout population.  The force of the rushing water also damaged the stream habitat in the Snake River and some of its tributaries (Reisner).

Why the Teton Dam Failed

            The site of the Teton Dam proved to be unsuitable long before the actual start of construction.  For example, the soil made of basalt and rhyolite had high permeability (Reisner).  Furthermore, test holes absorbed water at a high rate, indicating serious leakage (Reisner).  Tests also showed that the rock was highly fissurable and unstable.  The largest fissures found were actually enterable caves (Reisner).  Lastly, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey, the dam’s proposed location was an area of high seismic activity.  Schleicher, a geologist, wrote a memorandum voicing his concerns about the seismic activity, but this part was never forwarded to the Bureau of Reclamation (Boffey).  However, a report signed by Schleicher and three other geologists was forwarded in June of 1973, discussing the seismic hazards but leaving out his “melodramatic” paragraph about anticipated catastrophic flooding (Boffey).  After the failure, an independent panel of experts analyzed the failure.  The panel came to fourteen conclusions:

” 1. The predesign site and geological studies were “appropriate and extensive.” 2. The design followed well-established USBR practices but without sufficient attention to the varied and unusual geological conditions of the site. 3. The volcanic rocks of the site are “highly permeable and moderately to intensely jointed.” 4. The fill soils used, “wind-deposited nonplastic to slightly plastic clayey silts,” are highly erodible. The soil classification was ML, low plasticity silt. 5. The construction was carried out properly and conformed to the design, except for scheduling. 6. The rapid rate of filling of the dam did not contribute to the failure. If the dam had been filled more slowly, “a similar failure would have occurred at some later date.” 7. Considerable effort was used to construct a grout curtain of high quality, but the rock under the grout cap was not geometry caused arching that reduced stresses in some areas and increased them in others and “favored the development of cracks that would open channels through the erodible fill.” 8. The dam’s combination of geological factors and design decisions that, taken together, permitted the failure to develop.”9. Finite element calculations suggested that hydraulic fracturing was possible. 10. There was no evidence of differential foundation settlement contributing to the failure. 11. Seismicity was not a factor. 12. There were not enough instruments in the dam to provide adequate information about changing conditions of the embankment and abutments. 13. The panel had quickly identified piping as the most probable cause of the failure, then focused its efforts on determining how the piping started. Two mechanisms were possible. The first was the flow of water under highly erodible and unprotected fill through joints in unsealed rock beneath the grout cap and thus development of an erosion tunnel. The second was “cracking caused by differential strains or hydraulic fracturing of the core material.” The panel was unable to determine whether one or the other mechanism occurred, or a combination of the two. 14. “The fundamental cause of failure may be regarded as a adequately sealed. The curtain was nevertheless subject to piping; “too much was expected of the grout curtain, and . . . the design should have provided measures to render the inevitable leakage” (Dellate).




Future Preventative Measures

As a result of the dam’s failure, analyses were completed to determine the potential causes.   Also, peer review of dams and frequent visits during construction of dams by the design engineer were institutionalized. Additionally, special treatment was given to fractured rock foundations and redundant measures were encouraged to control seepage, and prevent piping.  Moreover, a national dam safety program with annual dam inspections and instruments to monitor dams was implemented.  Lastly, the Reclamation Safety of Dams Act of 1978 was created to analyze and modify existing structures that were determined to be potentially unsafe (Dellate).

By Casey Frost & Carolin Meier

Works Cited

Boffey, Philip M. “Teton Dam Collapse: Was It a Predictable Disaster?” Science ns 193.4247 (1976):

30-32. Print.


Boffey, Philip M. “Teton Dam Verdict: A Foul-up by the Engineers.” Science ns 195.4275 (1977):

270-72. Print.

Delatte, Norbert J. Beyond Failure. Reston: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2008. Print.

“Teton Dam Failure Case Study.” MATDL. NSDL, 9 July 2012. Web. 27 Mar. 2013. <


Failure of Teton Dam. Bureau of Reclamation, 18 Apr. 2011. Web. 27 Mar. 2013.


Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print

Teton Dam Failure. UCSB, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2013. <


“Teton Dam Failure Case Study.” MATDL. NSDL, 9 July 2012. Web. 27 Mar. 2013. <


SALT: Saline Agriculture, Lousy Taste

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 10:19 pm

California may be famous for its San Francisco counterculture or the Los Angeles entertainment industry, but one of the state’s most important contributions is agriculture.  California is the most agriculturally productive state in the U.S. and contains 9 of the country’s 10 most productive counties.  The San Joaquin Valley, located in the southern half of California’s Central Valley, is the world’s most productive agricultural region. However, the sustainability of productive agriculture in this region is threatened by salt build-up, known as salinization.  Salt accumulates in groundwater and soils naturally due to evaporation and transpiration.  However, if the water table is high and drainage is exceptionally poor, accumulating salts may persist in an area, threatening the ability of crops to take up water.  Essentially, excess salt buildup as a result of over-irrigation, poor drainage, and high evaporation rates, all of which occur in the San Joaquin Valley, has deleterious effects on agricultural productivity and sustainability.

Schoups et al. devised a model to help understand historic changes in and predict future levels of groundwater and soil salinization, especially in the western part of the San Joaquin Valley.  Irrigation in the valley began with gravity-driven diversions of surface water from the San Joaquin River in the early 19th century, and extensive groundwater pumping to meet higher irrigation demands began in the 1920s.  The Central Valley Project of 1953 and the State Water Project of 1967 provided farmers greater access to surface water, so groundwater pumping declined.  This decrease in groundwater pumping coupled with continued irrigation contributed to a relative rise in the water table which in turn encouraged salinization.  The Corcoran clay layer in the western San Joaquin Valley posed and continues to pose particular problems with salinity in the area.  The lack of permeability in the soil causes drainage problems and thus a buildup of salts as well as dangerous chemicals like selenium.

The ongoing soil salinization caused by agriculture and irrigation in arid lands like the Great Central Valley leads to a chain reaction of problems that are hard to fix. According to a 2006 report by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, an estimated 700 thousand tons of salt are imported from the San Francisco Bay and San Joaquin River to a majority of the state’s water supply projects, water basins in the region receive at least 2 million tons of salt annually by state and federal water projects, 400 thousand tons of salt are added to the aquifer in the San Joaquin Basin, 113 thousand acres of retired land, and 400 thousand acres of saline-sodic soil in the region. The report lists several major issues caused by soil salinization that affect the Central Valley’s economy, agricultural production, land-use, and health risk for people. Although it may seem that the problem persists and may keep plaguing the region, there are efforts to mitigate and regulate salinization to avoid these issues.

The current solutions to the problem, as stated by Schoups et al., are to increase irrigation efficiency, grow salt-tolerant crops, drainage-water reuse, land retirement, and increase groundwater pumping. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has developed a management plant to ensure that salts and other nutrients in irrigation water are kept to a minimum, and for every region to develop a salt management plan by the year 2014. There is also the Central Valley-Salinity Alternatives for Long-Term Sustainability (CV-SALTS) initiative managed by stakeholders “to develop sustainable salinity and nitrate management in the Central Valley.” There are also other resources, especially ones online, provided by Aquafornia that gives tips on what people at home can do to reduce salt contamination. Some of the tips include use less or low salt detergents, and conserving water that will not be contaminated by salts. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also provides information on how to manage salinization problems. Techniques include maintaining a low water table, irrigation to maintain salts below the root zone, reducing deep tillage, installing artificial drainage systems, and eliminating seepage from canals, dugouts, and ponds. These tips and techniques are currently the best and most feasible approach to mitigate salts in agriculture from irrigation. There is really no way of preventing since salts are inevitable in irrigating in arid lands. But taking the effort to reduce water consumption and water use to reduce salts and increase efficient agricultural production will, at least, improve current conditions in the Central Valley for agricultural production and avoid further land degradation and risks to human health.

By Amanda Alvarez and Sergio Avelar

Works Cited




The Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge

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The Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, established by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1970, is a 10,621-acre artificial wetland environment created using runoff from California’s Central Valley (Zahm).  The Refuge saw a decrease in species diversity and an increase in deformity unusual for a marsh environment, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct tests on minerals in the soil (Vencil).  The studies ranged from analyzing the effects on plants, aquatic invertebrates and fish in the reservoir, and their subsequent effects on aquatic birds as well as bird eggs and tissues, to determining the chemicals’ effects on the birds’ reproductive systems (Ohlendorf).  They found unusually high levels of selenium in mosquito fish (Vencil).  This was also the chemical with high enough concentrations to affect the Kesterson birds.

In hindsight, selenium was a foreseeable problem.  The mineral originates in the pyrite of the Cretaceous marine sandstone and siltstone shale deposits in the coast range and under valley soils (Vencil).  Because rainfall is light, the deposits remain in the soil.  Weathering, erosion and irrigation leach minerals such as selenium but because western soil and water are alkaline, leached selenium takes the form of selenate.  Selenate tends to accumulate in estuaries and be easily taken up into the foodchain.


The San Joaquin Valley soil had poor drainage because it was underlain by the Corcoran Formation, an impermeable clay layer (Garone).  The land needed subsurface drains to collect the saline groundwater and carry it away from the irrigated areas.  The Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources (DWP) planned the development of a master drain, but since the DWP pulled out of the project (because Reagan, Governor of California, didn’t support it), it didn’t get built.  Consequently, in the early 1970s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) started to build the San Luis Drain on its own to provide irrigation water to farmers in the Westlands Water District (Garone).  Federal budget constraints and effective political opposition prevented completion of the all of the drain; hence the drain ended at the Kesterson Reservoir with the purpose of providing habitat for wildlife and cleaning the water.  As a result, the Bureau changed Kesterson’s status from a regulating reservoir to a terminal holding reservoir, which would store and concentrate drainage water (Garone).


The California State Water Resources Control Board was concerned about the potential effects on wildlife from the chemicals in the drainwater, so it proposed that the USBR conduct studies at the Kesterson Reservoir.  However, because the USBR was not obligated to study wildlife, it didn’t fund the studies, leaving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to fund the studies on its own.  The initial focus of environmental impact testing was on salinity and boron, followed by nitrates and, later, pesticide residues.  Ultimately, there were very high levels of selenium in the water of the Kesterson Reservoir.  Although selenium is a trace element and is necessary for the basic functioning of organisms, it can be extremely toxic at higher concentrations.  The U.S. EPA has set levels for maximum selenium in water at 10 parts per billion (p.p.b) and in soil, 4 p.p.b.  Kesterson had selenium levels as high as 3,000 p.p.b. in water and 250 p.p.b in soil (Maugh II)!


The bioaccumulation of selenium in the water concentrated in the algae, roots of plants, plankton, aquatic insects, and mosquito fish.  When the aquatic birds would eat the selenium in concentrated substances, they would naturally have higher levels of selenium through biomagnification.  347 nests from the Kesterson aquatic birds, such as eared grebes, American coots, stilts, avocets, and many duck species were followed in order to examine their eggs (Ohlendorf).  40% of the nests had one or more dead embryos and 20% had embryos and chicks with severe abnormalities, which “ranged from missing or abnormal eyes, missing, crossed or reduced beaks, micromelia and amelia in their legs and wings, clubfoot and ectrodactyly in their feet and exencephaly and hydrocephaly in their brains” (Ohlendorf).  Cattails were dying, algal blooms were occurring, fewer waterfowl were present, and all but one species of fish had been destroyed (Garone).


From the beginning, the directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation that had collectively created Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge were unwilling to acknowledge the nature or magnitude of the selenium threat and dismissed the “Concern Alert” (Garone).  Citing the results of tests on birds collected at Kesterson by the CA Department of Fish and Game, in October 1984 the California Department of Health Services issued the first of many notices limiting waterfowl consumption from the area around Kesterson.  The USFWS ultimately closed Kesterson’s ponds to public access.  On February 5, 1985, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered the Department of Interior to resolve the problem at Kesterson (Garone).  It ordered the Bureau of Reclamation to submit a cleanup and abatement plan within five months, and to implement the cleanup plan within three years (Garone).

The Bureau examined five options in the final environmental impact statement: a no-action alternative, a flexible response plan, an immobilization plan, a wetland restoration/onsite disposal plan, and an offsite disposal plan (Garone).  The Bureau chose the phased approach, incorporating three of these remediation options, which would be implemented in succession if the previous option proved unsatisfactory.  On March 19, 1987, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) rejected the phased approach and ordered the Bureau to clean up Kesterson Reservoir by August 19, 1988, using the onsite disposal plan (Garone).  However, new evidence showed this would not be effective.  Instead, the SWRCB ordered the Bureau to fill all areas where it expected ephemeral pools to form and to fill all areas to six inches above the expected seasonal rise in groundwater level by January 1, 1989 (Garone).  They thought this would solve the problem forever.  However, in June of 1999, the Sacramento consulting firm CH2M Hill released to the press the results of its most recent studies of mice and voles at Kesterson: “the firm’s report revealed that up to twenty-nine of eighty-seven house mice, deer mice, western harvest mice, and voles collected during 1998 were hermaphroditic” (Garone).  Because 1998 was a particularly wet year, water pooled for months at Kesterson, possibly remobilizing the selenium, returning it to the food chain, and causing these new cases of development of malformed organisms or growths.  The aftermath of poor planning are lingering for much longer than anticipated.



This post was written by Carolin Meier & Daria Sarraf.

Works Cited

Garone, Philip. “The Tragedy at Kesterson Reservoir: A Case Study in Environmental History and a Lesson in Ecological Complexity.” Environs: Environmental Law and Policy Journal 22.2 (1999): 107-44. Print.

Maugh II, Thomas H. “Microbes Clean Soil Polluted With Selenium.” Los Angeles Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <>.

Ohlendorf, Harry M. “The Birds of Kesterson Reservoir: A Historical Perspective.” Aquatic toxicology (Amsterdam, Netherlands) 57.1-2 (2002): 1-10. Print.

Taylor, Ronald B. “Wetland Considered Proving Ground for Toxics Cleanup Plan.” Los Angeles. N.p., 17 Jan. 1987. Web. 11 Apr. 2013. <>.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bruce Waddell. Selenium can cause deformities in birds. The ducks on the left were exposed to high concentrations of selenium in the Middle Green River Basin in Utah. Great Lakes Echo. N.p., 12 Dec. 1990. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.

Vencil, Betsy. “The Migratory Bird Treaty Act – Protecting Wildlife on our National Refuges – California’s Kesterson Reservoir, a Case in Point.” Natural Resources Journal 26.3 (1986): 609. Print.

Zahm, Gary. “Stop: Kesterson NWR.” Invisible 5. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.



The Los Angeles River in its Early Years

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Author of Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner, described the Los Angeles River perfectly when he wrote, “ Before its character was significantly altered by human activity, it was really two different waterways –a small, gentle stream flowing through a broad, sandy bed most of the year and a large turbulent unpredictable river for a few days every winter.” (Reisner 12)  Unfortunately, it is the unpredictable characteristic of the river that has devastated human settlements in the past, and caused a public desire to contain the river with the cement channels we have today.

The Los Angeles River is an alluvial river with a shallow riverbed and an extensive floodplain.  Before human settlement the river flowed freely, both above and below ground, and the course changed often emptying into the ocean anywhere between the Ballona Wetlands and San Pedro Bay.  The river course was thick with vegetation and supported a wide range of species of animals.  Cottonwoods, willows, and sycamore trees grew very large near the river, and alder, hackberry, California rose and numerous other shrubs grew thick in the understory.  Animals supported by the river’s waters and the surrounding forests include everything from bears to birds.   Over a hundred species of birds have been identified through egg collection, which only began several years after the arrival of European settlers, indicating that prior to their arrival even more species inhabited the area.

Figure 1: Willows shade the Los Angeles River near downtown LA around 1900 (Gumprecht 1999).

Figure 1: Willows shade the Los Angeles River near downtown LA around 1900 (Gumprecht 1999).

The Native American people of the Tongva and Chumash tribes were the first inhabitants of the Los Angeles River area. They relied on the river as a source of food and water, and knew the river’s tendency to overflow its channels.  To combat this problem the Tongva people invented mobile villages called Yangnas. (History of the River 2013)  When the river was low, as it was most of the year, the village would be located on the banks of the river.  When a flood occurred the tribe would move the village to drier land until the water receded and they could return to the riverbank.

Drawn by the abundant water supply and fertile soil of the Los Angeles River, European settlers would eventually displace he Native Americans living along the Los Angeles River. Between 1769 and 1777, Spain had established several missions and presidios along the California coast to help secure territory for the Spanish crown; however, their inability to supply themselves with sufficient food led to the establishment of three agricultural villages, referred to at that time as pueblos (Gumprecht 41). One of these villages was the first European settlement along the Los Angeles River and was called El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles (Gumprecht 39). Established in 1781, the pueblo would use the river’s water to grow and transform into the preeminent city in the West now known as Los Angeles. Such a transformation would ultimately devastate the river and the surrounding land, but not before turning Los Angeles into one of America’s richest agricultural regions.

The settlement was originally only twenty-eight square miles in size and was occupied by less than ten families (Gumprecht 43). The settlers’ primary concern was constructing a water delivery system. The settlers constructed a distribution system of crude dams, water wheels, and ditches through which the river water was channeled to meet both irrigation and domestic needs. By use of this system, the pueblo became self sufficient by 1786 and within the next few years it was the second greatest producer of grain out of all the California missions (Gumprecht 46).

Figure 2: Orange trees line the hills of Krotona Hill in Hollywood in the 1800s (Water and Power Associates).

Figure 2: Orange trees line the hills of Krotona Hill in Hollywood in the 1800s (Water and Power Associates).

With the help of Indian labor, by the early 1800s Los Angeles had become the most important agricultural settlement on the West Coast (Gumprecht 46). Initially, the pueblo produced mainly barley, what, corn, and beans, but the ample supply of water from the river allowed farmers to diversify their crops; the most significant addition was oranges, which were introduced in 1815 (Gumprecht 51). By the mid-1800s, nearly every householder in the settlement had a garden (and eventually a small orchard or vineyard) next to his home. This was all made possible by the Los Angeles River, which historian J. Gregg Layne called “the blood of life” to Los Angeles (Gumprecht 53).

For almost a century after its establishment, Los Angeles remained primarily an agricultural village, and the local economy continued to depend on farming even in the 1900s (Gumprecht 47). Few travelers were drawn to Los Angeles in its early years, but those who did stop by Los Angeles in the early-to-mid-1880s wrote about the lush gardens and orchards that filled the city, giving it a reputation as a garden paradise. Unfortunately, these romanticized depictions of the once-tiny pueblo would help guarantee its ultimate failure and the eventual destruction of the river that supported it (Gumprecht 54).  After California became a state in 1850, Los Angeles’ population began to grow rapidly, and the simple conditions characteristic of the pueblo were too primitive for many of the newcomers, bringing about changes to the city, such as the expansion of the irrigation system, that would precipitate the beginning of the decline of the Los Angeles River.

This post was authored by Alice Bitzer and Katherine Moreno


Works Cited

Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A.: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999. Print.

“History of the River: Re-connecting L.A. to Its River.” History of the River. Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1986. Print.


Central Valley Agriculture and the Delta Smelt Today

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 10:08 pm

The Delta Smelt is a small endemic fish of the Sacramento-San Joaquin estuary.  Maturity is reached when the fish are 55-70 mm in length and most die after a year.  They mainly live in areas where salt and fresh water mix and they can find an abundance of zooplankton to feed on.  Spawning, however, occurs in fresh water areas just upstream of the mixing zone.  These little fish are very susceptible to changes in population size because of their short life cycle (1 year) and their low fecundity.  Because of these two factors, environmental changes have a great impact on the survival of the species.  When there is sufficient water in the estuary, the mixing zone moves into the Suisun Bay, which lies to the west of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta.  This is better for the fish because the zone expands over a larger area and there are more available food sources for the fish (Moyle, 1992).  When water is diverted for agricultural use, the water level is lowered and mixing occurs in the narrow delta channels, an ill suited habitat for delta smelt spawning (Moyle, 1992).  There have been declines in the population of this endemic species since the 1980s, and many blame the increasing diversion of estuary water for irrigation (Moyle, 1992).

In an effort to stabilize the species, the delta smelt has been categorized as an endangered species, and therefore is under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.  This act limits the amount of water that can be pumped from the delta waters, especially during the spawning period, March through May.  The impacts of this protection burden the Central Valley farmers who rely heavily on the waters from the estuary to irrigate their fields.

The Central Valley, one of California’s most productive agricultural areas, relies on this irrigation water because of the lack of natural rainfall that actually occurs in the area. Originally, the Central Valley farmers relied on an underground aquifer to irrigate their croplands, leaving the estuary undisturbed. When agriculture expansion occurred, however, water had to be diverted from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta region in order to decrease pressure on the aquifer. In 2007, limits were imposed on the amount of water that could be pumped from the delta in order to protect the endangered delta smelt, forcing the irrigation pumps to be shut off. Without access to freshwater from the north, the land in the Central Valley becomes arid and unsuitable for agricultural use.  This loss of agricultural land has left thousands in the Central Valley without jobs (Howitt et al., 2009).

Central Valley farmers have been pressuring politicians to return their irrigation water, outraged at the prospect of losing their livelihoods to save a tiny, seemingly insignificant fish. The H.R.1837 bill, with the promise of turning the irrigation pumps back on, offered a positive outlook for struggling farmers when it passed House in 2012 (H.R. 1837, 2011). This hope, however, was snuffed out with its failure to pass in the Senate, and a promised veto from President Obama should it pass (Statement of Administration Policy, 2012). With little progress made in the way of protection of the delta, it is not likely that the restrictions will be lifted any time soon. By February of 2013, 232 delta smelt were killed as a result of pumping stations approaching the annual limit of 302 allowed by the Endangered Species Act at a dangerously high rate (Quinton, 2013).

As of now, the pumps remain off but tensions remain high. With these two opposing needs in mind, the California Department of Water Resources has suggested a new system that aims to appease both parties; a $14 billion twin tunnel system. This project would channel the water from beneath the delta to pumping stations in Tracy, California, which lies South of the Delta (Woodard, 2012). Though the proposal offers benefits for both conservation and irrigation, many are opposed to its large price tag (Woodard, 2012). Until a better solution is found, it is not likely that restrictions will be lifted.

Map of the Delta

This post was authored by Alice Bitzer and Jana Matsuuchi



Howitt, Richard, Josue Medellin-Azuara, Duncan MacEwan. “Measuring the

Employment Impact of Water Reductions” Department of Agriculture and

Resource Economics and Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis (2009): 1-10.

“H.R. 1837–112th Congress: Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act.” 2011.

Moyle, Peter B., Bruce Herbold, Donald E. Stevens, and Lee W. Miller. “Life History

and Status of Delta Smelt in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary, California.”

Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 121.1 (1992): 67-77. Print.

Quinton, Amy. “Delta Smelt Deaths Means Less Water for Central and

Southern California.” KPBS. Capital Public Radio, Feb. 2013. Web. Mar. 2013.

Statement of Administration Policy: H.R. 1837 – Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water

Reliability Act (2012) (testimony of Rep. Nunes, R-California, and 2 Cosponsors).

Woodard, Niki. “California Water: The Muddy Issue of the Delta Twin

Tunnels.”California Forward. N.p., Aug. 2012. Web. Mar. 2013.