Major Environmental Issues in California History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

California's history is one of perpetual environmental issues. In this lesson we'll look at how the mixture of a large population with some of the most pristine landscapes in the world have defined this state over the last century or so.

Environmental Issues in California

Due to the dynamic range of environments found in California, environmentalism has been an important part of California's history since it became a US state. However, this history is more complex than you might expect. While California is home to abundant resources noted for their pristine quality, the resources have to support the most populous state in the US. The struggle between respecting the natural beauty of the state and providing for the basic needs of its inhabitants has defined a great amount of California's past, just as it still defines California and likely will far into the future.

Yosemite and Conservation

There are many kinds of environmental issues we can look at in California's history, but let's start with one of the earliest: conservation. As homesteaders started moving into the rural parts of California in the mid-19th century, they were struck by the awesome beauty of the state. The settlers wrote about it, talked about it, and painted it and soon California began attract permanent settlers from the eastern US and immigrants. A homesteader named Galen Clark discovered massive sequoia groves and started fighting to protect them from logging around 1855. That fight was soon expanded to include the Yosemite Valley, which in 1864 became the first territory in the USA to be protected from commercial development by Congress and set aside purely for recreational use. In 1890, it was expanded and federally protected even further. Today we call this Yosemite National Park.

1880s painting of Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt

Hetch Hetchy and Water

Years after Yosemite Valley became protected, a new set of environmental issues arose. In 1906, San Francisco was hit by a major earthquake. Fires ravaged the city, and government officials realized that they were tragically unprepared. San Francisco had grown quickly, and didn't have the water reserves to deal with the fire and provide fresh water to the people after the earthquake, so officials started searching for a location to create a new reservoir. They found an ideal candidate in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. It was the right size, already shaped like a reservoir, and was close enough to provide lots of water to the city. The only problem was its location inside the protected Yosemite National Park. A massive debate ensued. What was more important, protecting California's natural treasures or providing for the people of San Francisco, who badly needed a new water supply? After years of debate, Hetch Hetchy was dammed and flooded, but the fight wasn't over.

Hetch Hetchy before it was flooded

Hetch Hetchy was just a single incident of the struggle between protecting the environment and providing for the people of California. Water, in particular, remained a divisive issue. Southern California, which is much drier, faced repeated 'water famines' in which the lack of water could lead to violent results. In the late 19th century, the city of Los Angeles had grown large enough to essentially exhaust its water supply. For the city to keep growing, the city needed water, and in the first decade of the 20th century began planning to create an aqueduct to bring water from the Owens Valley of eastern California to Los Angeles. The pipeline was completed in 1913. To get the rights to this water, city officials relied on less than legal methods that included bribery and manipulation of the law. Owens Lake was almost completely drained, which completely ruined the economy of the agricultural communities that relied on it. The result was almost a century of fighting, remembered in history as the California Water Wars. Owens Valley farmers tried to destroy the aqueduct in 1924, and later turned to legal channels. After the pipeline was extended to include nearby Mono Lake in the 1940's, the problem got worse. From 1979 to 1994, the city of Los Angeles was in constant legal battles over the rights to these waters. Finally, the city was forced to stop draining Mono Lake in the 1990's, which has since slowly started to refill.

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