Just as the indomitable Sacramento City was beginning to cope with and protect itself from the common natural disasters of flooding, man had a hand in placing new obstacles in the path of this growing city.
The Gold Rush brought population, prosperity and even the state Capitol to Sacramento, but it also resulted in new environmental challenges and a new source of flooding that ultimately led to dramatic changes in flood control.
These changes began with increasing the heights of the levees, filling in creeks and sloughs, rechanneling tributaries and expanding the breadth of the Sacramento River through the creation of weirs and bypasses.
The property and economic devastation of the flood of 1861-62 left the people of Sacramento with a feeling that nature and the rivers had done their worst. And then the unthinkable happened, as the American River rose to its highest level in 1867.
This same flood caused the Sacramento River and its many tributaries to overflow their newly created levees and destroy the hastily prepared dams and modifications that were put in by local districts and privates citizens.
These new high water marks established throughout the region called for a more coordinated flood control effort on the part of cities and agricultural areas within the Sacramento Valley.
One of the first big engineering endeavors was to take the big bend out of the west end of the American River that flowed into Sutter Lake, near the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers. This is part of the current location of the Union Pacific railyard, which is located north of the California State Railroad Museum.
The rechanneling project began in 1864 and was completed four years later. As a result of this new channel, the American River met with the Sacramento River one mile further north. Even after raising the levees and rechanneling the American River, the city experienced another flood.
The citizenry was perplexed in how the rainfall could be less, the snowmelt could be slower, the levees could be higher and yet the river could still overflow its banks.
The answer to this conundrum was found in the very phenomenon that gave the city its existence.
Gold brought wealth, people, and then it brought floods.
As the easy to reach placer deposits of gold dried up and deep hard rock mining became expensive, the miners turned to water power to seek their fortunes.
Hydraulic mining was used in small scale ventures in the 1850s, but by the following decade and into the 1870s, huge companies used enormous water cannons known as monitors to demolish large hills and even small mountains in their quest for gold.
After the gold was removed, the rest of the detritus was sent into streams, which flowed into larger waterways that filled the channels of the Sacramento River and its tributaries.
It became apparent to the engineers and many others that it was not rising waters that were causing the floods, but it was instead rising river bottoms choking the channels, causing the flooding and impacting navigation.
According to the 1957 book, “The Geography of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California,” by John Thompson, “By 1866, debris had ended the infamous side-by-side steamboat races along the Sacramento River.”
It also had a dramatic effect upon the farmers and their land, because the mining refuge left from the floods was not the same as the rich alluvium left by the natural annual rise and fall of the river that enriched the soil and increased production.
Instead what came down from the mines were rock fragments of varying sizes and elements. These waters carried mercury, cyanide and other poisons, which could sterilize the soil, kill crops and harm animals and even people.
Despite the obvious harm from hydraulic mining, the companies refused to halt or even limit this activity.
The hydraulic monitors allowed mine owners to hire a few men to perform work that once required hundreds of workers.
The friction created by this conflict of ideas caused a rift and debate among miners, farmers, environmentalists, navigation companies and recreationalists that lasted for decades.
Not everyone was going to be able to realize their objectives, so something would have to change.
The financially powerful mining industry and its strong political lobby was able to ignore the pleas of a concerned citizenry based on the concept that California and its Sacramento Valley were a state and a region born of the Gold Rush.
But as the waterways continued to fill with debris and mining slush, and levees failed and agricultural production decreased, it became apparent that channels, overflows and drains could not solve the problems created by hydraulic mining.
The unnatural flooding of the Sacramento River and its tributaries became a national, rather than a regional problem.
The mining interests were so powerful that they were able to defeat all legislative attempts to control the pollution and destruction. But 1878 became the proverbial “last straw.”
A city that had already endured several inundations and had gone to great lengths to protect itself from more flooding, once again found itself underwater, as Sacramento experienced another major flood on Feb. 1, 1878.
The 1880 book, “History of Sacramento County, California,” presented various details about this flood.
Included in the book were the following words: “At 2 o’clock on the morning of that day, a break was reported in the levee near Lovedall’s (sic) Ranch, on the Sacramento River, the city and Sutterville. Almost immediately thereafter, a section of the levee, some twelve feet in width, washed out, having been completed honey-combed by gophers. The noise of the torrent pouring through the crevasse could be heard distinctly at a great distance. (That evening), the Sacramento (River) was twenty-five feet, 2 inches above the low water mark, higher than ever before known.”
Sacramentans were tired of floods, tired of mining – which was no longer the center of economy – and tired of politics and politicians who thwarted meaningful attempts to control these unnatural inundations.
Concerned citizens found a way to circumvent the powerful mining lobby by controlling navigation rather than extraction to stop the devastation of the hydraulic mining. But it took another six years to accomplish.
How the city finally controlled the problem and one of the most exotic solutions of how Sacramento tried to deal with the problem will be covered in the next article of this series.
Just as the indomitable Sacramento City was beginning to cope with and protect itself from the common natural disasters of flooding, man had a hand in placing new obstacles in the path of this growing city.
Editor’s Note: This is part three in a series about the history of the Sacramento River.
When presenting a history of the city’s rivers, it is important to not only provide details about major floods, but also measures that were made to combat potential floods.
The 1880 book, “History of Sacramento County, California,” notes that prior to the great flood of January 1850, “nothing had been attempted in the matter of protection from flood or high water.”
Capt. John Sutter and the Indians, who showed him where to build his fort, recognized that the proposed location for the new Sacramento City was in a natural flood plain that was regularly inundated in the winter months.
Flood control became an immediate concern of the citizenry and politicians.
The Saturday, Jan. 19, 1850 edition of the Placer Times included the following words: “A week ago last night, our city experienced one of the most terrific southeast storms known in this region, which had the effect of swelling the Sacramento (River) by Wednesday afternoon, so that the water commenced running over the slough on I Street, at various points between First and Third (streets). On Thursday morning, the entire city, within a mile of the embarcadero, was under water. The damage to merchandise and to buildings and the losses sustained by persons engaged in trade is very great – vast quantities of provisions and goods having been swept away by the rushing waters. The loss in livestock is almost incalculable; many persons have lost from 10 to 50 yoke of cattle each, and horses and mules have been carried down the stream in great numbers.”
It was obvious to all people concerned that flooding in the area needed to be stopped and the waters held at bay.
But there were some people who found a “gold lining” in the inundation.
The Times also reported in its Jan. 19, 1850 edition that “large numbers (of people) have been washing gold within the limits of our city during the week, without any great degree of success.”
It was also noted in the 1880 county history book that “waters had scarcely begun to recede from the city (following the January 1850 flood) when surveyors were employed to survey lines for and make a location of the proposed levee.”
A levee commission was established on Jan. 29, 1850 and one of the commissioners was Hardin Bigelow, who on April 1, 1850 became Sacramento’s first elected mayor, largely because of his support of building levees.
The need for building levees was immediate, but the funds for doing so were nonexistent.
Bigelow arranged for the city to borrow funds beyond the city’s $10,000 limit, and he also provided $6,000 from his personal assets.
With this money, the city was able to construct temporary embankments, which held off the anticipated second flood of 1850 and demonstrated the need and efficacy of levees.
On April 29, 1850, voters approved a special $250,000 tax assessment for a permanent levee that was built between September and December 1850.
The contract for the levee was given to Irwin, Gay & Co. on Sept. 6, 1850 and the labor began several days afterward.
Although the levee was not yet completed by Oct. 25, 1850, on that date, the San Francisco newspaper, the Daily Alta California referred to Sacramento City as “our sister, the Levee City.”
The levee, which commenced to the south at the high ground near Sutterville, ran for about nine miles along the northern and western boundaries of the city. And with this levee, the people of Sacramento City felt safe.
But less than a year and a half later – on March 7, 1852 – new raging waters broke through the sluice gate at Lake Sutter, breached the levee and once again inundated the city.
As a result, Sutter’s Fort, the knoll at the current site of Cesar Chavez Plaza and Poverty Ridge on the southeast side of the city stood as islands in a lake that in low spots reached 12 feet deep.
While once again the economic devastation was extensive, according to an article, titled “Sacramento defies the River: 1850-1878” by Marvin Brienes, “No lives were lost, and warnings before the levees gave way enabled many Sacramentans to remove their most valuable goods to high ground.”
Three days after the city was flooded, Mayor James Richmond Hardenbergh called for a new levee to be constructed on I Street, from the Front Street levee to 5th Street, from 5th Street along the edge of Lake Sutter and then to the levee of 1850, along the American River.
The proposal was adopted by the common council and this $50,000 project was completed after about two months of labor in November 1852.
Although local citizens were once again feeling safe in the Levee City, this feeling lasted only three weeks, as the American River levee was broken on Dec. 19, leaving a 40-foot-wide crevice.
Eventually, 150 feet of the levee was destroyed and Sacramento City was under water.
In its Dec. 25, 1852 edition, the Daily Alta California reported the following: “The water was running through Eighth Street, some six feet deep. Several lives were supposed to have been lost. One man was seen floating down the river on the top of his house. At the foot of L Street, a whole block is afloat; the Eagle Saloon is washed away and is floating round.”
As mentioned in the previous article of this series, on New Years Day 1853, the water level of the Sacramento River was 22 feet above the low water mark and two feet higher than the great flood of 1850.
By Jan. 2, 1853, floodwaters once again entered the heart of the city.
Frustrations mounted for the city’s “burned out and flooded citizens,” as one local man described the area’s residents.
In an early January 1853 letter to the editors of The Sacramento Union, the man wrote: “Our city government has been in operation nearly three years, has expended more than two hundred thousand dollars upon the levee, and very large sums for other purposes. Our taxes have been greater perhaps than those of any other city in the world; our city debt is now very large; and after all this taxation and expenditure, the city has not received a benefit commensurate with the costs. We have received nothing like a fair equivalent for our money.”
On July 29, 1853, a city ordinance “for widening, altering and improving the levee, and providing for the payment of the expense” was approved by the mayor and common council.
The cost was set at no more than $50,000 and the work, which was completed by the latter part of 1853, was paid for in scrip known as the “Levee Scrip.” The levee along Burns Slough at the eastern end of the city and down R Street was separate from this approximate sum and was paid for through a loan.
The levee system, which later underwent various improvements, proved to be a successful barrier against major floods in the city for several years. But that level of prosperity quickly changed on Dec. 9, 1861.
On Saturday, Sept. 15, about 2,500 volunteers are expected to take part in the American River Parkway Foundation’s annual Great American River Clean Up.
According to Stacy Springer, volunteer manager for the American River Parkway Foundation, which is based in Carmichael, these volunteers will spend three hours that morning cleaning up 20 site locations along the American River of trash and other debris. “And that does not even include the huge kayak and dive teams that go out and address the shoreline and deeper water channels,” she said.
Springer said it’s easy to volunteer for the Great American River Clean Up – volunteers just need to register on the Foundation’s website, www.arpf.org, and then show up on the day of the clean up wearing closed-toe shoes and long pants, plus sunblock and hat if the day is sunny and warm.
A site captain, such as Heidi Steger, a Sacramento resident who has been a site captain for the Great American River Clean Up for the past four years, mans each clean up location. Steger oversees the Howe Avenue river access location, which she said covers from Sacramento State upstream to the Watt Avenue location.
On the day of the clean up, Steger is in charge of putting up signs, handing out gloves to those who don’t have their own, distributing trash bags, waters and snacks, and giving some basic safety instructions to about 100 volunteers at her location.
She said there are both paved and unpaved portions of the Parkway, so volunteers can feel comfortable depending on their abilities. “If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t feel bad about walking through high grass or even under trees and through some brambles, that’s fine, but if you’re the kind that wants to stick to the path, that’s fine, too,” she said.
When out on the Parkway, Steger said volunteers are asked to pick up everything from cigarette butts to car tires. “There’s cans, bottles, paper trash, paper bags, plastic containers – it’s a mix,” she said.
There’s an emphasis on picking up cigarette butts at the clean up site location of Michael Rebensdorf, who has been a site captain for almost 10 years. At his site at Sailor Bar – just below Nimbus Dam, across the river from the fish hatchery – Rebensdorf holds a contest for picking up the most cigarette butts. “People walk by the little trash – they want to get the big trash to fill their bag up,” he said.
Having an Impact
Rebensdorf said through his years as a site captain at Sailor Bar, he has seen the amount of trash picked up each year decline significantly. “It’s probably 25 percent now from when I first started,” he said.
He said this is because people are more conscious of not throwing things on the ground and littering. “At Sailor Bar, there’s an entry point for fisherman to the river and I think they’ve become a lot more aware,” he said. “It’s more conscious in people’s minds that if you come out here and throw your things on the ground, you’re not going to be able to come out and fish anymore.”
Steger said the clean up also helps community members get a feel for what the riverbanks are like. “They figure out if you want to be able to enjoy this wonderful gift of the American River, you’ve got to take care of it a little bit, “she said.
And Stringer said volunteers leave with an awareness that everyone is responsible for their backyard regardless of where the trash comes from. “As good citizens and good Samaritans, we want to make sure that if we have to pick up somebody else’s trash because it’s laying there, then that’s what we do – it’s taking on a higher level of responsibility,” she said.
In addition to the Great American River Clean Up, the American River Parkway Foundation has volunteers that help keep the Parkway clean all year long through various programs. One of these programs is the Volunteer Mile Steward program, where individuals and groups adopt a mile of the Parkway and commit to 20 hours of service per quarter to help keep it clean, according to Springer.
“Every mile is a little different – 99 percent of it is trash removal, but we have graffiti removal issues at times,” Springer said. “That’s a very popular program and we have very dedicated volunteers.”
Two of those volunteers are residents Theresa and Steve Graham. About seven years ago they adopted Mile 4, which starts behind the REI in the Arden area and runs down to Cal Expo. Steve said he and Theresa decided to adopt that particular mile because as an avid bicyclist he was using it all the time and realized he should give back.
Steve said he and Theresa go out two hours about twice a month to pick up trash on their mile and report any graffiti or encampments they encounter. “We pick up every little bit because I don’t want an animal stepping in this or eating this, so even if it’s a flip-top from a can it all comes up because we’ve got to keep this clean for the animals as they are there all the time,” he said.
Theresa enjoys their work on the mile as she enjoys being outside and exploring the nature in the area, as well as the flexibility the program offers. “You can do it at what time-frame works for you – you can make it work into your schedule, which really works for us,” she said.
And she also likes the good internal feeling volunteering gives her. “You feel like you’re contributing to the good of the society,” she explained. “I think everybody should do something for the good of their community – it just gives you pride in it.”
For more information on the Great American River clean up or volunteering with the American River Parkway Foundation, visit www.arpf.org.
About 60 percent of the world’s population does not have access to fresh drinking water. By making simple changes, everyone can make a big impact on water consumption.
This concept was conveyed at a water conservation workshop presented by the city of Sacramento Department of Utilities Water Conservation Office on July 14 at 2260 Glen Ellen Circle.
Vincent Smelser, water conservation specialist for the city of Sacramento, began the morning by explaining the city ordinances in effect to save water. Smelser let folks know there are many ways to save on their water bill. He pointed out enforcement comes in the form of citations and fines can get up to $500.
Water use around the home
Smelser suggested when washing the car, use a shut-off nozzle. Running hoses are no longer allowed, he said.
Another way to save on water is sweeping the patio or sidewalk instead of hosing it down.
Smelser said per city ordinance, the only time water is allowed for cleaning a sidewalk is if there is an unsanitary event, but to be careful not to wash animal excrement or chemicals into the gutter, that also constitutes a fine.
When to water
Watering is allowed between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. For spring through fall, odd number addresses water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Even number addresses water on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
During winter, (when daylight saving time ends) folks are allowed to water only one day a week, either Saturday or Sunday.
Smelser said often times improperly functioning sprinklers waste a lot of water.
Another water waster are older toilets. The city has a rebate program up to $100 for toilets installed prior to 1992. The city also offers free showerheads and aerators for the sink.
On average a person saves 25 gallons of water the first 10 minutes of their shower using a water saving showerhead, he said.“The courthouse on Bicentennial Circle saved 300,000 gallons of water a year just by replacing the aerators,” Smelser said. “Just by using a water efficient toilet, one can save 12,000 gallons of water a year.”
The city of Sacramento makes water-wise house calls for folks within city limits. A trained water conservation specialist will visit the home or office to identify potential water savings both inside the home and outside. If needed, the city will analyze and make suggestions on how to improve the soil, keeping water costs down.
Smelser said the city is able to identify leaks through smart meter technology. The water department is able to tell by looking at a residential water bill online where the leaks are located. Consumer’s now have the option of looking at their bill online to see where their water is being used most frequently.
Smelser demonstrated various methods used for watering; spray, hose and drip. The city provides information on the best watering system for different types of landscapes.
Smelser said to keep sprinklers in good repair. There are proper designs to keep sprinkler heads from breaking. Pop ups should be even with the ground. A good timer is essential to saving water.
“Seventy percent of water goes to landscaping in the summer, and switches to bathrooms in winter” Smelser said. “27 to a 1,000 gallons of water per irrigation is used for a typical landscape.”
A water-efficient yard
David Campbell, Siegfried Engineering and designer of the city of Sacramento’s water efficient demonstration garden, gave a presentation discussing drought tolerant plants, shrubs and grasses used for landscaping. He also discussed efficient ways to design yards and water saving irrigation systems.
Campbell, a licensed landscape architect, said when designing a landscape around saving water, there are specific things to think about.
The function and design of outdoor landscaping, turf alternatives and how efficiently the water is delivered are important in designing a water saving landscape.
“When thinking about what your yard is used for, turf is not the only answer,” Campbell said. “Grass is the cheapest, but not the most water efficient way to landscape a yard.”
Landscapes may include gardens, a place to escape to, or a place to attract birds and butterflies. Campbell said often yards are used for screening or buffering the home from busy streets and noise.
Types of plants
Campbell discussed a variety of plants, ornamental grasses, shrubs and groundcovers that are drought tolerant. He said some landscapes change throughout the year with the seasons and some folks enjoy seeing their landscape change.
There are many types of grasses that do not need constant mowing, watering, aerating, or fertilizing. He said ornamental grasses are not meant for foot traffic.
“A group called WUCOS (Water Use Classification of Landscape Species) now has empirical data on how much water certain types of landscapes use,” Campbell said. “The information can be accessed online through the University of California Extension.”
The irrigation system
Campbell explained there are different types of conversions kits people can use to update and improve their irrigation system. In general, overhead sprays are 30 to 55 percent efficient, rotators and rotors are 65 to 75 percent efficient, bubbles and micro sprays are 80 to 85 percent efficient and drip is 85 to 90 percent efficient.
All who came to the meeting left with buckets full of free goodies to improve water use in the home and information on how to conserve water with an efficient landscape.
For more information on water savings, visit www.cityofsacramento.org/utilities or call 311.
On the first Saturday of October, more than 50 volunteers converged around Duck Lake, William Land Park’s largest pond, armed with rakes, gloves and a determination to clean up the park’s pond and surrounding areas.
These folks are called the Land Park Volunteer Corps and they meet each month to take part in what they call “park work days.” The group was created after the City of Sacramento had to cut Department of Parks and Recreation employees by more than 60 percent in the last three years. Neighbors and city residents decided to step up and do their part to keep their local parks running green.
“I think it’s wonderful what the volunteers are doing because it maintains the ecology of the area, and it’s vitally important when you live in such a crowded area that you have a place you can take a walk or have a picnic in,” said Greenhaven resident, Alessia Wood.
Every month for nearly over two hours, the environmentally-aware group cuts, prunes, plants, and fills garbage bags of debris. But overgrown bushes, roots and left over picnic garbage is not the only thing this group picks up. Land Park Corps organizer, Craig Powell, said there are times when volunteers also see dead fish and birds around the big pond area.
“Some of our volunteers use extension nets and weed around the border of the pond. It’s a dark, murky pond. It’s very difficult for anyone to look at to see what’s in it,” Powell said. “Besides the concern of the appearance of Duck Lake, our main concern is that there are a lot of migratory birds, like the Canada geese, and families who fish there every single day for food for their table. We are not aware of anybody testing the quality of this water to see if it’s safe to eat the fish from there.”
Duck Lake was established in the early 1920s, and is located in the western-most part of the park, along Land Park Drive. Duck Lake was drained, dredged and widened in the winter of 1959. In 1998, it was stocked with 370 trout.
Powell claims that at one time he has seen 15 to 20 dead fish floating on top of the pond and that he has called and alerted the City.
“That should raise some alarm; there is something going on,” he said. “The response I got back from the City is, ‘it just happens sometimes.’”
Powell suspects that run-off from the street is the cause. He believes the City has failed to put in new plumping pipes to resolve the problem.
City leaders say that is not the case. While no testing has been done on the water by either the City or the Volunteer Corps, officials said there are a number of potential reasons for the issues the neighbors are concerned about at Duck Lake.
“Duck Lake is filled with well water from the park’s ground water wells,” said Jessica Hess, City of Sacramento Department of Utilities spokesperson. Ponds such as this do not have natural filtration systems and tend to become polluted from the wildlife they attract. And the hot summertime temperatures is another issue; the water is relatively stagnant.”
According to Hess, the pond gets run-off from two sources: the golf course and a drain. The golf course is the main source of run-off. This water flows through some grassy areas which act as a filter to help extract any potential contaminants from the run-off. The drain in the parking lot on 15th Ave, which runs alongside Fairytale Town, sends water into the botanical garden.
“This botanical garden acts as a natural filter for the urban runoff from the parking lot,” Hess explained. “As the urban runoff goes through the garden, the plants and small ponds within the garden act like ‘nature’s soap’ and allow the contaminants to settle.”
Then what about the dead fish and birds seen around the pond area?
Some say it could be caused by people pouring liquids and throwing trash and debris into the pond or on the ground nearby – where it can then flow into the water.
“These, too, can impact the amount of available oxygen which can impact water clarity,” said Hess.
Susan Helay, Birds Exhibit supervisor at the Sacramento Zoo, suspect’s human error can also be to blame, particularly among those who fish out of Duck Lake.
“We get a lot of the ducks that have swallowed fishing hooks, or their necks are tied up in left-over fishing lines,” Helay said. “Sometimes we can’t catch the birds to help them because they fly away. Not to mention, many of these animals and fish get old and die off naturally as well.”
Helay did say that if there were several fish or birds found dead at one period of time then there should be concern, but they have not seen anything like that recently.
“Sometimes the animals’ waste in the water can impact the amount of oxygen available which can impact the clarity,” she said.
Helay added that the well-water that is provided at the pond is considered safe and is used at the Zoo as well.
Councilman Robert Fong said he is aware of the Volunteer Corps concern about the District 4 Duck Lake and surrounding area. He said that the City is doing everything they can to keep the park and ponds safe and clean.
“The water in the pond is being filled with well-water, the same water we use in City drinking fountains,” said Councilman Fong. “I’ve been going to William Land Park as a kid, it’s one of our crown jewels, and we would never do anything to hurt one of our natural beauties.”
Residents and Businesses may only water one day a week under City’s Irrigation Ordinance
The City of Sacramento Department of Utilities reminds residents and businesses when changing their clocks on Nov. 7, to change their irrigation schedules as well.
The City’s current irrigation rules, found in the Water Conservation ordinance, state that at the conclusion of daylight savings time, residents and businesses may water on either Saturday or Sunday only. There is no watering allowed on weekdays.
For more information about water conservation and the City’s conservation ordinance, please visit www.sparesacwater.org.
The Regional Water Authority and local water providers launched a new public service campaign April 14 in Land Park that promotes landscape water efficiency in the Sacramento region.
With the Sacramento region’s hot, dry climate and long summer season, more than 65 percent of a household’s yearly water consumption typically goes toward landscape irrigation. Of that, 30 percent is lost due to overwatering or evaporation.
The kick-off event for the new public service campaign was held at Sara Shultz’s Land Park home. Shultz and her 3-year-old daughter will be featured in the television advertisements demonstrating how they earned a “Blue Thumb.”
For more information on neighborhood water conservation, visit www.bewatersmart.info.