Viva la Archives!

Budget cuts threaten California water's institutional memory

  • Galloway collection, Water Resources Center Archives

  • Huber collection, Water Resources Center Archives


Tucked discreetly into the top floor of an engineering building at the University of California at Berkeley lies a mother lode of secrets. The Water Resources Center Archives has the feel of a police evidence room, dominated as it is by "the cage" -- a locked repository jam-packed with everything from blueprints for water projects too fantastical to be built, to the private correspondence behind the biggest legal cases in California history. To be sure, much of this stuff is more somniferous than a dozen gin rickeys and a handful of Quaaludes. Yet it is the intellectual grist behind the state's rip-roaring saga of water brinkmanship.

Linda Vida, a saintly woman with the placid bearing of somebody's favorite aunt, has directed the archives since 1993. "We've got 150 years of California water history here," Vida says. "And a lot of it is unique material that no other library collects."

In the tradition of enlightened archiving, Vida has been a formidable spirit, tirelessly faxing documents to eminent hydrologists too frail to visit the archives themselves, and fighting lawyers out to sanitize the public record by selectively removing their clients' documents from the cage. The collection has frequently been instrumental in saving the state's water honchos from their penchant for running their records through the shredder. Now, however, it faces an uncertain future.

The archives are a unit of the University of California's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. In October, the division's vice president, Dan Dooley, announced a round of program closures "to achieve $9 million in permanent budget reductions," cryptically noting that the water archives "will have a new academic home by June 30, 2010." That set off a round of speculation that the archives' doors may be about to close.

And so Vida's manner has, of late, been infused with a smoky exasperation. She has been burning up the phone lines seeking funding guarantees and the promise of a loving home for the archives. "I've been making myself a pain in the butt," she says.

The archives opened in 1958, during the heady days of dam-building, and they offer a rare opportunity to conduct forensic electroencephalography on the minds that shaped California's waterscape. The collection includes the personal correspondence of B. Abbott Goldberg, Gov. Pat Brown's right-hand man during California's go-go years; Elwood Mead, the water crusader and federal water commissioner who oversaw the construction of Grand Coulee and Hoover dams; and Luna Leopold, a river restoration guru and son of the great philosopher of conservation, Aldo Leopold. Testament to the archives' importance can be found in the acknowledgments of some of the most important books about Western water, including Donald Worster's Rivers of Empire, Norris Hundley's Water and the West, and Donald J. Pisani's exhaustive oeuvre.

No one, though, has beaten a faster path to the archives than some of the state's water bosses. One blockbuster example came in 1979. Several environmental groups sued the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for siphoning most of the water out of Mono Lake, on the east side of the Sierra. A crucial question in the case was how much environmental damage the water "exports" had actually caused. In the early 1900s, a hydrologist named Charles Lee carried out a meticulous investigation of Mono Lake and its environs, and both sides in the fight realized that his notes would provide a credible baseline account of what the area was like before the water diversions began.

Lee's original notes had been tossed. But a copy turned up in the Water Resources Center Archives, setting up a sort of shootout at the OK Corral, complete with dueling photocopiers. Ultimately, the environmentalists won the battle, and the case still stands as one of the biggest in California history: Not only was Mono Lake saved, but today, under the "public trust doctrine," water can no longer be mindlessly funneled off for use on farms and in taps without consideration for the environment.

With just three months to go before the June deadline, the future of the archives is in doubt. On April 9, Dooley's office contacted four University of California campuses with an announcement that the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources "can no longer support the operation of the WRCA library and thus seeks a new guardian of this unique resource." It's not clear where the $340,000 per year needed to keep the archives' staff at work will come from. With California's water supplies stretched thinner than ever and political tensions over water ratcheting up by the day, the need for a public archive has never been greater. "The real value of the archives is emerging now," says Vida. "There's a lot going on that needs to be preserved and made accessible. Going into the future, the archives are going to be more important than ever."

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