Dried Marsh Mud, 1979, California Tomorrow Records, California Historical Society, MS 3641_001
Dried and cracked earth, brown lawns, low reservoir levels, mandatory water rationing: these are some of the consequences of California’s record-breaking drought, now in its fifth year. But they also once described the devastating drought of 1976 and 1977, “the worst in the state’s history,” as Ronald B. Robie, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, wrote in 1978. (1)
That historic drought ushered in many of the water conservation policies we know today. As consumers statewide embraced rigorous and widespread urban water conservation—refraining from watering their lawns, washing their cars, and flushing their toilets—then Governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. commissioned the publication of a water atlas to help explain the state’s complex water systems.
The California Water Atlas, published in 1979, was a joint venture of the Governor's Office of Planning and Research and the State Department of Water Resources. The first of its kind, it was a comprehensive record of California’s water resources, with copious illustrations, charts, graphs, diagrams, and state-of-the-art maps. (2)
Helping to publicize the atlas was California Tomorrow, a nonprofit educational group founded in 1961 by Alfred E. Heller to promote the preservation of California’s natural resources and management of the state’s growth. As the novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner observed in 1979, California Tomorrow’s plan “was nothing less than a plan for the good life within a growing and continuingly industrial state, without the depletion, pollution and deterioration in life-quality that uncontrolled growth has brought.” (3)
Through its magazine Cry California, California Tomorrow presented the findings of conservationists, planners, regulators, and residents involved in the organization’s state planning efforts from 1965 to 1983. Cry California’s Spring 1979 issue featured “Questions in California’s Water Future,” a special, illustrated preview of the atlas, including this image of dried marsh mud in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Illustrating the effects of the 1976–77 drought, the photograph suggests the article’s intent: to identify “the unresolved water questions that will confront California in the years ahead.” (4)
Today, a new Brown administration is addressing water scarcity in a state challenged by climate change, population growth, and dwindling groundwater. And with its efforts comes the development of a new water atlas—a nonprofit project that revives the 1979 atlas and updates it with interactive technologies. (5)
As we monitor our debris-strewn rivers, dry wells, and fields of parched grass, Ronald Robie’s 1978 warning resonates: “There is no assurance that the next drought is not just beyond the horizon. We can be assured, however, that drought will return, and, considering the greater needs of that future time, its impact, unless prepared for, will be much greater.” (6)
- The 1976–1977 California Drought: A Review (State of California Resources Agency, Department of Water Resources: 1978), iii; http://www.water.ca.gov/waterconditions/docs/9_drought-1976-77.pdf
- The atlas has been digitized and may be viewed in its entirety online at the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. “Landmark 1979 California Water Atlas Debuts Online,” http://www.davidrumsey.com/blog/2010/1/21/landmark-1979-california-water-atlas-debuts-online.
- Wallace Stegner, “The California Tomorrow Plan,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 25, no. 5 (Feb. 1972), 4. Wallace’s article summarizes a discussion of the California Tomorrow Plan at a meeting in November 1971 at Carmel, California, to address the state’s ecological and environmental problems.
- “A New Era . . . an Unfinished Agenda,” Cry California 14, no. 2 (Spring 1979), CHS Manuscripts Collection, MS 3641.
- For a description of the new atlas, see “The New California Water Atlas: Making Water Understandable in California,” http://ca.statewater.org. As co-director Chacha Sikes has written, “The will present the state of water in California so that we can all see where we are and argue over where we are going and make better long-term decisions together. . . . The ultimate goal is a California we can take pride in, with healthy watersheds with happy people and happy fish, clean, intelligent, resilient, water systems for farms and cities, managed using quality science and open, accurate, and useful government data. In the end, we really are all talking about the same thing.” Chacha Sikes, “A New Water Atlas,” 3, no. 3 (; http://www.boomcalifornia.com/2013/10/a-new-water-atlas.
- Robie, The 1976–1977 California Drought, iii.
Shelly Kale is Publications and Strategic Projects Manager at the California Historical Society. Formerly Managing Editor of California History from 2007 to 2013, she has held editorial and administrative positions in academic, museum, educational, electronic, and trade and mass-market publishing.
This article originally appeared in Spotlight, a feature of the California History journal (Vol. 92, #4), published by the University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society. Conceived by former journal editor and historian Janet Fireman as a last-page photographic feature that itself would evoke a lasting image for journal’s readers, Spotlight draws from CHS’s vast and diverse collection of California photography and photographic history.
California History, Vol. 92, Number 4, pp. 73–75, ISSN 0162-2897, electronic ISSN 2327-1485. ©2014 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.