“Painters have often taught writers how to see.”  – James Baldwin     

The process of writing is very much the same as the process of making an installation or painting for me. With a deep interest in history and the role of location, I’ve always been fascinated with the research phase of projects. I collect information for writing in the same way, until my mind is overflowing with incomprehension. Then, like it’s all contained in a blender, I turn on the switch, swirling all madly until elements float to the top. It’s from all those years in advertising, I believe; what’s the most important part of this story, what’s the best image to tell a story. I’ve wanted to make books forever.

Two selections from Water: More or Less

1) Fighting Floods and Politics by Rita Schmidt Sudman        

The history of the Valley is a story of how prevailing social movements shaped the land and people of the Valley.

California’s Sacramento Valley today is a far different place than the early pioneers found. Their struggle to bring water to grow crops while avoiding terrible floods helps us understand the area of the vast Central Valley and its people. The history of the Sacramento Valley is also the story of how prevailing social movements shaped the land and people of the Valley.


Delta looking west to Staten Island

After the influx of pioneers during the Gold Rush years, land was cleared for farming. Wheat became the Valley’s dominant crop since it did not require any irrigation and refrigeration to bring it to market in the East. With the arrival of the railroad’s new refrigerated cars, Valley- grown fruit could be chilled and preserved during the journey east.  As fruit became a major crop, wheat prices dropped and wheat farming diminished. Fruit required irrigation. If the land had access to Sacramento River water or if the farmers could dig productive wells, land increased in value.

Early battles

But for the historic cycles of drought and flood that hit the Valley, things might have worked out smoothly. They had been warned by the native people that great floods periodically covered the entire Sacramento Valley and were often followed by periods of devastating drought in which animals died and plants withered. In fact, floods from the Sierra Nevada often created a huge inland sea covering the entire Valley in the winter months. Captain John C. Fremont actually camped on the Sutter Buttes in the winter of 1846 as it was the only land not under water.

The floods had their benefits. During overflow periods, woodlands of oak, cottonwood, willow and ash lined the river banks up to five miles wide creating a rich and shady environment for salmon and wildlife.

But to the settlers fishing wasn’t important.  Farming was their livelihood.  After statehood, Congress passed the 1855 Swamp and Overflow Act to encourage American farmers to drain and “reclaim” river marsh lands, turning them into productive farmland.  The cost of $1 for an acre of land that money would be refunded to the purchaser when the land was drained and transformed into dry land.  At first, there was a 320-acreage limit to qualify, but in 1868 that limit was dropped. The land boom was on – with one catch. The caveat; it was also up to the buyers to build the levees to protect their lands from the dreaded floods.

Thus began a time historians call the Laissez-faire water period, a time in which individuals – not governments – had the authority and responsibility for flood control and water impoundment infrastructure. Several attempts were made to give the state some authority over the ensuing levee construction confusion through the creation of swampland districts. These attempts failed although some swampland districts became the reclamation districts of today.

As the land boom continued, inexpensive wetland marshes were snapped up by speculators.  By 1871 almost a half-million acres of these overflow lands in the Sacramento Valley were owned by just 30 people.  To claim the land, the prospective owner had to prove that the land was wet most of the year. Abuses were notorious.  For example, one speculator known locally as the “admiral,” supposedly secured his swamp and overflow land by testifying he traveled over the land in a boat, leaving out the fact that the boat was sitting atop a horse-drawn wagon!

Hydraulic mining fights

For farmers in this time, periodic flooding was aggravated by the debris from hydraulic mining practices that flooded settlements and farms. Huge mechanized water hoses destroyed mountainsides in an industrial-scale extraction of gold.  Farmers – and the railroads that carried their produce – fought the powerful mining interests for years to stop this destructive practice. They succeeded in 1884 when a federal court essentially outlawed hydraulic mining.  Even so, the remains of this destructive practice adversely affects Valley water quality to this day.

Also around this time, in another effort to unify the development of water projects, the state legislature enacted the 1887 Wright Act to allow the formation of public irrigation districts to acquire water rights, construct water projects and sell bonds and tax property. It was an important start toward a more unified approach to building water projects, though many private water projects continued with mixed results.

The 1919 Marshall Plan laid out a comprehensive flood and irrigation plan. The public now supported unified water solutions involving governmental approaches.                                                

As the irrigation movement grew, California became part of a new social movement sweeping several states as Progressives gained power. In California, Progressive Party’s Governor Hiram Johnson believed in organized, large-scale water development, and ordered the gathering of information and data for the first state water plan.  In a 1914 California election, which was in fact a Progressives-enacted referendum on already passed legislation, the public approved a new water code that asserted state control of water and set up a permit system. The state engineer William Hammond Hall had previously devised an integrated flood control and water development plan for the entire Central Valley.  Although that plan was not developed during this period, it signaled the end of the Laissez-faire water period. Finally, the 1919 state Marshall Plan laid out a comprehensive flood and irrigation program. The public now supported bigger unified water solutions that would involve the state and federal governments.

The era of the large water projects was beginning.

When Shasta Dam was built, the water in the river finally was controlled. The dream of the early settlers to control and use the water of the Sacramento River finally was realized.

Another big Sacramento Valley water fight in the early 20th century involved support of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to narrowly channel the Sacramento River for flood control, boat navigation and to allow for the scouring of the remaining hydraulic sediment. The opposing idea was to allow some breathing room for the river by creating a bypass system – essentially parking water off the river to relieve flooding, an idea championed by Colusa newspaper editor, Will Green. He strongly opposed the Corps’ narrow channel approach to flood management.  His idea eventually gained support in the Progressive era and the Sacramento River Flood Control Project was enacted by Congress in 1920. Today when driving over the Yolo Bypass between the cities of Davis and Sacramento, we are looking at a simple system that diverts a tremendous amount of flood water away from the city of Sacramento.  Several other nearby bypasses protect land and people the same way.

At the time of these great public water works, little thought was given to negative effects on fish and wildlife.                      

The comprehensive planning period of water development accelerated during the Great Depression. The state proposed a massive and expensive state Central Valley water project and voters in the early 1930s actually approved the idea. However, the state could not sell the bonds during the Depression. So the government stepped in and the huge federal Central Valley Project (CVP) was created under the new Roosevelt administration.  When Shasta Dam was built at the north end of the Sacramento Valley in the 1940s, the water in the Sacramento River finally was controlled during times of drought and flood.

Thus the dream of the early settlers to control and use the water of the Sacramento River for farms and cities finally was realized.

At the time of these immense public water works, little thought was given to negative effects on fish and wildlife. By 1980, the salmon and other fish were diminishing mainly due to dams and water diversions.  Concern for the fish, along with the new attention to environmental degradation across the country, led to the growth of a new social movement.  Those growing environmental issues would be part of the next big water fight in the Sacramento Valley and the rest of California.

But that’s another water story.


2) Water and Oil by Stephanie Taylor 

18 years in LA, I had little consciousness of oil, not even while driving La Cienega over hills graced with nothing but pumpjacks. Saber-toothed tigers at bubbling La Brea tarpits, pumps camouflaged in lush Beverly Hills gardens, I lived at the beach just south of a huge Shell refinery. Never gave oil a thought. All this oil. How was it created, how is it extracted, and how does it affect water?

               Bakersfield. Two pumpjacks work endlessly on the banks of the Kern River, near a bridge that spans no water. I hear their forlorn cry in the dry October landscape. The larger of the the two emits a soft whistle, coming and going on the wind. I listen to its rhythm, purse my lips together to mimic the exact note on the scale. It lasts about 4 seconds, fading in then out.

Around and around, two arms drive a monstrous head of steel, dropping then lifting a 2” diameter pipe. It sucks oil, sand, and water from a casing drilled far into the earth, sometimes as deep as 20,000 feet.

The second pump emits a low squeak, something unlubricated, exhausted. It’s the older of the two, paint faded, rusting steel exposed. An ancient belt-driven generator sounding like an old refrigerator, its pipe sucking and dripping oil, shiny and black. These almost creature-like machines dot the landscape surrounding Bakersfield, past Oildale to the east, and to the Petroleum Highway (33), to the west. Nothing of much value except oil. And water.

About 210,000 wells have been drilled in California, and around 100,000 are active, operated by about 570 companies, large and small. Kern County, the third largest oil county in the country, produces 80 % of all California oil.

This is a story about oil production and water in the southern San Joaquin Valley, and specifically in Kern County where oil and water is defined by millions of years of geology unique to this area. The creation of mountains, sediment, rock and soil, and the migration of fluids under pressure. Diatomite formations: rock formed from the skeletal remains of microscopic diatoms. Sandstone formations: up to 1 million times more permeable than shale. Shale formations: densely packed layers. It’s the diatomite that makes Kern County uniquely productive.

By necessity, this is a simplified story about stupefying complexities.

There is almost no oil without water. Organic material, buried deep and heated by the earth breaks down to form oil and then natural gas. Permeability and porosity of each unique formation determines how easily fluids move through rock and up to the surface.


Before Interstate 5 was finished in 1979, driving to LA on 99 was California’s blast-from-the-past. I never got off the freeway. Miles of cotton. Tumbleweeds rolled across the highway, spinning with the wind. They foreshadowed what this region used to be, and what it was to become. And the in-between years? The State Water Project brought water to the San Joaquin Valley.

Yokuts Indians were the first to use natural seeps of tar near the Kern River in Bakersfield. Commercially viable petroleum deposits were discovered in 1899. By 1903, California was the top oil-producing state in the nation, with most of it coming from deposits in the San Joaquin.

California oil is thick, thicker than most places in the world. Almost a solid, it’s like molasses in a freezer – until heated with water injected as steam.

To the west, the rain shadow side of the Coast Range, rainless hills are so barren that nothing appears to grow, scratched clean. Soil is dry, salty, with geologic names like Kreyenhagen Formation, Monterey Shale, Corcoran Clay. Little is left for the wind to ruffle. Villages almost too non-descript to name, are named – “Dustin Acres” and “Valley Acres.” Roadside signs praise the Lord and various churches. A “Nothing but Jesus” banner graces the side of a metal storage building.

The Coast Range on the west side of the Great Central Valley, used to lie deep within the ocean, uplifted, bringing diatomite rock, salt and minerals, including selenium.


This is a living desert of mechanical creatures, poking the earth, conveying fluids. These are some of the top oil producing fields in the United States. Fields called Buena Vista, Midway Sunset, Elk Hills, Belgian Anticline, San Emidio Nose. Vertical and horizontal structures, pumpjacks and pipes shiny in the sun, transport oil, gas and water 24/7. It appears as a landscape devoid of people, there are so few about.

Deep within rock, oil moves through remnants of tiny creatures, cracks and pores, winding, meandering. Well casing serves as a straw, releasing pressure held within earth for millions of years. In 1910, at 2,440 feet, the famous Lakeview Gusher, on the Petroleum Highway, erupted uncontrollably for 18 months straight, “a river of crude…the greatest oil well the country has ever known.” It spewed about 9 million barrels, about twice as much as the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. Even today, engineering predictions are “best guesses.”

These are mature fields. Portions have been depleted. Wells remain productive, but not without the stimulation of impermeable rock with enhanced recovery methods. Fracking.


A fractured subject, emotional and contentious. Opinions versus facts, pros and cons. Where does the water go and does it contaminate potable water above and below the surface?

Fracking is “an optimization problem as opposed to an exploration and discovery problem.” It’s been used on the west side for about 50 years. Usually a one-time preparation event, often lasting less than an hour out of an entire life-span of a well. Technologies developed in the last ten years have increased productivity.


Frac fluids are injected under pressure down wells until nearby rock cracks. Many “frac jobs” on the westside of the valley are “shallow play” vertical wells, around 1,500 feet deep. A few curve and “run” horizontally for one to three miles, “chasing the formation” into oil-rich rock. Holes are blasted through steel casing. A jelly-like substance – around 70% water, 25% sand, and 5% common food additives such as guar gum, and anti-bacterial household chemicals – is injected under pressure, making and enlarging cracks.

Fracking the typical California well uses about 120,000 gallons of water to ready a single well for production. That’s about 1/6th the volume of an Olympic size pool, and far less than the average golf course. It’s much less water intensive than fracking in other states because California frac wells are typically shorter: 1,500 linear feet compared to 4 miles. Texas wells, for example, can use between two and ten million gallons of water.

Fracking makes cracks about 1 inch by 200 feet wide and long. The cracks provide artificially enhanced permeability to allow oil and gas to move easily, out of rock and into wells. Wells lift fluids to the surface.

At the well head, oil is separated from sand and water. At this point, extracted water might be clean enough to be treated and recycled – either returned to the production process, returned deep into the earth, or sold to farmers to grow crops.

Wastewater is hazardous if not managed properly. It’s the duty of California’s State Water Resources Control Board and the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources to prevent disposal of any contaminated oilfield wastewater near underground drinking supplies.

Or – do contaminates like natural salts on the westside, render the wastewater too toxic to recycle? Under strict regulation and conscientious monitoring, it may be reinjected into deep formations of already salty and unpotable groundwater, as determined by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Innovation is the future. In one year, a company sold around 8 billion gallons of treated wastewater to almond and pistachio growers. Companies plan on increasing transfers to growers, using the latest cleaning technologies, like electric pulsing, to purify wastewater.

Could it be that someday priorities will switch, as one expert speculated: that the technological production of oil might become “a necessary side effect of producing water?”


When Interstate 5 first opened, straddling the foothills of the Coast Range, the view at night revealed little but darkness between small towns in the San Joaquin. Over time, lights filled the empty spaces between towns until it seemed to be one long town from Bakersfield to Sacramento.

Dr. Mark Zoback, Professor of Geophysics at Stanford University predicts that, “By 2040, the world is going to need about 50% more energy than is consumed today.”

I sit in my car next to the oil fields thinking about all the petroleum products we’ve come to depend upon. I remember Dustin Hoffman in his 1967 iconic role in “The Graduate.” His dad’s friend drapes an arm across his shoulder, and pontificates about the future. “I just what to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?”  he asks, “Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”


February 2017: 2nd edition of Water: More or Less is now available. 

We have added a new essay about the Delta by Leticia Grenier of the San Francisco Estuary Institute. Rita and several of our experts have updated their essays to reflect California’s constant changes. Stephanie has added an essay about the relationship of water to oil in Kern County.

California State Library names Water: More or Less, Book of the Week, with this review:

“Water. In California water is life, and our cycles of drought and flood, of water wheeling and dealing are deadly serious business. In Water More or Less, Rita Sudman and Stephanie Taylor have responded to the all-consuming nature of this relationship, by assembling a diverse collection of expert perspectives on what water is to Californians. In this book, you can fish with oystermen about to lose their livelihood or read an account of how the peripheral canal initiative failed from the perspective of a water policy-maker. You can even walk an experimental forest with an ecologist, all while enjoying Taylor’s luminous artwork. If you are a Californian or a westerner, or if you’ve benefited from California’s agricultural or economic abundance, this book is a must-read.”

Main Streets of California: a new series with the Bee. 

#1 in the series- Dutch Flat- that sign on Interstate 80 that few follow. A sweet Gold Rush town. #2 in the series- Rio Vista. Literally- a view of the Sacramento River. #3 in the series- follow me to Taft (where? you might ask?) in the middle of what looks like nowhere but which is actually a hugely productive oil producing are on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. #4, Hanford- somewhere in the middle of nowhere in particular. Spectacular!


Click here to view video preview of book.


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Click to purchase from Amazon.

Click to purchase from the Water Education Foundation.

Essays and paintings in the Sacramento Bee

A freelance Op-Ed contributor.  Learn More about Stephanie on sacbee.com

Sketches from Tuscany- coming soon.

A sketchbook of observations, photography, and paintings from several trips to Tuscany, including a five week stay in an authentic Medieval village. It will be an updated, more inclusive edition of Keyholes of Tuscany, available now on Amazon.
View on Amazon

writing tuscany book

Sketches from the Galapagos- coming soon.

In August 2014, I fulfilled a life-long dream. I went to the Galapagos Islands. It was intense, challenging, and extremely rewarding.

Gal Hawk
Learn more on this article at sacbee.com