California's Legacy of Swamplands
By Richard Hindle
27 September 2017
Photo courtesy of Bay Nature Magazine
Image: Coon Island, part of the extensive Napa–Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Area along the lower Napa River, has never been diked and so represents historic natural marsh.
Richard Hindle, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning at the College of Environmental Design, recently published a paper in Boom California detailing the history of swamplands in California. In “California’s Legacy of Swamplands,” Hindle explores the adverse effects of the Swamp Land Acts of the late 19th century, as well the unexpected benefits of some of the first federal water policies in California.
Hindle writes that the Swamp Land Acts of 1849, 1850, and 1860 were initially introduced in an attempt to encourage reclamation and settlement in wet and inundated regions of the west. Today, it is understood that these acts also caused displacement of indigenous cultures, impacted ecological systems, incentivized risky prospecting and left much of California and other parts of America with aging flood infrastructure that was projected to cost billions to update.
He argues that despite these drawbacks, it is worthwhile to consider the legislations as an “environmental, cultural and technical experiment that aimed to build extensive drainage and flood infrastructure throughout millions of acres on a shoestring budget.”
In relation to California in particular, the silver lining of the Swamp Land Acts is evident in the legacy of sociotechnical innovation inspired by the California Delta, which provided a valuable precedent for environmental transformations in the face of sea level rise, liquefaction, ecological degradation, and other landscape-scale threats that challenged conventional responses due to their distributed and complex geographies.
The technological innovations that were pioneered in the California Delta were applied to other regions of California, especially the San Francisco Bay. The legacy of the Swamp Land Acts is evident in the morphology of the California Delta, the water infrastructure in California and the annals of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. As we look towards the future, the Swamp Land Acts may provide insights as to how to navigate changing water infrastructure.
Hindle states that the Swamp Land Acts may be relevant as environmentalist and policy makers face the current changing climate of California. With failing levees, degraded ecosystems and threats of saltwater intrusion, the Swamp Land Acts remind us of the potential to enact large scale environmental changes when challenged by environmental imperatives.
“The ‘swamp’ was the scourge of the eighteenth century American landscape that was eradicated through a vast sociotechnical experiment with limited centralized planning. As we face the current day ‘evils’ of sea level rise and climate change we might look to the precedent of the Swamp Land Act as a template for decentralized responses to environmental imperatives at the frontier of technology and society,” Hindle said.
You can read Assistant Professor Hindle’s article in full here.