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How a drought year changed the course of California history

Several years before the Mexican War, before the discovery of gold, before California became a state, Lt. Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy, one of the more interesting characters in the dramas of early California, sailed into San Francisco Bay to assess the prospects of the Pacific Coast for the U.S. government.

He was astonishingly unimpressed.

There was no land suitable for agriculture anywhere around the pueblo of Sonoma, he wrote in his report. And the Sacramento Valley was no more than a "barren wasteland."

Wilkes, you see, had the bad luck to arrive in California in the year 1841, which was a drought year in this area of such significant proportions as to change the course of history.

I raise this issue now because it looks like the course of history may wobble, or at least bend a bit, in subsequent months. We've had rain, but the experts tell us that 2009, like 1841 and a dozen or more years since, will be recorded as another drought year.

It was also a pivotal year for Mexican California, with not only the United States but France, Great Britain and the last of the Russian occupiers poking around, taking notes to help their governments decide whether -- or when -- to make their move.

So there were a number of trustworthy sources (not including Wilkes) to attest to the effect of the rainless months on the land.

It was the year that John Bidwell arrived in California with a band of settlers nominally captained by John Bartleson, the first wagon train to cross the Sierra into California.

Bidwell is an excellent source for drought information. He was highly literate and, at 22, the de facto leader of the group of 69 men who struggled down from the mountains, over what we know as Sonora Pass, where they had abandoned their wagons, to John Marsh's ranch at the foot of Mount Diablo. It was November. They had spent 24 weeks on the trail and were footsore and near starvation, having been reduced to eating their mules.

I tell you this to remind you that those were not necessarily the good old days. Here is what Bidwell found in this promised land of lush landscapes and year-round fertility.

"IT HAD BEEN one of the driest years ever known in California, The country was brown and parched; throughout the State wheat, beans, everything had failed. Cattle were almost starving for grass, and the people, except perhaps a few of the best families, were without bread, and were eating chiefly meat, and that often of a very poor quality."

Consider also that there was little or no organized agriculture. No orchards to speak of, no truck gardens, very few grapes to suck up the ground water.

The Mexicans relied on hides and tallow from their cattle as a source of ranch income, so the drain on the water table had to be minimal.

Certainly the population couldn't drink enough to matter. There was only a Presidio, nothing more, in San Francisco. Northern California was divided into large (I mean 40,000-acres large) land grants.

Bidwell, traveling south, estimated there were 200 people in Santa Barbara, 250 in Los Angeles and 150 in San Diego. He may have missed a few, since estimates for Mexico's Alta California in the 1840s placed the population at about 80,000. But there were still a lot fewer water drinkers, lawn-waterers and driveway-hosers than today's 36 million-plus.

Still, there had not been enough rain to go around. In another recollection, Bidwell wrote about the "parched earth" that blew out of his hand and about the "total failures" of corn and grain crops.

ONE OF THOSE significant failures altered the destiny of our North Coast. If we had had a little more rain that winter, John Sutter might have been able to pay the departing Russians for Fort Ross. As it happened, Sutter had three successive years of crop failures and couldn't pay the Russians the $5,000 worth of wheat he owed them in '41 and '42, or the $10,000 in wheat and produce that was due in '43, which Bidwell described as "dryest year I've ever known, in fact it was almost rainless."

Possibly because they heard that news, the Russians never returned to take possession of Sutter's Sacramento Valley fort, which they had demanded as collateral.

How interesting would THAT have been?

BAD YEARS have a way of altering history. Say Dust Bowl, think Depression.

While we treat each new drought as if the world has shifted on its axis, drought is part of our climate pattern. Fort Ross' Russian officials reported in the 1830s that the river they called Slavianka "sometimes dried up in summer."

There have been a number of 15-inch years in the 155 years we've been keeping rainfall records here. The 1870s had two low years and Santa Rosa Creek ran dry (well, almost) in 1885. Mostly, the farmers took it as part of the cycle -- why they call it farming instead of shopping, as the old joke goes.

But, in 1977, when February rolled around and Santa Rosa's rainfall total stood at less than 7 inches, with Coyote Dam in place and Warm Springs Dam a hot button political issue, government agencies began to fight among themselves.

The Board of Supervisors blamed the Water Agency. The agency blamed the opponents of Warm Springs Dam. Weathermen blamed the state for not paying attention to the long-range forecasts. Santa Rosa blamed Rohnert Park, where water was not metered, for draining the aquifer. And everybody else blamed Santa Rosa for growing too fast.

The advertising agencies vied to find the right slogan for our water saving program. "Blush. Don't flush," was the most tasteful. And several city leaders (well, two at least) demonstrated how to shower standing in plastic garbage cans to save the water for plants.

So what do we learn from history? That this too shall pass? That dead lawns will come back in time? That it will rain a lot one day soon and that it may even flood again in our lifetime?

The optimist might take a longer look at John Bidwell. He hung around through those dry years -- and then he found gold on the Feather River, bought himself a 22,000-acre spread in Chico, went to Congress, ran three times for governor and once for U.S. president on the Prohibition Party ticket.

He lived a long, happy life in California -- through several drought years -- and there are lots of things -- a state park, a lake, a mountain and a fort -- named after him.

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