When it rained back East the gray skies would stretch unbroken to the horizon. Satellite images revealed cloud cover sprawling from Boston to Baltimore, blanketing my New Jersey childhood and Pennsylvania college years in humidity and drizzle.
Rainstorms are a different kind of animal out West. They blow in from the ocean in erratic fronts and break up as they make landfall. Offshore they prowl and stalk, lurking behind the shoulders of Mount Tamalpais, then sweeping in on cold North Pacific gusts to gush and fall in sheets across the streets and avenues, cascade down asphalt slopes and turn gutters into sudden, swollen streams.
When I moved to San Francisco it was at the end of California’s 1987-1992 drought. I remember stopping at roadside restaurants to find apologetic table cards stating that due to the drought, I should ask for water only if I planned on drinking all of it.
Not long after I settled into my new home city, the drought broke with weeks of spectacular spring rains — they were downpours of biblical proportions — and so my first experience of California’s boom-bust hydrology came full circle.
Except it didn’t.
The thing about San Francisco is that it’s full of water. Did you know that BART pumps about 65 million gallons of potable, local water each year into the sewers from under Powell Street Station? That’s because there is a subterranean “river” gathering out of springs that percolate all the way west to Lone Mountain. The water follows gravity down under Hayes Valley and out through the former dune ecosystem that is now downtown and SoMa till it enters the bay at China Basin.
Much of San Francisco’s native water ends up in sewers, deep under concrete and asphalt. We never see, hear, smell or drink it — but it’s there, some of it nourishing fragments of an ancient ecosystem that dates back, I’m told, about 10,000 years, long before eucalyptus and colonial Spanish architecture put down roots.
It was a hike up Glen Canyon Park back in the ’90s that opened my eyes to this. The bottom half of the park is all invasive eucalyptus — a forest of stately trees that, along with spreading English ivy, choke out native plant and animal habitats. It’s a cool, green, but strangely silent interior, not particularly friendly to migratory songbirds.
But there’s a moment walking up the trail when, suddenly, the eucalyptus disappears, the air smells sweeter and birdsong fills your ears. This is where Islais Creek still has a moment in the sun. It seeps out of the slopes of Twin Peaks and winds down through a gallery of native willow and monkey flower, surrounded by coastal scrub and grassland that roll up the canyon’s flanks like a thick carpet. It’s luscious habitat for local fauna, and full of bugs for hungry birds and bats.
All because a stream is exposed to the sky.
There’s a lesson in this. Glen Canyon’s Franciscan ecosystem, born from and defined by its waterway, was made a park and preserved only because of citizen opposition to unchecked development.
The Jewish idea of the shmita year puts California’s water woes in perspective. This land’s aquifers are deeply stressed. Researchers say we’re now tapping into deep reserves of water that are 20,000 years old. They hypothesize that more than a century of groundwater pumping has caused the Sierra Nevada to rise about 6 inches even as towns in the Central Valley sink at a rate of roughly 1 foot per year.
Do we have what it takes to truly “give it a rest” and let the land recover? Because actually, right now is a great time for politically confronting our water policies. We have a relatively functional democracy, and in the Bay Area, information flows like water and fills reservoirs of culture, innovation and activism.
Can our industrial society live sustainably in what was once a veritable Eden for the now-scattered and disenfranchised Ohlone tribes? Can we recharge the aquifers, and re-engineer the waterflows of our society and our lives? What can we learn from Glen Canyon Park and San Francisco’s steep, seeping hills?
Perhaps we can rise to the occasion. While I yearn to awaken to the sound of rainfall, this truly can be the best of all possible droughts.