Watching news clips of the flash flooding in Arizona this past weekend, I was reminded of my youth. One of the immutable facts of life I learned in the soggy state of Washington was that water flows where it will. It’s a corollary of John 3:8, often quoted as “the wind blows where it will.” Biblically speaking, that’s a metaphor for the unknowability of God’s spirit, but it works because not knowing where the wind will blow next is a common human experience. For me, watching floodwaters submerge Arizona streets has the same effect.

I have always loved watching floodwaters, probably for that very reason. Whether it’s flooding from my garden hose inadvertently left running too long or a creek gone wild or a reservoir filling rapidly, the apparent freedom of water, flowing to its own logic and set of rules, has the effect of putting me in my place, which can be comforting. I confess, however, that I have never had to be rescued from my rooftop or watch my livestock drown. That place is a hard place to be put.

Last week a report was released revealing the higher likelihood of experiencing a flood like we had in the winter of 1861-62. Lots of people were talking about that news, which I thought was good. From all the control we’ve exerted over water here in the last 100 years, we’ve lost touch with the reality of its power.

I don’t remember all the places where I’ve read about the 1861-62 flood. Bill Tweed mentions it briefly in his book “The Challenge of the Big Trees” (1990) and includes the fact that it was followed by a severe drought (1863-64) that drove the starving cattle (the ones who didn’t drown in the flood) into the foothills and forests in search of forage. Bill Preston adds (in “Vanishing Landscapes: Land and Life in the Tulare Lake Basin,” 1981) that the flood of 1861-62 was preceded by years of drought that killed many cattle the Mexican rancheros had established here; he also noted that the drought of 1863-64 was followed by yet another overwhelming flood in 1867-68. These floods and droughts were especially damaging because we had not yet learned the reality of California’s standard climate with its highly-fluctuating weather.

A first-hand account of the 1861-62 flood is in William F. Brewer’s journal, “Up and Down California” (fourth edition 2003.) On January 19, 1862, Brewer wrote: “The great central valley of the state is under water—the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys—a region 250 to 300 miles long and an average of at least twenty miles wide, a district of five thousand or six thousand square miles, or probably three to three and a half million acres! Although much of it is not cultivated, yet a part of it is the garden of the state. Thousands of farms are entirely under water—cattle starving and drowning.” 

That same day he noted that “Sacramento and many other towns and cities” had been overflowed. Though the floodwaters had temporarily dropped, with rains resuming he wrote “That doomed city is in all probability under water again today.” On Feb. 9 he reported that “Nearly every house and farm over this immense region is gone. There was such a body of water—250 to 300 miles long and 20 to 60 miles wide, the water ice cold and muddy—that the winds made high waves which beat the farm houses to pieces.” He added “The experience was needed. Had this flood been delayed for ten years the disaster would have been more than doubled.”

If those rains came next year, the flooding would be different. We have built many dams, canals and dikes to direct water where we will, preempting water’s natural choices. But the winds blowing where they will can bring rain that will fall when and where it will, and the question becomes whether or not our engineering was designed for that deluge. The weather reports of atmospheric rivers would give us some advance notice; the dams holding water back might give us more time to evacuate before they failed. But we could be put in our places once again by that amazing, essential natural element, water. We might finally learn the lesson we forgot after the great floods of the 1860s.

Trudy Wischemann a water baby who writes. You can send her your thoughts on drowning c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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