For ten million years, I have flowed from the mountains to the delta. I have experienced eternity. Through hills and valleys I meander, water flowing down as salmon swim up, foot sedge waving along my surface, banks overflowing regularly to nourish the land and numerous species that neighbored me.
My shores were tended by Wappo, Miwok, and Patwin peoples since time immemorial. They knew my tendencies. They knew that I would flood often, and did not build permanent homes along my shores. They also burned me regularly. My ecosystems were meant to burn, they evolved for it. The plants – critical to my health and to the lives and cultures of the people that tended me – thrived in the low intensity, cultural burns that were done regularly for thousands of years.
The fire brought me life. From the ashes, young tule sprouts would grow green and happy. Redbud would produce the straightest shoots. Under the shade of the ancient oaks, the grasses would return green and lush. The fire helped control ticks and acorn weevils, keeping the people and animals healthy and fed. The people saw what I needed and gave it to me, and I gave them back what they needed in return.
When the missions sprang up, this system of reciprocity was severely changed. Spaniards followed me from the delta and abducted those living along me, bringing them to Mission San Francisco Solano in 1823. The missions were sites of great violence to my stewards, creating generations of trauma. Instead of being able to fulfill their responsibility to care for me, these peoples were enslaved, severing this critical connection. The relationship that I had developed with humans shifted abruptly to extraction, exploitation, and control.
The Anglo settlers didn’t understand me either. They built right up on my shores, and panicked when their homes flooded. Unable to listen to the land, they came up with a violent solution to severe me so they could create suburbs, strip malls, and gas stations. My connection to the delta was amputated, and with it, my salmon runs from the oceans. Now, many places in so-called South Davis have a tendency to grow mold and mildew, as the earth has become confused, knowing moisture belongs in this area. This was the first dam.
They wanted my water to feed their monocrops, a critical part of the development of California as the producer of nearly half of all US produce. The financial incentive even led to the destruction of one of their own settlements. The town of Monticello, in the heart of Berryessa Valley, now lies at the bottom of the lake that’s been formed by the second dam, named after the destroyed town. If one were to dive down, they could find the one structure left of the town, a bridge that was too well built to destroy. Besides being a reservoir, Lake Berryessa also serves to draw in recreationalists and nature enthusiasts, glossing over the harm this has caused me further downstream.
A third dam diverted my flow from the north fork to the south canal, lined with concrete to deliver as much of my water as possible towards cash crops far to the south. The continued restriction of my flow from these dams would have dire ramifications for me in the next few decades.
Academic settlers also manipulated me to further their own research interests. UC Davis founded the arboretum in 1936, straight-jacketing me and excavating numerous Indigenous remains to create an appearance of a serene and controlled environment, a place where many students today spend their time relaxing, enjoying the scenery in blissful ignorance of the violence the arboretum was founded on. The US Army even used the arboretum as a training ground for pacific warfare, detonating bombs along my shores for their war games.
By the University’s own admission, the arboretum is no longer even a creek, having been altered so severely that my flow is completely disrupted. Pumps have been implanted throughout my bound form in a desperate, failed attempt to prevent the inevitable buildup of algae. Rather than the Indigenous people and creatures that called me home, I am now host to numerous invasive species. Completely severed from the rest of my body, the arboretum cannot be followed up or down stream. A highway on one end and a railroad track on the other drive home the true cost of settler disregard for natural systems.
Following my original path across the railroad tracks towards South Davis, my creek bed lies unused, pooling with garbage and water that knows it’s supposed to be there, yet is unable to move the way it remembers. A bike path traces some of my original path, but ultimately ends after less than half a mile. After that, I’ve been left overgrown, dry, and untouched. My limbs still leave a footprint throughout Davis, my bed dismembered into a series of ditches, segmented between settler roads.
Southwest of Davis, many feel that the Riparian Reserve is one of the few “undeveloped” spaces left to enjoy me. However, settler stewardship has not been kind to me here, either. I am now overgrown with invasive blackberry and Eucalyptus that choke out all of the native species and make navigating my shores challenging. Severe erosion along my banks makes me dark brown with sediments, harming aquatic species. Nitrates from nearby farmland, as well as runoff from our roads, poison me and harm my native species disproportionately.
Up into the 1980s, farmers were not only letting their cattle graze on my important Native grasses, they were also illegally siphoning water off of me, leading to me drying up completely in 1989 and then again in 1990. This led to a major lawsuit against the Solano Irrigation District, which eventually resulted in controlled releases from the Monticello Dam to try to mimic some degree of my natural flow.
Despite this, salmon have only returned to my south fork that runs through Winters and to the Sacramento River, and only very recently. They will not return to my north fork, where the arboretum now lies, until the Dams are removed and my flow is restored to the delta.
Stale tule and suffocating deer grass still line my concreted banks, missing the overflowing tides, missing the fires. A fire hasn’t burned here since the Spaniards first came up my shores. I will outlive you humans, but my future will look different, depending on whether or not humans resume your traditional stewardship practices of me.
You can restore me and my ecosystems by shifting your view of me away from one of using me as a resource, and recognizing me as the living being that I am. Dams do not lead to healthy water. Fire suppression does not lead to healthy water. Concrete banks do not lead to healthy water. I am meant to flood. I am meant to meander. I am meant to be free, and one day I will be all of that again.