Biking the Columbia River Levee, Hurricane Katrina, and the Vanport Flood

April 9, 2014

Keith Watkins:

In February 2013, I posted a blog about the precarious condition of the levee along the south bank of the Columbia River, using a photo I had taken on one of my bike rides along the bike trail. With my permission, a Portland newsweekly, Willamette Week, has used that photo with an online article about the difficulties that are likely to be encountered in finding funds to repair the levee. I am reposting my blog from last year.

Originally posted on Keith Watkins Historian:

Columbia River Levee

My Monday bike ride includes ten miles along the Columbia River Levee. For part of the distance the wide, paved bike trail runs between the levee and the riprap-protected riverbank. Other sections of the trail take cyclists, runners, walkers, and skaters on top of the dike. At other places, the trail is on the town side, with cyclists using the shoulder of Marine Drive, a heavily traveled industrial arterial.

The river is broad; Mt Hood dominates the eastern horizon, and much of the trail is a tranquil route where cyclists can ride as fast or as leisurely as they desire.

An article by Steve Law in this week’s Portland Tribune has reminded me of the fragility of things that seem to be built for the ages. One of the vivid memories of my adolescent years was a Friday afternoon in mid May 1948. I was running the mile on…

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Arid Lands and the Desert Southwest

April 7, 2014

Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell (Part Two of a Review Essay)

The book we know by the title Arid Lands was initially offered as an extended report to the United States Congress by a Washington scientist-bureaucrat, to use the term suggested by John Vernon in his foreword to the 2004 edition published by the University of Nebraska Press. In addition to the historical and descriptive chapters that Powell wrote, the report included chapters written by Willis Drummond Jr., C. E. Dutton, A. H. Thompson, and G. K. Gilbert, and the drafts of two bills proposed to Congress.

Powell, however, was both the major contributor and the guiding spirit for the entire document. The Arid Lands report is a comprehensive document that is 195 pages long in the current edition. Six features indicate the character of the book.

First, Arid Lands is grounded in experiential understanding of the vast region that it describes. Powell had been there for extended periods of time and in ways that forced him to reckon with the grandeur and challenge of the desert Southwest.

Bicyclists, of course, experience the sun, heat, and dryness in various seasons of the year and have some sense of the constancy of risk when dealing with the desert in a relatively unprotected way. Powell’s experience, however, was prior to the development of the systems of civilization that have been developed during the past century and a half. His boat trips through the Grand Canyon and along other desert rivers exposed him to peril far beyond any that cyclists today are likely to encounter. The book conveys this sense of realism.

Second, this experiential understanding is explained and interpreted by means of a large body of technical data about temperatures, rainfall, water levels in rivers and lakes, and other aspects of the geographical and climatological facts of the land. Although the body of information was not yet complete, which was one of the reasons Powell was asking for Congress’ continuing support, the data already collected were comprehensive and well organized so that reliable conclusions could be drawn about the entire sub-humid and arid region of the United States.

Third, Powell was willing to consider varied theories under discussion and to evaluate them on the basis of the data in hand and by careful evaluation of strengths and weaknesses. One example is the extended discussion of the rising level of the Great Salt Lake in one of the chapters by G. K. Gilbert. Before reaching his own conclusion, Powell had considered two other explanations, the volcanic theory and the climatic theory. Powell’s conclusion was that “the phenomena are to be ascribed to the modification of the surface of the earth by the agency of man” (84).

Fourth, Powell was committed to central principles of the American democratic system, but he was ready to redesign the economic and organizational systems so that people could live in freedom and with a way of life that was suitable to where they lived and the limits placed by climate and other natural factors.

Many of the systems that encouraged Jefferson’s yeoman farmers were designed to meet the reality of life in temperate, wet climates. They could not be transferred straight across to hot, dry climates. This Powell understood. He proposed his own ideas about social organization and tried to bring about legislation that would have established new and workable systems for the kind of world he was describing.

Fifth, some of Powell’s ideas are questionable. His attitudes toward Native Americans are demeaning and fail to acknowledge their rightful claims to the land. Although he recognized the importance of fire in regard to the patterns of grass and forests, his understanding of this aspect of the drought-flood-fire trilogy was deficient. Powell believed that cooperative efforts were necessary in order to develop the irrigation systems that the arid lands would require, but he mistakenly thought that they could be developed by local forces, such as under the Mormons in Utah. He failed to understand how important federal agencies would be.

Sixth, Powell can properly called a conservationist. He was an exemplar of one type: the person who is committed to the realistic and sustainable utilization of the geographical and climatic resources of a region. Here he stands as an interesting contrast with a second type of conservationist, with his contemporary John Muir as exemplar.

Muir’s interest was the preservation of natural lands in their existing condition, which is one of the reasons that the nation’s system of national parks can be understood as a testimony to his conservationist ideas.

The similarities and contrasts of these towering figures of the nineteenth century have been succinctly stated by Donald Worster in a lecture published in 2003 (“Encountering Mormon Country: John Wesley Powell, John Muir, and the Nature of Utah”; more on this essay another time). For now, it is enough to recommend Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell. The book deserves continued reading and discussion.

John Wesley Powell’s “Arid Lands”

April 4, 2014

 Note to my readers: My blogs about cycling often include posts related to water-related issues in places where I ride and theological-ethical issues related to water use around the world. More and more I am anxious because of the challenges all citizens of the world face with respect to water.

Therefore, I am adding a new page to keithwatkinshistorian. Although my primary interests for the blog will continue to be American Religion and Open Road Bicycling, I plan to post more frequent essays related to Water. This new category is being inaugurated by a review essay prompted by  John Wesley Powell’s historic book Arid Lands, first published in 1878.

Arid Lands, by John Wesley Powell, edited by Wallace Stegner. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004

Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell

Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell

This book was first published in 1878 under the title Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah. Powell was 44 years of age, a veteran of the Civil War, and already known as an explorer of the arid regions that the report described.

His celebrated trip through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River had taken place nine years earlier (1869), and since 1870 he had been in charge of the newly established Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region.

Powell’s decision to release the report when he did was influenced by the political situation at the time. Government officials and members of Congress were rushing toward significant settlements across the West despite the warnings by Powell and others. Funding for the agencies and studies in which Powell was engaged was under threat, and he was convinced that he had to act quickly in order to protect these funds and keep the research going forward. He believed that the already existing body of information supported the cautious approach to settlement that he was advocating.

He decided that it was possible to draw conclusions about possibilities and limits on the basis of what already was known, although further investigation would strengthen the factual basis for policies that he hoped would be put into place. In his introduction to the 2004 edition of Powell’s classic book, Wallace Stegner describes Powell’s endeavor in striking language.

“He risked his own future and the future of his bureau because in the sub-humid and arid lands he saw every successive land law, despite pious platitudes about the independent pioneer farmer, being turned to the advantage of monopolistic and often fraudulent practices, or encouraging a kind of agriculture that would not survive the first period of drought” (xvi).

Read more. . . .John Wesley Powell’s Arid Lands

From Holy Week to Spring Break

April 1, 2014

The Changing Character of American Public Life

During my childhood and early adult years, two religious observances were widely held in communities all across America. Easter vacation was a four-day event, beginning with Good Friday and concluding on the following Monday. Schools were closed on those two days, and business and many retail establishments were closed on that Friday afternoon.

This meant that families could count on a four-day holiday. Since going to their own church on Easter Sunday was still a major practice, most families ended up staying close to home despite the relaxation of their school and business schedules.

Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and concluding with Easter, was also widely recognized. Many churches used these days as times of special religious activities, which frequently included services of worship at noon or evening that were widely attended by people despite the fact that they were at work on those days.

During the years of my active adulthood, however, these religiously defined rituals of public life have been replaced. Holy Week and the Easter Vacation have morphed into Spring Break. Holy Week-Easter vacation and spring break-spring fling have two things in common: In our part of the world, they happen during the riotous rebirth of the natural world; and they provide a strongly anticipated break from the pattern of ordinary life.

One reason for the change in these springtime vacations, is technical. Schools need consistency in scheduling and they try to plan breaks to come at times in the year that are beneficial to the patterns of academic activity. Because the dating of Easter is based on the lunar calendar and the vernal equinox, it fluctuates from year to year, falling anytime from March 22 to April 25. With that kind of variation, it is difficult to plan academic calendars. This was true even in the Christian seminary where I taught for much of my career, and we were sympathetic to the religious events that these holy days commemorated.

A second reason for the fading away of the religious aspects of the springtime festival is that American public life is changing significantly. The de facto Protestant Christian underpinnings of how Americans ordered time are increasingly out of synchronization with how the people of our nation understand themselves. The proportion of church-going people to the population as a whole is diminishing.

Furthermore, other religious traditions, including Judaism and Asian religions, are now well represented in our communities. These groupings of people also have their religious festivals and believe that their ritual life should be honored as much as those of the Protestant old timers. One way to respond to this demand is to reduce the recognition of Protestant holy days and seasons, which is what has happened with respect to Easter Vacation and Holy Week.

The result is Spring Break, an event that is devoid of deeper meaning, whether it be religious or related to historical remembrance of events and meanings in America’s political and cultural traditions.

Since my experience is essentially pre-spring break, I can only comment on what I hear in the public discussion about the current festival. The oft-used alternative title, spring fling, conveys a sense of the exuberant behavior, with many constraints set aside for a few days, that typifies this festival of springtime. Spring break provides the occasion for people to move away from normal patterns of activity and from many of the social norms that keep ordinary life flowing smoothly.

For many people, the festival comes at a time when they need a few days away from convention in order to led the buds of life that have been dormant through the winter burst into bloom again. I too enjoy time away, especially if it is a warm place where I can spend a lot of time on my bicycle.

Should we worry about the fact that the older religious festivals honored self-giving love, the readiness to endure hardship for the sake of other people, and the strengthening of the institutions that bind us together while spring break celebrates the setting aside of these very qualities?

I think that the answer is yes. Hedonistic self-indulgence that spurns long-standing community values may be OK in tiny amounts on infrequent occasions, but the harder values of mutuality and service that the older ceremonies commemorated and transmitted are crucial to the well being of our nation.

Of one thing we can be sure: the spring fling aspect of spring break will stay with us. The task before us is to find a way to recover the solidarity of life together that in earlier generations was remembered and renewed during Holy Week and Easter Vacation.

Solo transcontinental bicycle tour

March 25, 2014

East from Arizona

East from Arizona

Fifteen years ago, on March 17, 1999, I began a solo transcontinental bicycle ride. Since I stayed in motels at night, I could travel light, following the strictures of John Forester who was determined to persuade Americans to use classic British modes of bicycle touring. I carried most of my gear in a large saddlebag that Forester and his wife manufactured and sold with the label Custom Cycle Fitments. Although that bag wore out under constant use, I bought another one that still satisfies my travel requirements.

On April 6, I reached San Antonio, Texas, where I took a two-week recess to participate in a series of theological conferences. During the dry lands part of the trip, I bicycled 18 days, took two rest days, and covered 1,496 miles. Daily mileage ranged from 49 to 121, with an average of 83 miles per day on the days I biked.

The highest points were the continental divide near Silver City, NM, and Locke Mountain in the Davis Mountains near Fort Davis, TX.  Locke Mountain is the site of the McDonald Observatory of the University of Texas from which brief programs about the heavens were broadcast on public radio.  Both of these high points are about 6,200 feet above sea level.

Following the recess, I continued the transcontinental ride through the wetlands of East Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. I finished this second phase of the journey in early May. In fifteen days of cycling, I traveled 1,312 miles, with daily mileage from 55 to 108, and an average of 87 miles per day on the days I rode.

I was 67 years old when I made this solo journey, and it marked an important transition in how I understood myself as a cyclist.

I had been cycling aggressively for twenty-five years and had ridden three long journeys ranging in length from 1,000 to 2,400 miles. On these trips I had traveled with one or two other persons. I had also taken solo journeys, with the longest being an 800-mile trip from Richmond, Virginia, to my home in Indianapolis.

This trip fifteen years ago, however, would be all the way across the country, from San Diego to St. Augustine. Most of the country was unknown to me, but I was confident that my many years of experience, my knowledge of how to keep a bicycle in working order, and my professional identity as clergyman and academician would enable me to make the trip safety and make connections when needed.

Here are some of the things that I learned on this trip.

  1. My long-practiced habits as a cyclist continued to be a suitable basis for this kind of trip. I could ride long miles, day after day, despite the fact that as a 67-year-old I was moving into the later stages of my life.
  2. Solo travel for long distances provides freedom to travel at my own rate, do what I wanted to do, and change my plans as the trip developed. Although I have since then taken long trips with a touring company, solo travel continues to be my favorite mode of doing long bicycle journeys.
  3. Although my wife had consented to my plans, some of our children doubted that this kind of trip was appropriate for someone my age. Their comments reminded me of the way my siblings and I became increasingly anxious about our mother’s solo travels on Greyhound Buses as she moved into her seventies.
  4. Episodes along the way made me realize that one aspect of my senior status was that I had less margin of error than when I was younger. If I were to misjudge how long it would take me to reach my destination for the night, I could not be confident that I had sufficient reserves of energy and strength to get to where I needed to be.
  5. Although I hoped to continue doing solo trips, it was time to explore traveling with bicycle touring companies. By traveling with others, I could probably keep going despite age-related limitations.

To commemorate the anniversary of this trip, I have revised the travel essay that describes the western portion of my solo southern tour.

With new gears lower than I had ever used, my classic Mercian bicycle was boxed for the flight to San Diego where, I soon would embark upon my solo cross-country trip to St. Augustine. My wife had consented to my plans, but apparently I had not explained them to our children until now—March 14, 1999—three days before the trip would begin.

Neither of our sons felt any need to respond to my email outlining the details, but our daughters phoned, two with panic in their voices. “Dad, you can’t bicycle across the whole country all by yourself. You’re 67 years old!” The third sister responded: “He’s done this all his life. Why worry now?” With my assurance that I would be carrying good maps, intended to stay in motels, and would phone home every night, their anxiety seemed to subside. Read more. . .Dry Lands on the Southern Tour

Bicycle rider in Morro Bay

March 15, 2014


Morro Rock at the Embarkadero

Morro Rock at the Embarkadero

For several weeks I had projected a 300-mile bike tour along California’s Central Coast, from Morro Bay south to San Clemente. The opportunity had arisen because we were hoping to connect family visits in Morro Bay and San Clemente.

Because of scheduling problems, the San Clemente part of the trip and the bike ride were scrubbed, and it’s a good thing! I would have been riding down the coast during several days of heavy rains that interrupted the worst drought that California has endured since the early 1860s. Since I didn’t didn’t bring my bike to Morro Bay, I used some of my time reading and thinking about climate on California’s Central Coast.

Cyclonic wind shear: A column in The San Luis Obispo Tribune explains the meteorological event that would have caused me such distress if I had been cycling the previous week: the intense rainstorm that had hit the region on February 28 and March 1. John Lindsey reported in his  column Weather Watch that it was “one of the most powerful Pacific storms that I’ve seen off the San Luis Obispo County coastline in my meteorological career.” The southern branch of the polar jet stream brought upper-level winds of 150 knots from the western Pacific. At the same time, “relatively warm air at the Earth’s surface from the south moved north, producing a cyclonic wind shear.”

These intersecting air masses “liberated great amounts of latent heat as water vapor condensed into clouds and precipitation.” It also caused rapid and sharp drop in air pressure and “near hurricane force winds.” The ocean’s surface was dramatically affected: 40-foot seas, longer-period swells, and damaging westerly swells that hit piers ordinarily protected from El Niño-driven storms (“Big waves not swell for piers,” The Tribune, San Luis Obispo, March 2, 2014).

The West Without Water

The West Without Water

Drought-flood-fire: During my time in Morro Bay, Cal Poly historian Dan Krieger described one of the region’s historic and devastating droughts in his column in the San Luis Obispo Tribune (which he has written since 1984). He helps me understand the distinctive import of the climatological history of the Southwest that is described in more technical language in a book I reviewed a short time ago:  The West Without Water. Its authors describe a meteorological pattern in which long periods of dry weather and drought are followed by episodes of wetter climate, often with such heavy precipitation that wide-spread flooding occurs. Hardly does the water subside, however, when everything dries out and intense wild fires break out. (See my review.)

During two rainless years, beginning in 1862, Krieger writes, “virtually all of the herds of mission-bred cattle and sheep were destroyed”—as many as 300,000 head of cattle and 100,000 sheep died. “The late afternoon sun created an almost blinding effect, as its light was reflected from the chalk-white carcasses in El Potero de San Luis Obispo, the old mission pasture, now the Cal Poly campus just north of town.” The drought marked the “real end of rancho days along the Central Coast.”

As soon as the drought was over (around 1865), new investors began buying vast tracts of land. Edgar Willis Steele and his brothers, for example, bought 45,000 acres for $1.10 an acre. The rains had returned and the tall, green grass justified their descriptive title for their purchase: “cow heaven.” (The Tribune, March 9, 2014). Although some of the people who made these massive purchases fell onto hard times, California has enjoyed a relatively moist climatic period since that time.

Since then, there have been more dry periods, but less severe than the one in 1862, followed by short periods of heavy rain and frequent wild fires. Because this sequence is thought to be the normal rhythm of life in this part of the world, Californians continue their regular activities confident that the reservoirs and irrigation systems will get them through droughts so that they can maintain normal life despite the alternation of wet and dry periods.

I wa unnerved, however,  by the report on a local news channel during our short time in Morro Bay that wild fires are likely to break out within the next couple of weeks despite nearly five inches of rain since early February.

Krieger starts his column with a reference to The Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin, published in 1903. Fortunately, this series of essays about Death Valley has been reissued in later editions and three used copies are available at Powells.

Morro Bay Power Plant

Morro Bay Power Plant

Wave energy power supply: Since the 1950s, one of Morro Bay’s landmarks has been the natural gas-fired electrical generating plant located on the shoreline facing the community’s most important identifying mark, the Morro Rock. A short time ago, this power plant was closed.

One reason was that new state and federal regulations would require upgrading so that the plant would use less sea water in its processes; the owners considered that the costs would be too high. A second reason may be that the size of this plant is so small that it no longer is a necessary part of the power grid for California. A third reason is that the plant’s current owners are increasingly interested in renewable energy, and this plant’s location opens the possibility of engaging in the new wave energy process for generating electricity.

News reports that I read while visiting the Central Coast towns indicate that environmentalists are happy that the plant has closed. Although the city of Morro Bay had been receiving $750,000 a year in fees and taxes, these funds were no longer being used for the city’s operational budget but instead were being deposited in a reserve fund. Some people in the community see the plant’s closing as one more example of the pressure by environmentalists to force economically unfeasible changes upon businesses that are OK the way they are.

For reports on the closing of the plant, see articles published on November 8, 2013, and February 5, 2014.

Green again in California

March 10, 2014
California After Rain

California After Rain

 California’s worst drought in a century has eased a little with two rainstorms as February has morphed into March. A trip through the state on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is giving me the chance to see how the “green and golden” state is looking now that a little water has come down.

After watching the sun rise during the station stop in Sacramento, I stared with unbelieving eyes as the train continued through Davis, the Delta, along the Straits into the East Bay Area, and from San Jose to our destination in San Luis Obispo. Much of what I saw was green.

Well-tended lawns and golf courses, of course. Even during a drought, some patches of green receive the moisture they need. What surprised me were the scruffy patches of grass along the tracks and in untended vacant lots. Green! Puddles and ponds all around. Farmland was intensely green, and marshy land was well supplied with wild water foul. Just like Oregon’s Willamette Valley that we had seen the previous afternoon.

Cattle on a California Hillside

Cattle on a California Hillside

The California hill country, which ordinarily is green from mid winter until May when it turns “golden,” was green. When the tracks ran close to the slopes, I could see that the stands of grass were sparse, but the color was true. In a few more days, I concluded, it will get longer and thicker.

What surprised me most, however, was the truck farming land around Salinas. Even though I had read that Central Valley farmers were probably not going to get irrigation water from the reservoirs, signs of active irrigation were evident in Steinbeck country. For the moment, at least, life in California continues as though it will continue the same as always.

Sprinklers at Work

My recent readings on the long-term climatic patterns in the southwest, however, have made it clear that this is not likely to be the case. In fact, the combination of drought-floods-fire that California has endured in recent months replicates a pattern that has been in place for eons in America’s desert southwest.

Most indications are that we are moving into one of the long, dry periods. Although dams and irrigation systems have protected us from the extremes for a century, it is increasingly unlikely that these engineering measures will be sufficient for the period that seems to be coming.

Shared BordersThe book that I brought to read on the train—Shared Borders, Shared Waters—is a collection of essays by scholars and water scientists from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Mexico, and the United States. They were prepared for a conference in 2009 at the University of Arizona in which the participants focused attention upon policies and practices concerning the use of water resources in two of the most arid populated places on earth. My interest in the book was initiated when one of the editors asked permission to use one of my photos as part of the cover art.

The essays discuss the way that two arid regions—the Jordan River Valley and the Colorado River Basin—are shaped by the scarcity of water. The authors discuss the history and water policy and practice in the several nations the coexist in the two regions that the book considers.

I am especially interested in the deeper political and ethical issues that arise water as supplies diminish and the engineering responses become ever more complex. These aspects of the mounting crisis are frequently discussed through many of the essays in this rather technical book.

In a few days, as I do this year’s week of PAC Tour’s Winter Training Camp for serious cyclists, I will again be surrounded by the reality of an expanding population in a land of little water. As time and energy permit, I will continue reading the essays in Shared Borders, Shared Waters. In this way, mind and body will be mutually engaged in experiencing what may be the most serious issue facing the human community in our time.

Because my interest in the issues related to water continues to grow, I may open a new “page” in my blog. Currently there are three: American Religion, Cycling, and Opinion. The fourth would be entitled “Water” or something like that. As the photo of the Columbia River Gorge on my masthead indicates, water has been in the blog’s background all of the time. It will likely become a more prominent feature as we move into spring when well-watered land produces the food on which we all depend.

Salinas Valley

Salinas Valley


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