Layfayette Reservoir: A History of Conflict

Lisa Stankovic

Reservoir: “an artificial lake where water is collected and kept in quantity for use.” Also, “an organism in which a parasite that is pathogenic for some other species lives and multiplies without damaging its host” (Merriam-Webster, 1985, p. 1003).

After seven years of living in the lush green hills of western Massachusetts, I find myself, a new California resident, frequently yearning for the cool lakes and sparkling streams of New England. A craving for water continually tickles the corners of my mind, and just to be near it gives me something I need. On the advice of a new neighbor, I recently began visiting the Lafayette Reservoir in the East Bay region of San Francisco. The name, itself, had conjured up images of a leafy arbor and deep blue pool flanked by delicate flowers with similarly pretty French names. I imagined serenity and contemplative quiet, an outdoor library of sorts. Although part of me craved the ocean, I ignored its pull, rationalizing that the reservoir was three times as close to home.

What I found there was a true contradiction. A place simultaneously teeming with life and starving for contact. The reservoir reminded me that nature is really everywhere, always alive and continually inviting a response, yet, it is these very same animate qualities that seem to inspire fear in those who manage the park. This is obvious in their attempts to control it, and everyone who visits, with artificial borders, unnatural structures, and an abundance of rules on big, bold signs that inform guests of exactly what constitutes permissible park behavior. On the surface, these efforts are disguised as caretaking and protecting the land and its visitors; or perhaps as “re-creating” the recreational space. After all, what else would be done there? But, in truth, these so-called improvements have created barriers between the land and the locals who frequent it. They impose yet another set of laws on human beings seeking respite in nature from their stressful city lives, and actually prevent the genuine connection that wants to happen between them.

Although the voice of the land is audible, most of those who pass through seem deaf to it. Instead, they flow in from the city, pass through the reservoir, and flow out again without ever seeming to really notice where they have been. Perhaps the land's voice is just not strong enough to break them of their habits, but many of the park-goers actually seem more attuned to the voices they bring with them than to the other living beings in the natural world; voices that are reinforced by the authority of the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), which owns the land. In reality, of course, they are the same voice. The one that tends to encapsulate anything free, sprawling, or wild by replacing a terrain's natural features - inner or outer - with its own artificial creations that masterfully reflect the brilliance and complexity of the mind that devised them. Consequently, the only mirror remaining for the human hearts seeking their reflection in the earth's formations and habitats is much smaller, scraped and tarnished.

As the population of the Lafayette area continues to rise, and the EBMUD begins plans to expand the aqueduct that serves it, the history of the land beneath the reservoir seems ready to repeat itself. To spend time here reveals that the needs and wants of the different parties are already in conflict, as well as the growing inability of human beings to relate to nature on its own terms, despite their professed love (and unconscious need) for it. Naturally, this has everything to do with the water.

The lush and affluent city of Lafayette originally grew out of Rancho Acalanus, a Mexican land grant bought by a European settler in 1847 from the Spaniards who had “won” it from the indigenous Saclans in 1797. (Northwest Fisheries Science Center, [NFSC], para. 2) Although early European settlers were initially challenged to make a living on the infamous “adobe” soil, the rancho was some of the city's premier land and supported the growth of one of the area's most successful farming communities. An 1884 newspaper described it as “'one waving field of grain.' Vineyards, pear orchards and vegetable gardens were everywhere, [as were] cattle, horses and sheep . . . important to the pioneer economy” (Lafayette Historical Society, [LHS], 1976, para. 2).

Water, the life-blood that fed this abundance, had always flowed easily through Lafayette. In fact, flooding was a regular problem for nineteenth century farmers and, eventually, its creeks were quietly forced into underground pipelines where they would not disturb the business of rural life (LHS, 1976, para. 9). Having successfully driven the water down below the surface, the EBMUD turned to building something new to meet the needs of the region's growing population.

The Lafayette Dam, which would hold the reservoir water, was begun in 1928 as an earthfill structure. It was placed at the record rate of nine thousand cubic yards of soil per day, a speed that put high pressure on the clay-bed foundation (Rogers, n.d., slide 59). As a result, “between Sept. 17-21, the embankment suffered “excessive settlement” of 26 feet! It was never called a 'landslide'” (Rogers, n.d., slide 59). No matter what the EBMUD tried to call it, the water-soaked clay beneath the embankment had clearly withdrawn its support for the project, shifting and sinking under the weight of the newly poured concrete apron that was more than it could bear. The chief engineer, mystified by the disappearance of several tons of soil, ordered the slope below the dam be surveyed. Indeed, the twenty-six foot wall of earth had been cleverly and irretrievably displaced two-hundred yards away in the toe of the dam.

Forced to surrender their plans, the EBMUD engineers dramatically redesigned the basin, reducing the reservoir's capacity to one third its original size. In addition, they waited three more years to see what else the earth might do and if more “settling” would occur before they could resume construction. (Noble, 1970, p. 43). It was not until 1933 that the reservoir's one hundred and twenty-six acre, 1.4 billion gallon basin was finally completed and connected to the eighty-two-mile long Mokelumne Aqueduct that has been providing water to East Bay residents since 1929 (East Bay Municipal Utility District, [EBMUD], n.d., District History section). Thirty-three years later, in 1966, the EBMUD opened the reservoir as a public recreation area.

Today, the entrance rises up the right side of the dam embankment. At the top, rows of metered spaces and silver ticket machines dot the shadeless parking lot that overlooks the eighty-foot slope down to the water on the other side. From here, the view is wide, the water sparkles, and large oaks cluster together on the rolling brown hills in every direction. In one corner of the basin stands an ancient looking observation tower, clearly out of sync with the rest of the space. It does not belong here. Yet, here it is.

Having been built in proportion with the original reservoir planned before the dam's collapse and redesign, it stands heads above everything else. Its small observation booth perched at the top looks deserted and lonely, and Time has dressed its antique doors in the turquoise mottle of oxidized copper. It longs for use, yet the thought of people having to scale the rungs embedded in its tall sides to get up there is also somehow intolerable. It has taken several visits for me to understand why looking at it makes me anxious. It is an irritant. Something in my eye I cannot remove. I try to look away but the sheer obstinacy of its oversized presence commands my gaze and spoils the view. In French, the individual syllables Re, Se and Voir translate to “Again - Itself - to See.” Like Narcissus, the tower indifferently dominates the water below it, content to love only its own ugly reflection.

Aside from this visual atrocity, the park is predictable and pleasant enough to meet the requirements of a typical urban green space. The public areas begin at either end of the dam with various activity zones marked along the way: designated group picnic spots, reservable on request and for a fee; paddle and row boat rentals; a visitor’s center that sells fishing licenses for catching the trout it has stocked in the water; and a two-hundred square foot, fenced-in, children’s play area composed mainly of a sprawling, red plastic, double-decker castle.

There is a three-mile “lakeside” trail that encircles the perimeter of the basin like a small road, complete with a center dividing line across its eight-foot width that channels pedestrians and cyclists in both directions. Ironically, it is visually identical to the commuter roads that many of them likely take to work. Painted mileage markers inform athletes of their progress around the loop, and washrooms, water fountains, garbage and recycling bins are waiting every few hundred yards. Along the way, pedestrians pass each other wordlessly, with barely a glance or a smile. Little exchange occurs here except among those already gossiping loudly with their friends, or talking on cell phones to those who are absent. There is clearly a limit to how much unsolicited interaction people are prepared to endure.

The pressure to keep pace is palpable. I feel a little guilty that I am not jogging too. This gray, striped snake is timing my feet to its own hard rhythm, pulling me along and breaking my connection to the earth. Walking upon it, I do not feel a thing. Rather, I feel exactly like I am driving on the road in my car, with no exits for thirty miles. For all the living activity moving upon it, this racetrack exposes a certain deadness in the people, even here, “in nature.” A self-absorption that is reinforced by the pavement and the invisibility of the reservoir water from virtually the whole length of the tree-lined path. I feel the beginnings of a familiar conflict. Confusion about why I am not satisfied to just walk blithely along the circular road with everyone else; why I want them to look up and really notice where they are; why I need to just be still among the trees. Yes, here it comes: There Must Be Something Wrong With Me. The thought begins to syncopate and ricochet inside my head and, as I try to reconcile my inner and outer worlds, I feel increasingly alien among the men and women passing me on my left.

The park is “taken care of” in some ways. Trails are groomed, fallen wood is stacked, and someone is obviously cutting the grass. However, the atmosphere is guarded and protected in a prohibitive sense; with authority lurking in the shadows rather than shared mutually among those who use the space. Cordoned barricades with Do Not Enter signs protect designated Erosion Control areas from the invasion of human footsteps. Another declares, “Due to public outrage, the district will be forced to prohibit dogs if pet owners to not pick up. It is the law.” Later, near the largest grassy area, another sign scares potential violators with the threat of a $250 dollar fine for non-compliance.

These seem like strong words for a little dog poop. Certainly, it is gross and inconsiderate to leave a pet's droppings behind for someone else to step in, but the sense of outrage feels much deeper than that. It feels connected to the speed of activity along the only route around the water; the closed circuit that forces everyone to one edge along exactly the same narrow path without escape until the end. It is echoed in the obtrusive plastic signs that blot the view just to announce patently obvious landmarks such as the children's area, picnic area, visitor's center and weather station; and in the frustration of being prohibited from venturing into the wildest and most interesting areas of the park because people are clueless about how to properly relate to or care for them. This last restriction is even more irksome because the steep slopes are likely physically daunting enough to be prohibitive or uninviting for at least seventy-five percent of the people who come here.

Additional signs command visitors: Do Not Feed the Wildlife! Protect Yourself from Tics! Beware of Mountain Lions! and Interim health warning advises against eating fish caught in the reservoir due to mercury contamination. Pleased be advised, however, that the drinking water is completely safe. (!) I feel screamed at; paradoxically “protected” and informed, controlled and afraid, unable to breathe fully and a little scared to go anywhere. I am ready to leave, but I stay, instead.

Clearly, the District intended to make this park a community resource when it opened the area for public use in 1966. Since then, however, this simple water storage site has become saturated with limits and prohibitions that simultaneously accommodate and defend against the intrusions of an ever-growing number of human beings. One can take opposite directions around the water, but not leave the path itself, not climb the hills, and not cross the boundaries. It fundamentally forbids the freedom of exploration and any spontaneous opportunities to be fascinated by the land or forge a connection to it. What seems worse is people's utter lack of awareness of exactly this fact. The speed at which they move through the park is incongruent with its stated purpose; the lack of true restfulness and choice about how to be here obscured by the absence of any immediately obvious commerce and urbanity. Thus, an illusion of contact with nature has been sold to the area's residents when, in truth, their relationship to the land is highly controlled.

Although the park is technically on private property, this need to parcel and regulate the space reveals a certain psychological immaturity in the egos that have power over it. Or is it the psychological immaturity of those who use it? Again, it is likely both. The artificial structures, pre-approved activities and strict decrees designed to guard and protect everyone and everything from each other reveal the psyche of the place to be as shallow as the water in the center of it. An Eco-Manager consciousness pervades and informs the reservoir's rules, which are quick to command those who come here to comply with its terms of use. From its perspective, “the focus is on maintaining order and following the law. . .to keep harmony and stability . . .[and]. . . People follow the higher authority and comply with the rules and regulations to avoid punishment” (Esbjorn-Hargens, 2005, p. 16).

Thus, those who “re-create” here are instructed and nudged into predefined responses to the space; their own thought processes taken care of by those who manage the water supply, asphalt trail, and groomed gardens, which ultimately block their connection to the area's living rawness. A mature relationship to the earth cannot evolve under these conditions because a real opportunity for residents to feel personally responsible for the land as their own has never been granted.

One day, I asked a staff member at the visitor's center to help me gather some historical data about the site. She is indifferent, annoyed, interrupts me and refuses my request even though it is her job to answer questions and provide information. Somehow, my demands are too great. She “does not have time,” she claims, among other things. “But, I only need a few minutes.” “No.” I try again, “Well, could I come back there and make copies myse...?” “No!” Her words are like gunfire, all impatience, excuses and defensiveness. “But, the other staff person said...” “Well, I'm sorry she said that, but...” No, she is not. I know she does not care. She does not even hear me. Or want to. I leave feeling injured, angry and helpless. Outraged, in fact. I consider going back to tell her off but already know there is no point. I am sunk, like the earthen wall, broken under the weight of her indifference to my needs. I walk back to my car, humiliated and crying, feeling ridiculous and judgmental about why I am acting like a five-year old over something so trivial.

Later, I learn that, beneath its concrete covering, the old rancho that supported dozens of pioneers bears the bruises of many battles. Between 1795 and 1810, the most volatile clash among the Spanish soldiers and Indian resistance took place here before its captives were imprisoned in Mission San Jose (NFSC, History Section, para. 2). Later, when the land was chosen for the reservoir site, it was condemned by the city. Forced to leave everything they had built with their own hands, some landowners rebelled, suing the EBMUD over the price they had been offered for their properties and finally winning settlements out of court (EBMUD, 2006, Section 3.7, p. 10). Then, of course, there was the dam.

The conflict outside is also the conflict within me. I realize I am vacillating between being a park visitor and being with nature the way I want to be. They seem incompatible. As I get closer to the earth, I feel divided from the other people here, and then guilty, as though I have abandoned them. Our agendas are different. I feel their separation from the land and myself caught in between yet, somehow, I am responsible to both. My allegiance torn between doing and being. The apparent incompatibility of these two worlds is as frustrating as my interaction with the woman at the visitor's center.

Environmental author Paul Shepard affirms that, “life in a degraded environment. . . doesn't make you feel at home. And if your environment doesn't sustain you, there is no reason you should participate in sustaining it or joining with those who do.” (Jensen, p. 250). Maybe not, but knowing this does not keep me from caring about the trees, or all the differently colored dragonflies. For being touched by them. Shepherd also claims we live in a world where, “humility and [a] tender sense of human limitation is no longer rewarded. [And so] we suffer for the want of that vanished world, a deep grief we learn to misconstrue,” (Fisher, 2002, p. 119).

Perhaps the water running down my face belongs as much to the park as to me. Crying for kindness and attention that no one is paying. It also seems strangely connected to the fact that no one is swimming, a sudden realization that shocks me. People speed around the water's edge, float their boats on its surface, drop fishing line in to see what they can pull out, but there are no living, breathing, half-naked bodies plunging, turning, surfacing and floating around in the water itself. And nothing to indicate why. Swimming is neither strictly forbidden nor overtly encouraged. The possibility is simply omitted altogether from the many other signs that are posted, as though its absence might make people forget that they even want to.

The only thing allowed to break the smooth glass of the water is the insentient sentinel in the center of it all: the tower. In a mere allusion to the procreative forces that once permeated the fertile soil beneath it, the tower alone penetrates below the surface. Standing there, it suggests “the symbol that most immediately represents [the] mystery of the pouring of the energy of life into the field of time. . . the male and female powers in creative conjunction” (Campbell, 1988, p. 169). But nothing is churning here now except the pumps and strainers of the tower's deep internal machinery that, in truth, silence and control the flow of the water. Like a needle, it draws in and shoots out its supply, its secret vacuums diverting the groundwater to and from the Lafayette Creek and the nearby pumping station according to the needs of the EBMUD.

The reservoir water is not a living body, despite the weeds that float at its edges and the fish that the District has “planted” in it (EBMUD, n.d., Lafayette Reservoir Fishing Gallery section, para. 1). Maybe people intuitively know this and choose not to venture in. If they did, perhaps the unnaturalness of the environment would become apparent and destroy the illusion that the park setting provides as an escape from regular life. Maybe it is easier to balance precariously on the edge of a wall that divides the surface from the depths. The inner from the outer. More comfortable to avoid agitating the waters of the community's collective unconscious so they can continue to live out their dream of a safe, affluent, and peaceful place to live and work, where strange impulses to do things like forage in the woods are instantly tamed with signs that declare: Wild Mushrooms Can Kill You!

Cinched by an asphalt belt, plastic stays and iron decrees, the Lafayette Reservoir is corseted by forces that pretend to protect it; seriously challenged to “re-unite” the unified flesh of humans and nature (Fisher, 2002, p. 10). You can touch me here (paved trail and mulch-laden picnic areas with barbecue installations), but not here (rough hills, wild plants, and the water itself). Deep communication between the warring factions - the earth's body, its managers and the people who come to play on the reservoir - seems next to impossible.
Here, people do not drop into the water, nor into themselves. If they did, they might have to confront what, perhaps, they unconsciously already know; what is hidden by their perpetual hurriedness, even here in this recreation area. That they, like the water, are imprisoned by the structures that rule their own lives; chained to a system that makes them flow in ways they do not necessarily, naturally want to go; and which keeps them from going exactly where they need to. Deeper inside, deep into the natural world outside, and toward the place where they both finally meet.

Another benefit of being able to run mindlessly around the reservoir's pristine pool is that its presence can be taken for granted. Like the town's drinking water, which is in increasingly short supply. This year, the District has begun assessments of potential expansion points along the aqueduct system to accommodate East Bay residents' increasing demand. The Lafayette water treatment plant is currently the most critical capacity-deficient facility serving the area (EBMUD, 2006, Section 2.2, p. 14), and will require major repairs and upgrades to meet existing or future summertime demand (EBMUD, 2006, Section 3.7, p. 10). Thus, it is a good candidate for an overhaul.

Ironically, however, the locations under consideration for aqueduct demolition and expansion do not include the undersized Lafayette dam nor the under-equipped Lafayette pumping station nearby. These will be preserved for their historic architecture, which makes them cultural artifacts (EBMUD, 2006, Section 3.7, p. 11). On the one hand, this fits with the city's self-image as committed to preserving its roots. “Lafayette seems likely to remain rural in atmosphere and pastoral in scenery. Indicative of this attitude is the great uproar that greets most proposals for massive building projects, higher neighborhood densities and hillside construction.” (

Yet, paradoxically, it is the remains of a large old orchard still flourishing at the bottom of the dam from before the property's condemnation in the 1920's that are deemed expendable. “While the orchard itself is likely over 75 years old, . . . no historic farmhouse or related structures in the area appear to be associated with [it, so] it has not been identified as a historic resource” (EBMUD, 2006, Section 3.7, p. 10). Thus, while all things concrete are preserved as important artifacts, the area's only remaining evidence of the fertile farmland that supported generations of Lafayette settlers will receive no such protection from the District. The simple fruit trees have neither cultural nor commercial value, so the land they grow in is officially devoid of meaningful history. In their place, artificial structures, like the “plant” that is pumping imprisoned reservoir water, have become living entities in need of protection.

In fact, the word reservoir comes from the French “reserver” which means, among other things, to keep, or save (Collins, 2003, p. 243). Also, to guard, which derives from “garder,” a word that also means to capture (Collins, 2003, p. 131). Thus, it makes sense that the Eco-Manager mindset that built the water utility would be more interested in preserving the things it can control than things that live freely and can manage themselves. In the future, as potential sites for improved water access and storage facilities are identified, the historic orchard will be one of the first considered for sacrifice.

Sadly, this is perfectly in keeping with the land's history. Having been a battleground, condemned by big business, sold, paved over, and drowned, the arable soil that once produced crops and supported generations of local families here has suffered multiple injuries. Despite the earth’s valiant attempt to refuse the District's burden of the dam, it only achieved a compromise. Now, the tower and its concrete dam are implanted into its walls like an ill-fitting IUD that blocks the instinctive conjugation between human beings and the natural world. Unfortunately, this little body of land, contained, repressed and sterilized, stands little chance of reprieve from the District’s agenda to keep it in servitude. Its best hope of being heard will have to come from a different audience.

Finally, slipping away from a tiny side trail, I begin to find what I came for. Here, in the woods under low hanging trees, I arrive at a slope near the edge of the water where there are no bright, angry signs, only slowness. Grateful for the stillness and quiet, my awareness drops into the surroundings. Earlier, my psyche had repeatedly “bounced up,” like a quarter against the taught blanket of a soldier’s bed; an echo off the reservoir's concrete bottom. Now, in the dirt, I am stunned by how quickly the earth finds me. And how joyful it seems. The silent trees hanging over the water sing (they do!) with the radiant energy of their own aliveness; the wind's delicate fingers graze my face; a small flock of ducks waddles in to wet their feet; and the ants crawling up my arm are clearly marching to the beat of their own drum.

Where have I been? Nature is still here, it is just obscured by the noise of the human beings who ignore it. Obviously, I have been one of them. But the ground is forgiving and offers me its unqualified acceptance and support. I am content to feel small, and grateful to be part of something bigger than the marathon around the reservoir basin. Sinking into this happiness, I see the land is not really demanding anything of me at all. It only wants my attention, just as I only wanted that of the park staff in the visitor's center. In my little revelation, I realize,

The more we do come to recognize our wounds and feel our suffering, the more will we come to understand our nature... Our needs often become unclear precisely to the extent that they are unmet. We are not quite sure what we are looking for until we see it or find it; our intentions are vague until symbolized by the arrival of the needed things (Fisher, 2002, p. 109).

The recognition of this reciprocity grants me the freedom to surrender the divide I formerly felt within. Only my belief that I am separate from both worlds sustains my internal conflict and, as I fall into one, I find I can be with the other. So, it seems, can the land.

The reservoir's failure to soothe me was my own failure to meet it on its own terms. To let myself be caught, instead, in the throngs of mindless people who pass in and out of the park without seeing what they barely know they came for. We are all suffering from the same lack of recognition. My guilt suddenly falls away and there is only what we have in common, a failure to authentically communicate. It is a peacemaking of sorts that slowly mends my divided heart.

Perhaps the land here does not want to hold the unconscious, guilty history of all these conflicts, the memories of Indians killed and imprisoned, the farmers' life's work betrayed, the distracted people who only respect it because they are forced to, yet, it does. These memories are held in and under the earth beneath the dam; in the water imprisoned by concrete. Somehow, though, it retains something of its own natural freedom. Within its cell, the water still sparkles in the sun, sustains the liminal trees and feeds the birds. This is the part that draws me. Not the setting of the park but the elements themselves. Each individual creature living and breathing inside its cage. I see I have been paying attention to the wrong things.

On my final day, as I drive the gravel road down the grassy embankment and out toward the street, I pass the scraggly trees “leftover” from the old orchard. A bright green pear, perfectly formed and without a trace of blight, bruising or dust, is sitting in the middle of the road. It looks as though it has just arrived. It is tempting to think it is waiting for me, but I realize I do not need to know. Just seeing it there reassures me that, in some small way, I have made contact.


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