According to a plan that was hatched more than 60 years ago, there should be a dam where the Richmond Bridge now stands. There should be another just south of the Bay Bridge. They were going to hold back two freshwater lakes, fed by the Delta and connected by a canal, north and south of the Bay.
John Reber dreamed up the San Francisco Bay Project in the late 1940s as his answer to the Bay Area's water-supply problems. His plan gained publicity and surprising traction before the Army Corps of Engineers showed it was a really, really stupid idea.
This little story, which reminds us how long we've been confounded by Delta water issues, is the first one you will hear if you visit the San Francisco Bay-Delta Model in Sausalito. The former research center, now open to the public, is a hydraulic tidal model that simulates the Bay Area watershed on a 1:1,000 scale. It was built primarily to test the Reber Plan.
Constructed of 286, 12-foot by12-foot slabs of concrete, spread across 1½ acres inside an abandoned warehouse, it is a testimony to engineering precision and a reminder of how technology has changed our lives. The same three-dimensional modeling now can be done on computers, which is why the Bay Model has become an education center, where a day's worth of high and low tides is replicated every 15 minutes.
More than 75,000 students visit the facility annually, according to Park Ranger Linda Holm, who can go on at length about
"They tested Reber's plan, and it failed on about 99 different counts," she said. "Some of them would have been catastrophic."
During the arid summer season, she said, the lakes largely would have evaporated. During the rainy season, the Delta would have backed up and overflowed levees. Salmon and sturgeon would have disappeared, as would life forms that thrive in the estuary's brackish waters. The wetlands would have been decimated, affecting hundreds of species of birds.
If this decades-old research is a classic example of look-before-you-leap, it also is a rare reminder that politicians occasionally get something right. The federal government authorized the $400,000 that paid for the Bay Model, which was completed in 1957.
"Somebody in Congress was actually awake at the wheel," Holm said.
Before it was closed as a laboratory, the Bay Model was used to measure the effects of drought, floods, oil spills, shoreline development, fresh-water diversion and dredging. (Shipping channels must be properly dredged to control saltwater intrusion.)
You won't confuse a trip to the facility with a visit to Disneyland, but for the curious, there are lots of facts awaiting discovery.
You leave the exhibit with a better understanding of why water issues are so contentious in California -- and how easily man's meddling can mess things up.
Maybe John Reber at least deserves credit for teaching us that.
For more information on the Bay Model, call 415-332-3871. Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org