A treasure trove of California's water history kept at UC Berkeley for more than a half century could be moved or broken up because of budget cuts.
The specialized water documents archive is the only such collection in the country, its supporters say.
Nowhere else would one likely find under one roof promotional materials for the "Reber Plan" to build a dam across the Golden Gate, old speeches about the peripheral canal, and original photographs of the construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct and of the aftermath of the deadly 1928 collapse of St. Francis Dam near Los Angeles.
Academics, authors, consultants, engineers, government officials, lawyers, students, water districts and others use the statewide Water Resources Center Archives kept on the Berkeley campus, and some of them worry that UC administrators may allow it to close, move or scatter to the figurative winds.
The university system is dealing with major state budget cuts. "They're using their opportunity to consider closing it or moving it," said Daniel Holmes, a librarian and consultant who started a campaign to keep the archive intact. "Their process has been pretty flawed."
The uncertainty over the archive's fate has forced it to cancel next year's speakers series on California water.
The center has four employees and an annual budget of $340,000. Visitors viewed about 4,500 items at the archive last year, and it had tens of thousands of online visits.
"We don't believe we have the expertise to continue to manage a library," said Barbara Allen-Diaz, associate vice president for the Agriculture and Natural Resources division.
"I believe in these kinds of archives. I will do my best to find it a home," she said.
Although the division announced in October that it would find a new home for the archive by June, it was not until March that the university sent requests to four campuses — Berkeley, Davis, Riverside and Merced — for proposals to take over the archive. The deadline for responses was May 14, but Allen-Diaz and others said there was a possibility of another request for proposals.
The chairman of the archive's advisory board said he hoped the archive remains open to the public, does not get split up and that it stays in the UC system.
"It would seem to me Berkeley would have a leg up on everybody," said Tim Ramirez, the advisory board chairman and a manager at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. "That said, if somebody provides a better proposal they might go in that direction."
The archive, which is also a library, is a collection of reports, letters, studies, photographs and other documents that go back 120 years, but it is also a web-savvy unit where archivists are constantly capturing and preserving web-based documents from the state's water districts.
"We specialize in collecting information nobody else has," said archive director Linda Vida. "These are the kinds of things you can't find at a regular library."
At times, key reports by government agencies and consultants have been lost, only to be found at the archive on the fourth floor of an engineering building on the Berkeley campus.
In one landmark court case lawyers sought consultant reports that had been thrown away by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Vida said. That case led to a state Supreme Court decision in 1983 requiring Los Angeles to restore Mono Lake. It also established that state regulators have the power to protect "public trust" values, including environmental, recreational and aesthetic values. The reports contained stream-flow measurements that showed how much water the streams had before Los Angeles tapped into them.
"The lawyers from both sides were here," Vida said.
Engineers preparing bids to dismantle the old Carquinez Bridge visited the archives to look at photographs of the bridge's construction during the 1920s.
"They requested a lot of photos to copy so they could study them and figure out how to take it apart," Vida said.
One water expert compared the demise of the archive to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria more than 2,000 years ago.
"It only takes a little while at the water archives to discover not only is not everything online, but some of the most interesting things are not online — old photographs and interviews, the letters and diaries of people involved in California's water history," said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental research organization and an expert on the world's water resources.
"It's found nowhere else in the state."
Mike Taugher covers the environment. Contact him at 925-943-8257.