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USGS Has Deep and Diverse Roots in California
Released: 4/15/1997

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communication
119 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
Pat Jorgenson 1-click interview
Phone: 415-329-4000



The presence of the U.S. Geological Survey in Placer Hall on the campus of California State University at Sacramento marks the latest chapter in the USGS’s long association with the study of earth sciences in California and cooperation with the state’s Division of Mines and Geology and its higher education system. Although the 132 USGS employees that occupy offices in Placer Hall are all associated with the agency’s water-resources division, the various scientific disciplines of the USGS have played a vital role in adding to knowledge of the mineral, water and biological resources of the Golden State for more than a century.

Even before there was a USGS, the federal government was conducting topographical and geological surveys of the Sierra Nevada. Following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Fort in 1848, President Polk recommended annexation of the territory and advocated a "mineralogical examination to preserve the mineral lands for the use of the United States, so as to secure a large return of money to the treasury, and at the same time lead to the development of their wealth by individual proprietors and purchasers."

Clarence King, for whom King’s Canyon National Park is named, began his scientific career by mapping the Yosemite Valley for the state of California, in 1864. Three years later he was named "United States Geologist" in charge of the geological exploration of the 40th parallel, and in 1870 King discovered and mapped a glacier on the northwest side of Mount Shasta; the first actual glacier ever discovered in the United States. King’s reputation, based primarily on his work in California grew, and in 1879 he was appointed the first director of the newly chartered U.S. Geological Survey.

Although it was gold that brought early settlers to California, it was water, and the ability to control its flow, both for mining and for farming, that convinced them stay. William Hall, who served as state engineer in the early days of California statehood, was selected by the USGS’s second director, John Wesley Powell, to head up the agency’s "Hydraulic and Hydrographic Branch," also know as the "Irrigation Survey," in 1890.

Hall’s selection for the USGS position was based on his successful establishment of 12 gauging stations on the San Joaquin River in 1878, and his development of a method of plotting mean-velocity of flows and area curves to more accurately measure water volume in shifting river channels.

Under Hall’s leadership in the USGS hydrographic branch, more gauging stations were established on rivers throughout the state, and in 1897, in one of its first cooperative ventures, USGS engineers conducted a "reservoir and irrigation investigation," for the city of San Francisco, that resulted in selection of the Hetch Hetchy valley for the city’s main reservoir storage site.

Because topographic mapping was essential to nearly all earth-science research projects, the USGS "Topographic Corps" played a major role in the agency’s early work in California. Also, because the state’s generally mild climate allowed outdoor work, year ’round, California was a popular field assignment for USGS surveyors and cartographers.

In its early years the USGS had no formal branch of earthquake studies, but one of its most prominent geologists, G.K. Gilbert, just happened to be in Berkeley when the devastating earthquake hit San Francisco on April 18, 1906. Within days he and another USGS geologist were part of the state’s official "Earthquake Investigations Commission." Although it would be many years before the USGS had a "branch of seismology," structural mapping of the San Andreas fault began in 1921, as part of a government program aimed at "predicting major earthquakes and devising practical measures to mitigate the disaster caused by their destructive shocks." The USGS conducts many seismic and earthquake-response studies in cooperation with the California Division of Mines and Geology and the California Office of Emergency Services.

By the end of World War II the USGS was outgrowing its headquarters space in downtown Washington, D.C., and took advantage of the federal government’s offer of a plot of land in central Menlo Park, Calif., to establish a western regional center for USGS research. While the Menlo Park site was being developed, USGS research in California was conducted from offices in Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In 1959 the Menlo Park center was ready and the USGS moved its topographical branch, now called the "national mapping division," from Sacramento. The Survey’s water resources division in Sacramento grew, however, and for the past two decades the division’s California district occupied offices and laboratories in the Federal Building on Cottage Way in Sacramento.

In July 1994 the USGS and the California State University, Sacramento, entered into a formal agreement to cooperate in the establishment and operation of a research facility on the CSUS campus. Construction of a five-story building began in the fall of 1995 and was completed in late 1996.

The placement of USGS offices on college campuses exemplifies the "new USGS," according to the agency’s national director, Dr. Gordon Eaton. "The USGS conducts multi-disciplinary studies in the fields of geology, hydrology, biology, engineering and computer science," Eaton said, "and being located on college campuses offers shared research and support facilities for the mutual benefit of both parties."

Eaton also noted that having USGS offices and laboratories on college campuses offers students the opportunity to work closely with USGS scientists and technicians, which provides the students with a broad perspective of earth-science issues in real-world situations.

The USGS currently has 132 employees of its water resources division located on the CSUS campus, and expects to locate some employees from its geologic and biological resources divisions there in the future.

Statewide, the USGS has 1,144 employees in 40 locations throughout California, with 795 of those located in its Western Region Center in Menlo Park. The USGS employees in California represent about 11 percent of the agency’s workforce, nationwide.

"It was the time that Clarence King spent in California that really got him excited about geology," said Eaton, "and more than a century later, California still has that effect on young scientists, which explains the strong USGS presence in this state."

Editors: To arrange interviews with USGS scientists in Sacramento, call USGS California State Representative Mike Shulters at 916-278-3026. To arrange interviews with Dr. Gordon Eaton, call the USGS Public Affairs Office in Menlo Park at 415-329-4000.


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