Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Damning Del Puerto Canyon, a Geological and Natural Treasure in our County

I awoke this morning mildly astonished to see my own words making up the headline of a Modesto Bee article about a proposed dam in Del Puerto Canyon, a deep gorge cutting into the heart of the Diablo Range in the western part of Stanislaus County. Del Puerto is one of the most unique landscapes of California's Coast Ranges, and as I noted, a geological and natural treasure. I was hugely dismayed to find that a proposal exists to build a large reservoir in the lower canyon, and my email to a colleague ended up being quoted in the Modesto Bee article linked above (hence my surprise at being quoted; I wasn't directly interviewed). The article accurately describes my concerns about the project. There are large landslides in the lower canyon that canyon that would almost surely be reactivated (or accelerated; they show evidence of recent motion) if the base is inundated by lake water. There are definite seismic concerns, as a probable active fault lies just east of the dam site. But my biggest concern is the effect the dam will have on the natural environment of the canyon.

The environmental impact report was published recently (read it here.). Comments on the Environmental Impact Report can be made at a public meeting from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Jan. 15 at the Hammon Senior Center, 1033 W. Las Palmas Ave., in Patterson. Written comments will be accepted until Jan. 27 at Del Puerto Water District, 17840 Ward Ave., Patterson 95363. If you appreciate the intrinsic value of our precious local canyon, I hope you will comment and make your voice heard.

I've written often about Del Puerto Canyon over the years (see many of the articles here), and to give you a feel for the unique nature of the canyon, I'm adapting an article from last May.
The strange and alien landscape in upper Del Puerto Canyon.
California has some really strange landscapes. A state that has beaches, mountains, volcanoes, forests, and deserts is going to offer many perspectives of the complex geological influences on the state. But for alien and otherworldly, few places in the state can compare to the journey you take when you follow Del Puerto Canyon from its mouth in the Great Valley to the headwaters in the Diablo Range. It's a journey into the middle of the world.
"Del Puerto" refers to "The Gate", the constriction of hard sandstone at the mouth of the canyon. This will be the site of the proposed dam. It will be more than 200 feet high.
I guess I should be a bit more specific. We journey to rocks that had once been part of the Earth's mantle, the 1,800 mile thick layer that lies just beneath the thin crust (3-50 miles thick). We can't reach the core of the planet, because no one can (despite sci-fi movies that say otherwise). Since mantle rock is very hot and is subject to convection, it is at least conceivable that the rocks we are exploring have once been close to the Earth's core.
This is an active landslide that will be partially inundated by the proposed reservoir. I am concerned about the effect of adding water to the slip plane. California's first discovery of dinosaur bones was at the top of this slope.
So how does one explore the Earth's mantle? Well, first one has to get through the crust, and the thinnest crust is that which makes up the ocean floors. It's nominally composed of basalt, but the details are more complex.

In Del Puerto Canyon, the ocean floor is covered by...a bit of sediment. About 25,000 feet of it! The sediments poured off the mountainous edge of the continent during the later part of the dinosaur era, the Cretaceous Period. There was a huge subduction zone that formed as oceanic crust plunged into the mantle beneath the edge of the North American continent. This so-called Cascadia Subduction Zone caused volcanoes to form where the Sierra Nevada is today, but the area offshore of the volcanic arc, the forearc basin, collected sediments. As the sediments accumulated, they pressed the crust downward and even more sediment piled on top. Eventually the layers reached a thickness of five miles.

The basin collected fossils as well. There were the usual shells of clams, snails and ammonites, a variety of shark teeth, and three groups of seagoing reptiles, the plesiosaurs (think Loch Ness), ichthyosaurs (think reptilian version of a dolphin), and 35-foot-long mosasaurs (think "swim for your life!"). Even dinosaur fossils have been found. The first dinosaur ever found in California, a Saurolophus, was discovered in the lower reaches of Del Puerto Canyon in 1935.

Eventually, one will reach the base of the oldest sediments, and encounter the ocean crust itself. Faulting obscures some of the relationships, and so in the picture below we see some of the oldest sediment on the right (somewhat brownish shale) and basaltic/andesitic volcanic rock on the left (greenish gray), separated by a fault. The volcanic rocks are harder, and the canyon takes on a more rugged aspect as we climb higher into the mountains.
The Coast Ranges of California are one of the youngest mountain systems in the world, having been uplifted mostly in the last 3 million years or so. The streams in this dry environment have not been able to downcut as fast as the mountains are rising, so they flow much of the way over bedrock. There are few floodplains in these mountains.
The water flows almost year-round and thus the canyon is a critical habitat for all kinds of wildlife. Dozens of mammals and reptile species are known, and nearly 200 bird species have been observed here.
Oceanic crust is basaltic in composition, but there are differences at depth. On the ocean floor, basalt flows form "pillows", globular masses of the volcanic rock. Beneath the pillow basalts, basaltic dikes fed the eruptions. Dikes occur when volcanic rock fills cracks and fissures in the surrounding rock. Since the surrounding rock is also dike material, the entire layer, a mile or two thick, is made of vertical sheet dikes. Feeding these dikes were magma chambers composed of...basalt! But some of the basalt was left at the base of the oceanic crust where it then cooled slowly to form a sparkling crystalline rock called gabbro. The entire suite of rocks is called an ophiolite sequence. The Coast Range Ophiolite sequence in Del Puerto Canyon is considered to be the second best exposed in the state, behind the Point Sal Ophiolite in southern California.

There is a spot in one of the most rugged parts of the canyon to investigate the gabbro where it was pierced by a vein of quartz (below). People have looked for gold here, but I doubt they found any.

Just a few more miles up the canyon we penetrate the uppermost part of the mantle. The rock originally consisted of ultramafic minerals like olivine and pyroxene, but here the rock has been metamorphosed into serpentine, California's state rock. The rock was sheared and faulted on its way to the surface, leaving shiny green and black polished surfaces (below).
And then we are there. In the uppermost part of the canyon, we reach the netherworld of mantle rock that was far less altered, so it retained some of its original appearance. In places we can see olivine and pyroxene crystals, as well as grains of chromite. These ultramafic rocks contain few nutrients needed by plant life, so only a few species can tolerate living on these slopes. Gray pines are among them, grasses generally are not. There are a number of wildflower species endemic to California that can be found here.
Looking at these shattered broken rocks from very deep in the Earth, one imagines hell freezing over. The forges of the demons and devils lie frozen in place, to be slowly removed by earthly weathering. They try to invade the surface realm, but they are defeated by the forces of the heavens, the water and ice falling from the sky.
It may have been a metaphorical battlefield, but in the end there is great beauty in the rarity of the flowers, plants and animals that thrive, or at least tolerate the conditions in the upper canyon.

Del Puerto Canyon is traversed (slowly) by Highway 130, originating in Patterson on the floor of the Great Valley. It can also be reached by way of Mines Road out of Livermore, a winding road out of the San Jose area over Mt. Hamilton and the Lick Observatory complex. It is not a fast way to go!

I know that there is a need for water in the Central Valley. But no matter how many dams get built, there will never be enough to meet the expressed needs and desire of agribusiness. But I feel that we need to keep some of the wild places, and Del Puerto is one of those especially unique places to learn about our planet. I hope you will make your voice heard about this project.


Anonymous said...

What can we do? Lead the charge! Lets save the canyon!

Anonymous said...

Spectacular blog post and photos. Your vivid description of processes takes the reader to when it all occurred. The newspaper that quoted you (without permission) should receive your blog post for distribution to their readership on this unique and spectacular area.

Perhaps the only way to save the canyon is to find a less remarkable canyon that could serve the area's water interests. Barring that, I fear this canyon will be lost.
Barb, Okanagan, BC.

Garry Hayes said...

Thanks for the nice comment. The paper quoted with my permission, it was just indirect, and I didn't know my words were going to be used.

Anonymous said...

Your passionate and thorough understanding of the grand forces of nature at work in our world continues to contribute to environmental consciousness in the best possible ways.

I feel incredible gratitude to have experienced your knowledge firsthand.

Respect & gratitude
Love & friendship
Kathy Crawford

Karen said...


I've been behind following your blog, and this post shocked me. I'll pass on the info to Dave Andersen at San José State, in case the department there doesn't know. They take students to Del Puerto Canyon every year, there being SO much to see. Perhaps a bit of student activism can help.