“Eternal vigilance is said to be the price of liberty, and with equal truthfulness it may be said to be the price of water in Southern California.”
“It has been said that the first irrigation canals were run from the four rivers of paradise, and that Assyria, Nineveh, Egypt, Peru and Mexico owed their beauty and power to the ordered ministration of conducted water. The loftiest achievements of the human mind and heart had birth in the rainless lands. Irrigation has always been the religion of the semi-arid lands—the faith which sees in the desert the promise of springtime blades.”
—from The Fullerton Tribune (1905)
This summer, I used some of my free time to continue researching the history my hometown of Fullerton, focusing mainly on the Fullerton Tribune newspaper archives. These papers are not digitized, and the articles are not searchable for content. Thus, what I had to do was look at microfilm, lots of microfilm. At first, I was overwhelmed. What do I focus on? There is so much content to sift through, from the articles to the advertisements to the illustrations and photographs. As I read over these hundred-year-old newspapers, for hours and hours, more than once I was confronted with the inner question: What the hell am I doing? Why does this matter? Who cares about the history of this medium-sized American city? Who will want to read this?
And then I thought about the book I’m currently reading, a recommendation from my friend Steve Elkins. The book is called simply Imperial, and it’s a 1,200-page history of Imperial County, California. It’s an astonishing book, but I have to believe that it’s author, William T Vollmann, over the course of his research, was probably confronted with similar inner questions: Why am I spending hours and hours looking at old photographs in a Mexicali Municipal Museum? Why am I reading about the history of alfalfa, watermelon, and date crops? Who cares? The book took him ten years to write. What emerges from his study is a profound meditation on America, Mexico, land, water, and people. His book turns out to be super insightful in helping us understand some of the problems facing California (and America) today. All this comes from looking, very carefully, for a very long time, at a single region.
So, I think, it must also be with my (or anyone’s) hometown. Another inspiring book, for me was D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land: a Suburban Memoir, a poetic meditation on the nearby city of Lakewood, one of the first master-planned communities in post-war America. It became a kind of template that was reproduced throughout the southland, and eventually across the U.S. Understanding the past helps us understand the present. Often, I’ve discovered that the problems that have arisen here (political, social, environmental) have arisen elsewhere. In some ways, understanding the history of an American city is a way of understanding the history of America itself. Cities can become microcosms of the larger society and nation.
And so, inspired by Vollmann and Waldie, I dive into the microfilm, looking for stories. For the moment, I’ve decided to focus my gaze on the history of water. How did a desert region like Southern California in general, and Fullerton in particular, manage to become such a major metropolitan center that uses way more water than is locally/naturally sustainable? Where has the water come from, and what battles led to us getting all this water from distant places like the Colorado River? How did we get here, and where are we going, water-wise?
|Here are some irrigation ditches in Fullerton in 1902.|
The main local water entity in 1901 was the Anaheim Union Water Company (AUWC). They had water rights to (some of) the Santa Ana River, and shared these rights with other companies like the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company. These were private companies whose Board of Directors tended to be owners of large, local ranches. Water rights (also called riparian rights) were a really big deal—water is life, and profits for farmers. Around 1901, these two water companies met together to bring legal action against a Mr. Fuller, “the Riverside county land-grabber” to prevent his taking water from the Santa Ana River. This would be one of many ongoing legal battles over local water rights.
In the meetings of the AUWC, there was discussion of purchasing the water rights of James Irvine, the man whose descendants founded the Irvine Company, which now owns the city of Irvine. In those early days, “maintaining an accurate division of the water [was] difficult if not impossible to devise.”
The local climate was also not conducive to a steady supply of water, specifically from the Santa Ana River. The AUWC concluded: “The conditions of our climate are such that it is impossible to determine ahead when the water can be turned out of the ditch for any definite time, without danger of loss to our irrigators.” New sources of water would be needed to irrigate the growing fields of Orange County.
Like any political entity vested with power, the AUWC was occasionally hostile to journalists who were critical of its policies. In 1903, the Board of Directors passed a resolution excluding reporters from their meetings. Shortly thereafter, the Tribune got word that an important report had been suppressed, to which Tribune editor Johnson replied: “The best way would be to permit the reporters to attend the meetings, then the reports and proceedings would not be suppressed.”
Meanwhile, the Anaheim Union Water Company and the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company cut a deal to share water rights. Mr. Sherwood, a sometimes Board Member who liked to write lengthy articles in the Tribune criticizing the AUWC, took issue with the deal. To which Samuel Armor of the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company replied: “G.W. Sherwood seems to be afflicted with a diarrhea of words accompanied by a costiveness of ideas. For two years or more he has been filling the papers west of the river with misrepresentations and insinuations against the S.A.V.I. Co. until his followers have come to believe the the people on this side are equipped with hoofs and horns and forked tails.” To which Sherwood replied: “I have always taken pleasure in setting Armor right, when he gets tangled up in the mazes of his own alleged erudition…With regard to the proposed division of water, Armor’s premises are false and his conclusions are wrong.”
Meanwhile, Fuller, the “Riverside land-grabber” lost in court. An article gleefully proclaiming FULLER IS NON-SUITED! stated: “The decision sends a thrill of joy through the hearts of the stockholders, as it again establishes their absolute right to the waters flowing in the [Santa Ana] River for lo! these many years. Encroachers, who may in the future attempt to divert the water from its natural course, will please take warning. The decision further cements our rights to the life-giving fluid.”
An article from 1904 proclaimed direly: WATER SUPPLY NEED: Volume doesn’t keep pace with our growth: “For many years past we have had, with the exception of last winter, a series of dry years.’ We are now confronted with the possibility of worse than has gone before. During this period our orchards have grown, new acreage has been set out, and a general development has taken place that renders imperative the development of a greater supply of water to keep pace with the growth of the community.” This question of growth vs. water supply would continue for the next several decades.
As more and more lands were added to be irrigated, it became clear that the Santa Ana River would be insufficient to supply future water needs. Other water sources were necessary, and the first solution was pumping water from wells, tapping into underground sources. Pumping would be done from wells by electric motors. A Tribune article explains: "A 40-horsepower motor should pump up to 150 inches...By this system plants could be multiplied indefinitely…The addition of 1000 inches to our present supply would permit the issue of more of the capital stock of the company, which applied to the payment of the debt would reduce the fixed charges and assessments; and eventually the price of water, its the result that investors and home seekers would find this locality more attractive, and the values of property would be advanced.” The logic of infinite growth necessitated an infinite water supply.
Remember Mr. Fuller, the infamous "Riverside land-grabber"? You gotta admire his tenacity and “fuck off” attitude. He ignored the court order, and just kept using Santa Ana river water: "the waters have never ceased flowing through the ditches constructed for the purposes of such unlawful diversion and the action and its continuance is contempt of court and those responsible are amenable to law.” Meanwhile, in 1904, the city of Fullerton decided to incorporate as a city. Local rancher Charles Chapman was elected the fist mayor.
Tensions also existed between AUWC and SAVIC. In an article entitled “Local Water Shortage,” Johnson writes: “Irrigators in the AUWC district have believed for some time that they were not getting their fair share of water from the Santa Ana River up at Rincon, where it is supposed to be equally divided between the local and Santa Ana companies. Superintendent Porter and Director Sherwood made a trip to the head of the canal this week to investigate, and state that the SAVIC was getting 1,000 more inches than the AUWC. The local company will no doubt at once demand an equal division.”
Around this time, an argument arose between a Mr. Zeyn and Mr. Sherwood, who at this time was the engineer of the AUWC. Zeyn charged Sherwood with incompetence, and Sherwood responded in kind. It seems that, personal differences aside, these two men represented the interests of different farmers—Zeyn those in Anaheim, and Sherwood those in Fullerton. Zeyn published his criticisms on the eve of an AUWC election, to which Sherwood replied: “The criticisms of my ability as an engineer would have had more weight had they been made at the meetings of the board instead of in a newspaper a few days before election.” After answering Zeyn’s criticisms (mainly dealing with poor ditch construction), Sherwood stoops to some classic ad hominem attacks: “The people of Anaheim will have a chance to demonstrate in a few days, whether they are mindful of their interests or are tied to the tail of Zeyn’s kite like so many rags. His capacity for business is well known. It is a perennial joke…Will the Anaheim people be the fools of a tool?”
But the big controversy of the 1904 AUWC board of directors election was Charles C. Chapman. When the results of the election were tallied, Chapman had been elected president of the board. However, upon closer inspection, it was asserted that a Mr. Crowther had in fact been elected. Whereupon the old board of directors voted to put Crowther in power. Chapman legally challenged this, and a judge declared that Chapman was, in fact, the president. These shenanigans remind me of the controversial 2000 presidential election where George W. Bush defeated Al Gore—when the election was decided by the Supreme Court. Anyway, Chapman was the new president of the AUWC.
1904 was a big year for Charles C. Chapman—he was elected mayor of Fullerton and president of the AUWC—giving him a great deal of local power. Under the new Board of Directors, the same questions remained—how to provide enough water for a steadily-growing region. Most of the “growth” at this point in history had to do with expansion of the local ranchers’ acreage—think business (not population) growth. They would look underground, to local artesian wells, and the creation of “pumping plants”: “In the vicinity of Anaheim there are upwards of 7,000 inches of water being pumped by power plants. The acreage which is irrigated with this water produces annually to its owners an income of over $500,000. The many pumping plants in operation make possible enormous returns upon the acre of big and little ranches alike in this territory.” Drink that milkshake, drink it up.
In a letter to the editor, an anonymous stockholder wrote: “Eternal vigilance is said to be the price of liberty, and with equal truthfulness it may be said to be the price of water in Southern California…There is a scheme on foot to smuggle nearly three thousand acres of outside land in the territory of the AUWC, I thought that a few facts in relation to that matter might be of interest to the readers of your valuable paper.” The writer doesn’t name names, but says that this scheme was to benefit certain ranchers in Fullerton: “The parties that are working this scheme are like moles—shrewd underground workers. The same influences are behind them that secured the post office appointment in Fullerton. Of course there is no use to get alarmed. They will tell you that their intentions are honorable. It is nothing but a bogie man. But the bogie man will get you if you don’t watch out.” Who are these bogie men?
In 1905, Mr. Bradford of the AUWC attended a conference of the California Water and Forestry service, and reported: “Our water problem is of the gravest nature, and conserving the rain and snowfall by planting trees and shrubs, and covering our barren and fire-swept hills and mountains with new vegetation. The storm waters are thereby retained and allowed to soak down to our underground reservoirs and fill them up instead of the floods sweeping down to the ocean and lost. When one studies these problems and notes the swiftly lowering water flow in our pumping wells, it is time that we are all active before it is too late. We are using the water very much faster than it is being stored and some radical measures must be taken by the state and government. A bill was endorsed, called the Forestry bill, which is needed very much, or something of the kind, as our laws are not strong enough and the foresters have to cover many miles of forest and it is impossible to do this work in a satisfactory manner—there should be double the number of men employed. But a system of rules, regulations and penalties more severe will have to be put in force before the stock and lumbermen can be compelled to observe them.” The lumber industry was clearly conflicting with the ranching industry.
Meanwhile, the AUWC continued cementing irrigation ditches, and even building metal pipes, ensuring that water would not be replenishing groundwater sources. To pay for all this, the water company planned to take on more bond debt. This set off a flurry of editorials in the Tribune—some people for, some against the bond issue. Reading these debates, one gets the impression that where people fell on the bond issue was determined by three factors: political ideology, self-interest, and whether one lived in Fullerton or Anaheim. A Mr. Holcomb was vehemently against the bond, saying that it’s unfair to saddle future generations with debt. He wrote, mockingly: “What has posterity done for us, anyway?” Ultimately, the bond failed to get enough popular support.
As more water was machine-pumped up from wells, concern arose over not just the Santa Ana river, but also diminishing groundwater supplies. A Mr. Kroeger wrote: “In 1862 the water in my well was 14 feet from the surface. From that time it fell steadily up to 1868 to 30 feet below…As our water then got a smell of the graveyard, I had a deep well bored to 105 feet deep, and have not measured the sinking of water until about four months ago, when Mr. Seale found it to be 71 feet below the surface, and today it is 72 feet. So you see it is sinking very rapidly, and if it is going at that rate in a few years our drinking water will be scarce. But the underground supply will run as long as there is a drop of water on the surface of the Santa Ana river. Our government is spending millions of dollars at the present time to increase the water supply, while in this county our authorities try by all means to destroy it. It is high time this practice was stopped.”
Meanwhile, a Mr. Armour attended a conference in Riverside on this question of diminishing water supplies and concluded: “Ten years ago nearly all the users from the Santa Ana river had plenty of flowing water: today, with the exception of a few prior rights, everybody in San Bernadino and Riverside counties is pumping and each year from a greater depth.” A solution was discussed to replenish underground reservoirs with excess water that flowed in the winter.
As the Tribune continued to do its job of reporting on water issues, suggesting that that Charles Chapman was using his position on the AUWC board to advance his own interests, Chapman began to take issue with this, and revoked his agreement to publish AUWC notices in the Tribune. Those in power have, historically, had an adversarial relationship with the press. To which Tribune editor Johnson responded with a nickname that he would use for Chapman in the coming years, Czar Chapman.
In an article entitled “Interesting Facts About Irrigation” (which offers few facts, but lots of ideology), Johnson basically gives a manifesto on the goodness of irrigation, perhaps in light of recent concerns about dwindling water in the Santa Ana river and local groundwater. Here are some excerpts from his treatise, which seems fairly representative of the ideology of the time. I wonder what Johnson would think if he could see these lands today—the logical end-game of the doctrine of infinite growth:
“Few people realize that there is more land developed under irrigation than under rainfall. It has been said that the first irrigation canals were run from the four rivers of paradise, ad that Assyria, Nineveh, Egypt, Peru, and Mexico owed their beauty and power to the ordered ministration of conducted water. The loftiest achievements of the human mind and heart had birth in the rainless lands. Irrigation has always been the religion of the semi-arid lands—the faith which sees in the desert the promise of springtime blades.
The western world was to furnish yet more magnificent proofs of the transcendent value of irrigation as the foundation of nation building…Homes will rise above crumbling ruins…now new life invades the solitudes…the Midas touch which turns the desert sands to gold is the presence of water…the transplanted eastern farmer could not at first comprehend that cactus-covered, alkaline, sage brush land could be made to blossom like the rose. And now he is learning the science of irrigation in America…irrigation of the semi-arid regions is the greatest question of public internal policy in the development of the United States…the reclamation of profitless desert by development…
Irrigation beckons to the man who is not needed to go where he is needed. It offers him a clean sweet home where his children can learn the language of Shakespeare and the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence. Here will be no idling loiterers under a tropical breadfruit tree, but irrigated gardens in the temperate zone, where the desire to labor creates its own reward. Irrigation brings the ‘landless man to the manless land.’ It leads the congested hoards of cities to the sane and simple methods of living in nature’s bounteous land, where they may be inspired by uplifting peaks and turquoise skies.”
Faced with the same problem of diminishing water, Los Angeles began to consider purchasing land/water rights in the Owens Valley. In an article entitled “Water May Be Scarce,” the Tribune writes: “Through the Los Angeles papers we are informed of a very important and large deal which that city is contemplating, the buying up of all the Owens river country and bring all water of Owens river to Los Angeles.” Ultimately, this is exactly what happened, much to the detriment of the Owens Valley, and allegations of misconduct.
Meanwhile, closer to home, on a smaller scale, the ever-controversial Mr. Sherwood pointed out a bit of local profiteering on the part of the engineer and superintendent of the AUWC, who made personal profits through water deals and land sales. Those accused denied these allegations, of course.
There also arose, around this time, the question of who should own Fullerton’s water system and supply. At this time, it was in private hands. An article in the Tribune written by an anonymous “taxpayer” suggested that it would be a good idea for the city to own its own water system and supply. This raises the larger question: should public utilities like water be government-run or privately-run? What are the costs and benefits of each situation? Stay tuned for Fullerton Water Wars Part 4: 1906-1010, coming soon!
|Advertisement from 1905 Fullerton Tribune.|