The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.
"It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: This is water. This is water."
--David Foster Wallace, comencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College, 2005
When we turn on the tap, or take a shower, few people take time to wonder: Where does the water come from? Like many aspects of life in developed areas, water is one of those things that we just take for granted.
But the reality behind water is vastly deeper than we might suspect. It involves agencies, agencies within agencies, politicians, lawyers, engineers, bureaucrats, and businessmen. Average folks like you and me have, historically, existed on the outside of water debates. Well, my fellow water-users, here's an inside scoop, based mainly on the book A History of Orange County Water District by Barbara Milkovich. I'm fairly certain that I am one of a very small handful of people who have actually read this book. It's no thriller, but it is instructive.
For centuries, water use in Orange County was fairly simple. Native Americans built their dwellings along the Santa Ana river and had all the water they needed to survive. This was at a time when the Santa Ana river was a real river, capable of sustaining local people, plants and animals, and not the man-made concrete trickling channel it has become.
The coming of the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries signaled the end of the Santa Ana river as it had existed for centuries. Milkovich writes, "Beginning in the 18th century, Europeans introduced their concept of community control of irrigation and water management as their colonies developed." Only a European would view a river as something to be "managed."
As they built missions and military outposts, the Spanish began the project of "controlling" the land and water for maximum yield: "Eventually the Mission [San Gabriel] had some 6,000 acres of land under irrigation, including tracts in Santa Ana." They dug ditches [or, rather, compelled the Native Americans to dig ditches] to divert water from the Santa Ana river to their crops. It was the Spanish who taught the Native Americans to abandon their "primitive" ways and to embrace "civilization."
Irrigation projects expanded as the Spanish government in California divided the land into ranchos, spanning thousands of acres, which needed increasing amounts of water.
When the United States took over California in 1851, water became a commodity to be bought and sold, like everything else. The first water company in Orange County was the Anaheim Water Company, which was owned and controlled by local landowners.
By the 1870s, other developers arrived on the scene, hoping to make lots of money off the land. A.B. Chapman (father of Charles C. Chapman, Fullerton's first mayor) and his partner established the Semi-Tropical Water Company to irrigate their lands from the Santa Ana river.
This ultimately led to a legal battle over water "rights" between the Anaheim Water Company and the Semi-Tropical Water Company, which went all the way to the California Supreme Court. Eventually, after a couple mergers of companies into larger more powerful companies, the case was settled out of court and the Santa Ana river water fell under the control of two large companies: The Anaheim Union Water Company and the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company. These two companies controlled and sold the water until the 1960s.
With the gold rush and agricultural boom of the late 19th century, the water of the Santa Ana river became inadequate to support all the new settlers and developers. To paraphrase a film: We drank that milkshake. We drank it up.
So developers looked to other water sources and found them in underwater artesian wells, which at one time held 2.5 to 3 million acre-feet of water in Orange County. Drawing water from these underground wells, the Santa Ana river, and the Bolsa Chica wetlands, agriculture skyrocketed in Orange County. Between 1888 and 1912, the amount of irrigated acres rose from 23,500 to 50,000.
This massive exploitation of local water resources was not without consequences. Water levels were dropping rapidly, faster than they could be naturally replenished by rain and mountain runoff. In 1925, water engineer J.B. Lippincott reported to the Orange County Board of Supervisors that the underground artesian well water had shrunk from 315 square miles in 1888 to 52 square miles in 1923.
So what was Orange County's solution to this very real problem? Did they scale back the massive development? Did they seek more sustainable lifestyles? No way. They looked eastward, thirstily, to the mighty Colorado River. They didn't want to limit growth and production. They wanted to exand, expand, expand! They wanted more, more, more! It was the American way.
In 1924, local growers like Charles C. Chapman (Orange Tycoon/Fullerton Mayor) lobbied hard for the creation of the Boulder Dam and the building of an aqueduct to bring water from the Colorado River to Orange County. They were successful. Consequently, the value of citrus crops rose in value and profits from $2.7 million in 1911 to $28 million in 1927.
That same year, 1927, saw the formation of the Metropolitan Water District, a joint business venture between wealthy growers and local governments. The MWD, which to this day provides Fullerton with water, ensured decades of water to Orange County, courtesy of the Colorado river. By 1935, 54,000 acres of orange groves existed in Orange County, irrigated by diminishing local supplies and a seemingly endless supply from the Colorado river.
In 1931, prompted by concerns over shrinking groundwater levels, the Orange County Water District was formed with the purpose of conserving and replenishing OC groundwater. The directors of the OCWD were elected by property owners, who were in turn charged a "pump tax" in addition to whatever they were paying the MWD.
Growers didn't really like the OCWD. They got sued by wealthy property owners like James Irvine (of the Irvine Company), who were less concerned with water conservation, and more concerned with profits.
Interestingly, property owners in Orange County have often opposed this OCWD "pump tax." They think it's somehow unfair that they have to help fund water conservation, despite the fact that they, and other like them, create water shortages in the first place.
Anyway, enough about water for now. I'm thirsty! Tune in next time for the conclusion of this thrilling saga!
The mighty Santa Ana river in all its natural beauty. This used to be a real river.