Monday, June 27, 2016

Fullerton Water Wars: Part 1

For the past few years, I've been researching and writing a history of my hometown of Fullerton.  This research has taken me to libraries, museums, and other fun places.  This summer, I've been diving into one of the real goldmines of local historical information, the microfilm archives of the Fullerton Tribune, the town's first newspaper, which was created in 1893 by a Mr. Edgar Johnson.

At first, looking at this microfilm is quite overwhelming.  I am assaulted with vast amounts of data and the question becomes: what do I, as a researcher/writer, choose to focus on?  In previous posts, I've created summaries of some of the most interesting/important stories from those first years: 1893, 1894, 1895.  But those posts only scratch the surface.  Last week, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to focus on one specific issue, and read all the articles pertaining to that issue over a few years.  Perhaps an interesting narrative will emerge.

And so, I chose the issue of water.  Living in a densely populated desert like Southern California, I am fascinated by the history of water.  How does this region, which cannot naturally support such a vast population, manage to get all that water?  I suspect that studying the history of water in my town will provide some interesting insights into questions of power, politics, business, and the natural environment, which has been so profoundly altered by human beings.

The Fullerton Tribune began in 1893, so our story will begin there, but its important to note that this date is totally arbitrary in the longer history of water use in this region.  For those interested in earlier water history, I would refer you to a post I wrote on a book called A History of Orange County Water District, which goes all the way back to Native Americans and the Spanish Missions.  Anyway, let's begin our story in 1893...

In 1893, the board of directors of the Anaheim Union Water Company were mostly notable OC pioneers: Hiram Clay Kellogg, William McFadden, Edward Amerige, John Tuffree, Charles Rust, and a Mr. Zayn.  These men were all prominent businessmen and local ranchers who had a vested financial interest in making sure the water kept flowing to their fields and towns.

At a meeting in 1893, several ranchers from a town called Yorba complained that "they were not receiving their fair share of water" and that their irrigation ditches were damaged.  Residents of Yorba tended to have Spanish surnames like De los Reyes and Valenzuela.  It does not appear that the residents of Yorba had a representative on the board of directors of the Water Company.  Their complaints will continue.

Six years prior, in 1887, the same year that the town of Fullerton was formed by George and Edward Amerige, the California state legislature passed the Wright Act of 1887, whose purpose was to give small farmers a fair shake by allowing them to band together, form public collectives called Irrigation Districts, and get water to where it was needed.  This was NOT how the Act was presented in the Fullerton Tribune.  Reading articles from 1893 onward, one gets the impression that the sole purpose of the Wright Act was to unfairly tax water companies.  It was met with near immediate outrage by the larger local ranchers, who in 1893 formed the Anti-Wright Irrigation League, which saw itself as a defender of taxpayers (Which taxpayers? One wonders.)

The stated function of the Anti-Wright Irrigation League was "the complete annihilation of the Wright Act."  Edward Amerige, co-founder and member of the Board of Directors of the Water Company wrote in the Tribune: "I see inevitable ruin and bankruptcy in the future if the Wright Act is not wiped out."  William McFadden, also on the board, took a more nuanced approach, writing, "I am in favor of the [Irrigation] District, but think the directors made a mistake in levying the special tax.  I think the Wright Law would be the best thing for the people if successfully carried out, but if it cannot be done, wipe it out completely."

Meanwhile, members of the Anti-Wright Irrigation League refused to pay their water tax, prompting William A. Witte, tax collector for the Irrigation District, to write to the Water Company: "Dear Sir: Your taxes in Anaheim Irrigation District for 1893-1894 amounting to $14.80 are now due and payable to me at my office on Los Angeles street, Ahaheim.  On the last Monday in December 1893 at six o'clock pm all unpaid assessments will be delinquent and an additional 5 percent will be added on all delinquents.  Respectfully, Wm. A. Witte, collector."

To which Edgar Johnson, ardent defender of (certain) taxpayers, replied by comparing the tax collectors to vampires: "Blood suckers are living off the money from the people...It is time for the...people to begin to protect themselves from the public robbers who are ruining the country.  We will pay our taxes when we have to."  Which, apparently, was not when they were due.  This is also ironic in the sense that the purpose of the Wright Act was to empower small farmers against the interests of large ranchers, who tended to monopolize water resources.  The Fullerton Tribune seems to take the side of the large ranchers.  It was important to stay in their good graces.

Meanwhile, the Santa Ana River and its irrigation ditches were protected by men called zanjeros, paid by the Water Company, to ensure the water flowed to its rightful owners: "The zanjeros were instructed not to deliver water to anyone not a stockholder and then not to exceed his stock limit."  These private water police were needed because some people still had the gall to partake of a local natural resource without paying.  Early in 1893, a "zanjero reported that the Chinese at the vegetable gardens north of town had been stealing water form the ditches."  One doubts the veracity of this report, as the Chinese, at this particular moment in American history, were the feared and hated immigrant group of the day.  They would soon be run out of town by armed vigilantes.  Many of them would also be deported due to the various Chinese Exclusion Acts.

In addition to taxes, part of the conflict between the Wright-created Irrigation District and the Anti-Wright League (i.e. the Water Company) had to do with the creation of a reservoir.  The Irrigation District, presumably representing the interests of small farmers, sought to create a reservoir in the under-represented region of Yorba.  The Water Company, presumably representing the interests of the larger ranchers, sought to create a reservoir in La Habra.  Legal battles will ensue.  Who will get the reservoir: La Habra or Yorba?  Time willl tell.

When all this was transpiring, there was across the United States the Panic of 1893 which led to the greatest Depression the country had ever seen.  Like other Great Depressions, this led to lots of bank failures, closures, and general financial hard times.  Owing to these trying times, the board of directors of the Water Company felt compelled to raise their rates.  The self-serving philosophy of the Water Company was: taxes bad, raising rates necessary.

Also, at this time, another combatant entered the Water Wars--the Jurupa Land and Water Company, who claimed water rights that overlapped with the Water Company.  The Board of Directors proclaimed in the Tribune: "During the past year the Jurupa Company appropriated and used to our injury two hundred inches of water more than formerly, and the [Santa Ana] River at that point by expert management had 400 inches of water in the season of scarcity less than the year previous, which very materially affected our stream of water, our irrigators and the income of the company."

Meanwhile, in 1894, there was an election for the Board of Directors of the Water Company.  All of the previous directors were re-elected, minus Kellogg, who was replaced by a Mr. Botsford (remember that name!)

And then came the Age of Cement.  Perhaps irrigation ditches were already being cemented, but the first mention of this increasingly popular trend appears mid-1894, when the Water Company hired contractors "for cementing the south branch ditch from Crowther's corner to Brookhurst, 24,244 feet, and the East street ditch form Sycamore Street to Santa Ana Street, 3,300 feet."  More cementations will follow.  The stated reason for these first cementations was "to keep the squirrels [and gophers] from working through the banks."

Around this time, a "ditch committee" was formed to examine all ditches.  Their recommendations will prove prophetic: "that all improvements on the ditches hereafter be made with permanency and utility and that all wooden gates be removed as fast as they are out, and be replaced with cement."  The Romans would be proud.

Let me pause here for a moment, in case you are bored.  I don't expect that many people will find this terribly interesting or important.  As I sit here at 9:30pm on a Thursday night in a coffee shop reading proposed amendments to the bylaws of the Anaheim Union Water Company in 1894, I think to myself: so this is how I spent my summer vacation.  Why does this stuff matter?  And who will care to read it?  I'm reminded of one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, who prepared for his last unfinished novel (The Pale King) by reading the entire Senate hearing transcripts of the Tax Reform Act of 1986.  He had to take accounting classes to begin to decipher its near impenetrability.  Wallace notes in his voluminous footnotes that he may have been one of the only living Americans to have read these tax debates in their entirety. Why did he do this?  I think it had something to do with the fact that the 1986 Tax Reform Act, though nearly incomprehensible to 99.9 percent of ordinary Americans actually had profound, real-world economic consequences for those same ordinary Americans.  And so, I think, it is with the history of water.  Hold your nose, dear reader, as we take the plunge back into those increasingly cemented (yet rodent free!) irrigation ditches.

In a late 1984 meeting, the Water Company was faced with rising costs of cleaning irrigation ditches.  More cementing was proposed.  A surreal/funny quote from this article is: "Mr. Ryan thought it would be a good idea to get cheaper money."  Great idea!  The hated Irrigation District was also facing hard times, this being the First Great Depression.  They had virtually no money, probably because the cash-strapped Water Company was refusing to pay its taxes, on principle.  Maybe 1895 will be a better year.  (Spoiler alert: It won't.)

If 1894 inaugurates the Age of Cement, 1985 brings the Age of Bonds.  I don't entirely understand the concept of bonds.  In my day, the state of California will occasionally "float a bond" to get itself out of debt or pay for some massive project.  It feels like bonds are magic, free money, though I don't think that's the case.  At my favorite bar in downtown Fullerton, Mulberry St., I run into my Irish friend Kevin, who knows more about economics than I do, and I ask him what a bond is.  He explains that it's basically a loan, not magic free money.  And, like all loans, it must be paid back.  It is the tendency of politicians with short terms to take out long-term loans.  "Leave it to the next generation to sort it out," Kevin says, a bit cynically.  He's currently quite upset with politics in general, because the United Kngdom just decided to leave the European Union, to the detrement of the Irish peace process.  But I digress.

Anyhow, in 1895, with cash flow relatively low, the Water Company began doing large-scale infrastructure projects (i.e. cementing ditches).  How will it pay for this?  Why, with bonds: "Speaking of the bonds, Mr. Botsford said that Los Angeles capitalists were eager to purchase the whole issue."  This Mr. Botsford will turn out to be an enthusiastic (and controversial) advocate of bonds.

Edward Amerige, Fullerton co-founder, emerged as the principal opponent of Mr. Botsford's bond schemes. In an 1895 letter to the editor, Amerige wrote: "To increase the present great indebtedness of the company at a time when the water sales do not pay running expenses, let alone interest on outstanding notes and bonds, which now amount to $1000 per month, or there about, by cementing the Placentia ditch at a cost of $14,000, is suicidal.  It looks as the though the company was run in the interest of 1 or 2 directors."

Part of the push for more bonds and cementing had to do with a push to expand the territory of the Water Company.  Amerige noted: "Who are the people who are clamoring for an increase of the present district?  Mostly speculators."  This is a bit ironic because when George and Edward Amerige founded Fullerton, just 8 years earlier, they could be considered speculators.   This conflict was really about settled speculators vs. new speculators.  Ultimately, it was a conflict over resources, namely water.

It was also a conflict of philosophies: unlimited vs. limited growth.  One could say that this is still the primary debate amongst city planners.  In 1895, Mr. Botsford was the advocate for unlimited growth, and Mr. Amerige was the adovcate for limited growth.  But, again, behind this was economic self-interest for both parties. Tribune Editor Edgar Johnson unequivocally sided with Amerige, making no pretense of journalistic "objectivity."

And then another party entered the fray, a Mr. Groat--preferred contractor of the water board for ditch cementing, who developed a nice business relationship wtih the Water Board.  Mr. Groat got lots of juicy contracts, paid for with bonds.  Mr. Amerige was, of course, not happy, writing in the Tribune: "Admitting, for argument sake, that contractor Groat's claim for payment of 1000 yards of earth was a just one, then there was a direct loss to the company of $223 through the unbusinesslike methods pursued by the board of directors.  It is a nice thing for the contractors to have an employee on the board of directors, but is it as nice a thing for the stockholders?"  E. Johnson adds: "The past transactions of the present board of directors, since they came into power, is a veritable gold mine for the newspaperman.  Dig in any direction you like, you are certain to unearth something unsavory."

In response to the "unsavory" actions of the board of directors, some stockholders (probably led by Amerige) formed the Reform League of the Anaheim Union Water Company, to encourage the election of new men.  Johnson wrote: "It will be something entirely new to the present board of directors to have men on the board who will work for the best interests of the stockholders and not trying to grab everything in sight."  Johnson advocates electing "men who will manage the affairs of the water board in a business-like manner."  This is a bit ironic because one could argue that, in promoting infinite growth and their own financial self-interest, the current water board was acting in a very business-like manner."

In reading about these water wars, it is often difficult to determine whether anyone is acting altruistically.  Even Mr. Amerige, in his opposition to bonds and expansion, is also looking out for his own self-interest, for in 1896 he will run for board of directors, and be elected.

Amerige's critiques of the water board become more direct and angry as 1896 rolls on.  In an article called "The Water Fight," he writes: "In looking over the cementing that has been done in the water district I find that the greatest outlay and the most expensive ditches have been made in the vicinity of several gentlemen's places, namely W.F. Botsford, Wm. McFadden, W. Crowther, and F.G. Ryan.  Does this not seem a little singular when all of these gentlemen are directors in the water company?"  Mic drop!

In response to these direct attacks, the water board embarked on a public relations campaign, by issuing circulars to stockholders making them sound awesome and responsible, to which Amerige promptly replied: "Does it not seem rather ludicrous for men who are sending out circular letters, commending their financial ability and wisdom to the stockholders in the work performed, to have most of the work done around their own places?"  In a similar vein, Johnson wrote: "The circular letters which have been sent out to the stockholders of the Anaheim Union Water Company from the office of the company during the past three months, are misleading, untrue, and evidently intended to deceive."

What is the upshot of all of this?  I draw a few conclusions regarding water wars in early Fullerton:

1.) Water is politics.

2.) Water is power.

3.) Water is business.

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