Friday, November 25, 2016

Fullerton Water Wars Part 4: 1906-1910

For the past several years, I've been slowly researching and writing a history of my hometown entitled The Town I Live In: A History of Fullerton.  Beginning this summer, I started focusing on the history of water use in this region.  My main source for this information is the Fullerton Tribune newspaper microfilm archives, which are available in the Local History Room at the Fullerton Public Library and date back to 1893 (the town was founded in 1887).  I've decided to call this current project "Fullerton Water Wars".  So far, I've written Part 1: 1893-1896 (in which much local water came from the nearby Santa Ana River), Part 2: 1897-1900 (in which, due to increased demand, construction of reservoirs began to be discussed), and Part 3: 1901-1905 (in which machine-powered pumps were constructed to pull up local groundwater).  All along the way, there are lots of power struggles, both political and economical, between major players in these water wars, the directors of the Anaheim Union Water Company, owners of large ranches, and politicians--who often tend to be the same people.  Anyway, without further ado, I present Fullerton Water Wars Part 4: 1906-1910.

If there is one thread running through issues of water use and development in Fullerton, it has to do with the much larger question of human society's relationship with the natural world.  From the perspective of the owners of large ranches in Fullerton (and surrounding communities), water was seen as a commodity to be co-opted and used for economic gain (i.e. growing oranges and walnuts on ever expanding acreages).  The fact that this area could not, with its natural water supply, sustain thousands of acres of agriculture, was not seen as a hindrance, but rather as a challenge for the large ranchers and the directors of local water companies, as they devised ever more creative, complex, and artificial ways of bringing water to this semi-arid environment, for their own economic gain.  So that's one theme, which may be summed up as Man vs. Nature.  This is, of course, an artificial dichotomy because human beings are very much a part of nature.  However, as time goes on, humans (for various reasons) develop a sort of adversarial/exploitive relationship with nature which goes hand in hand with the human ideologies of capitalism and "progress".

The other theme that runs throughout this story of water use is more of Man vs. Corporation. It is also related to capitalism.  The fundamental, underlying question is: Who shall own the water?  To a person of a native society, like the native Californian tribes, the very notion that one could "own" something as basic as water would likely seem ludicrous.  But, as more and more Americans moved into Southern California, notions of water ownership (or water "rights") became crucial.  As things worked out in Fullerton (and surrounding communities), the owners of the water became Water Companies, the most immediate being the Anaheim Union Water Company (or AUWC).  The AUWC operated like any other corporation.  It had a board of directors and shareholders.  One purchased water by becoming a shareholder and/or paying water rates to the Company.

Back in the days when this area was sparsely settled and local water sources were enough to sustain the population, such a Water Company was unnecessary.  You could just dig a well for your farm, or if you lived by a creek or the Santa Ana River, you could draw water from that.  But as the population expanded, as small farms grew into thousand-acre ranches, some entity was needed to secure more water--to build dams and irrigation ditches, to seek ever deeper and more distant sources of water, to fight it out in courts over access to rivers and groundwater.  Enter the Water Companies.  Usually, the boards of directors of the Water Companies were the large ranchers (who were often also local politicians).  And so, as time went on, there was a growing polarization between the wealthy owners of ever-larger acreages, and the average person, who was more of a customer/consumer of water.  As early as 1906, there was discussion of public ownership of water utilities, but by then it was already too late.  The interests of the Water Companies were too powerful.  It was also in the interests of the Water Companies to ensure the general public that their interests were one and the same, even if this was demonstrably false.  

Perhaps the most contentious local water issue of 1906 was the question of whether the city would buy the town's privately-owned Water Works (a pumping and storage plant) from its owners, the Adams-Philips Co.  This issue created much public debate over the economic and philosophical merits of public vs. private ownership of utilities, a debate that feels relevant today.  It appears that the majority of the citizens of Fullerton favored city ownership of the water works, as this would be in their interests.


Ultimately, however, the issue went to a vote and was defeated.  Tribune editor Edgar Johnson mused: "with the present plant owned by millionaires and in operation...the longer a city delays in acquiring public utilities, the more expensive becomes the undertaking."  This suggests that powerful financial forces were at play to defeat the measure to purchase the water works.


To help secure more water for the ever-growing ranches, the Water Company built a reservoir in the town of Yorba (which I think became Yorba Linda).  The purpose of the was to "impound fifty odd million cubic feet of water, sufficient to supply the needs of Southside irrigators during the entire summer’s irrigating season.”  

In 1907, the two main Orange County water companies, the Anaheim Union Water Company and the the Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Company, combined, to have more economic and legal power to fight other Water Companies and Ranchers who wanted the same things they did--to own more and more water.  Water was life, but more and more--water was money!  The new company was called the Santa Ana River Development Company.  The main purpose of the companies was “to acquire by purchase, lease, condemnation or otherwise, lands, water, and water rights, and personal property of all kinds; to construct dams, reservoirs, canals, tunnels, flumes, and aqueducts, to lay pipes and provide all other means and appliances for developing, storing, delivering, and distributing water.”  Consolidation and elimination of competition was their business strategy.


However, this consolidation and monopolization of water resources was not seen by everyone as a good thing.  In an article entitled "Keep Water from the Grabbers" Johnson describes a speech given by Secretary of the Interior James Garfield in Riverside around this time, warning against water privatization.  He began:

“You should be very circumspect about how you allow these great resources to get into private hands.  They are assets which will become more and more valuable as the years go by, and no one should be allowed to gain a monopoly over them.  I do not mean that you should in any way infringe upon private rights now existing, nor should you hamper worthy private enterprise; but the state and national government should not grant any further concessions in these resources which should belong to the people...And while I am on this point I want to emphasize the value of good citizenship.  It is often more important to the country than the pursuit of industry.  In the east we have many men today who are following industrial pursuits with such intensity that they forget or minimize the importance of their duties as citizens of the republic."

At first, Garfield almost sounds like a Marxist, warning against privatization of resources, suggesting that, with regards to things like water, they ought to benefit everyone, not just large companies or landowners.  But then, because he is a representative of an American system of government that is capitalistic, he softens his Marxism with acknowledgment of the importance of individual enterprise and private rights.  For Secretary Garfield, part of being a good citizen means being more than a greedy, profit-driven capitalist.  One must balance the impulse toward private profit with concern for the public good--and that means allowing for public ownership of basic utilities like water.


One problem that results from not keeping water from "grabbers" (i.e. large private corporations) is that, once they have a monopoly, they tend to price gouge the citizens, as is evidenced by this article, in which the Tribune points out that Fullerton citizens are paying way more than neighboring cities for water, because their Water Works is owned by a private company (driven by profit) rather than by the City (driven by good citizenship)...


Also, it seems the private water company wasn't doing a great job of keeping their pipes in working order.  They didn't give a shit.  They had a monopoly.


Who would prevail in this struggle for public vs. private ownership of natural resources?  Well, one person arguing for public ownership was famous socialist/presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who spoke in Santa Ana.  Alas, poor Eugene V. Debs.  He would not make it to the white house, but would end up in prison for his political views.


Meanwhile, farming in the area continued to expand as new machines were invented for maximum planting and harvesting efficiency.  With these new machines making the job easier, more water would, of course, be needed to keep pace with growth.  The model of infinite growth is another important feature of American capitalism.




Where would all the water come from to wet these thirsty lands?  Well, as early as 1908, real estate companies (another growth industry!) were selling land (and perhaps more importantly, water rights) to land nearby the mighty Colorado River (remember that name!), plus land in Mexico!  Land speculation was another growth industry.  The notion that one human being (or a syndicate of men) could own huge swaths of land for maximum exploitation was all part of the march of progress.



In 1908, the Yorba Reservoir Dam was completed, ensuring a steadier stream of water for local Water Companies.  Ironically, the Tribune points out, this reservoir was built atop a former Indian settlement.  Euro-American ways of dealing with natural resources were literally overtaking Native American ways.


Just as farming technology was improving and mechanizing to allow for infinite growth, so too was printing technology, allowing for growth in the news business.  The model of infinite growth, not sustainability, is the driving ideology.  In 1908, in keeping with this growth model, the Fullerton Tribune expands to become the Orange County Tribune!


Opponents to infinite growth will be met with legal challenges at every turn!  The water must flow (in our direction)!  No retreat!  No surrender!


In 1909, the City Water Works, instead of going into public hands, was bought out by a larger water company, promising better service.  Something tells me this will not last.


An interesting article also appeared this year, discussing "The True Source of Water Supply."  Spoiler alert: It's the San Bernadino Mountains!  This article raises an interesting issue, however.  Even back in 1909, there was confusion among citizens as to where local water actually came from.  Do you know where your local water comes from?


In 1909, the counties of Orange, Riverside, and San Bernadino got together to form something called a “Water Conservation Association” whose purpose was “the spreading of flood waters on lands along the Santa Ana river…spreading the winter flood waters of said river and its tributaries, in the San Bernadino basin and elsewhere.”  The word “conservation” is a bit deceptive.  The purpose of this group was to make sure that no water would be wasted which could otherwise be used by stockholders—for consumption and agriculture.  


Flooding of the Santa Ana River was a recurring problem, particularly in wetter winters.  The question began to arise: Can we artificially control this problem?  When it came to irrigation ditches, the solution to this problem was cement, and lots of it.  In time, this same solution would be applied to an actual river, which you can easily see if you live in Orange County today.  Engineer Kellogg's solution was “to keep a clean channel about one hundred feet wide, and construct levies on each side three hundred get from the channel.  Also to plant plenty of basket-willow, pampas grass and cane along the embankment, also to construct jetties of piles of wire at certain intervals running diagonally from the channel.”  Here’s a recent picture I took of the Santa Ana river:


These growers were practical, efficient men, determined not to lose any water that could be turned into a profit.


After all, Fullerton was the center of Orange County’s wealth…


Meanwhile, a new subdivision sprouted up from the land, called Yorba Linda.  This advertisement promises Water! Water! Water!


In the State Legislature, a new bill was in the works which was perceived as threatening to local water companies, as it would give a state board some powers of oversight over their activities, setting water rates and determining how to use excess water.  This could not stand.  A petition was drafted, urging the State Legislature to stay the fuck out of our business, thank you very much.


And in 1910, local Water Companies sued several water users up river for illegally partaking of a natural resource.  They will feel the iron hand of the law!


If you are still reading at this point, I salute you, fellow water user!  Stay tuned for Fullerton Water Wars Part 5: 1911-1915, as I slowly make my way through the microfilm and report my findings!

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