JSNH&B home • 2015 • vol. 6 no. 1

A Brief History of Water Engineering and Environmental Change in California, 1850s-1913

by David Kuchera

Sierra College History Professor

Background: Native American, Spanish, and Mexican Periods

Dates for the earliest evidence of humans in California, though controversial, are conservatively estimated at 10,000 BCE and could be more that 17,000 BCE. (Walton Bean and James Rawls, California: An Interpretive History 11). California Indian [or Native Californian] societies, that developed until European colonization in 1769, were among the most densely-settled and most linguistically-diverse in North America.

Apparently California was a magnet for people, even many hundreds and thousands of years before the 1849 California Gold Rush and subsequent waves of modern-day migration. Before contact with Europeans, perhaps as many as one-third of all the Native or Indian people living in what became the contiguous 48 United States were living in what we now know as California.

California Indians were able to thrive in an amazing array of environments, thanks, in part, to their land’s many and varied sources of fresh water. There were so many major rivers roaring westward down the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain range to the Central Valley, meandering through the vast wetlands of the Delta, to San Francisco Bay, and the Pacific Ocean. Larger rivers included the Feather, Yuba, American, Mokelumne, Cosumnes, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced and San Joaquin. Numerous smaller rivers followed similar pathways to the sea. They all nurtured the wide-ranging Yokuts, the Monache, Nisenan, Konkow, Maidu, and many other nations of Native California.

Three High Sierra rivers—the Truckee, Carson and Walker—flowed east. The Owens River, whose headwaters also raced down the steep slopes of the eastern Sierra, flowed south. Even the Los Angeles, Santa Ana, and San Diego rivers flowed freely in those days. Not far from Oregon, the mighty Sacramento River began near Mt. Shasta, where its headwaters met the Pit River coming from the Modoc Plateau. The Sacramento thundered down the northern mountain canyons, then watered the length of the Sacramento Valley, running hundreds of miles to San Francisco Bay. The Colorado River came even farther, from the Rocky Mountains and through the Grand Canyon, on its way to southeastern California and Mexico.

Different Nations, Different Environments

Some California Indians lived in radically different environments from one another. Tribal nations like the Yurok, Hupa, and Pomo lived in, and near, the fog-shrouded, dense coastal redwood forests along California’s northern Pacific coast. Enjoying the bounty of the sea, they were also nourished by fresh water and fish from the Klamath, Mad, Trinity, Eel, Russian, and other rivers. Meanwhile, in the opposite [southeastern] corner of California, tribes like the Mojave and Chemehuevi lived in a hot desert climate, sustained, in part, by the Colorado River.

The California Indians also congregated around large lakes. There are indications of human life circa 10,000 BCE in the Salton Basin, where the Cahuilla lived on the Salton Sea, below sea level, in the modern era. Meanwhile, above 6,000 feet of elevation in the Sierra Nevada, the Washoe lived all around the shores of Lake Tahoe and the Mono Lake Paiute on Mono Lake. Some California lakes were over two miles above sea level.

One large group, the Miwok, had several civilizations spread across almost the entire width of today’s state of California. The Sierra and Plains Miwok lived in the southern Sierra, in the central Sierra, even among the giant sequoias, and across the Central Valley, regularly migrating with the seasons. Miwok also lived among the wetlands of the Delta. The Lake Miwok lived in a drier climate around the large fresh-water lake we now know as Clear Lake. The Coast Miwok lived between the Russian River and San Francisco Bay, and along the Marin and southern Sonoma County coast, by Mt. Tamalpais, and among the redwoods. Of the Miwok it could truly be said that they lived “from the mountains, to the prairies, to the ocean white with foam”—all in California.

But, despite living along all the major rivers and lakes, the California Indians had relatively little impact on the water resources. Along the Colorado River they practiced farming, and there irrigation did occur. Some other tribes may have also constructed dams and canals, but they were not on a scale to be overly disruptive. They did not mine the gold they observed in streams, and there were no true cities where water works would be necessary.

Modern study indicates that California Indians had a much larger impact on land management than previously thought, as they burned, and otherwise managed trees, brush, and grass. But their imprint upon the water environment was relatively light, even as they utilized water resources for fish, fowl, weaving and construction materials, as well as boating, drinking, and more.

First Europeans in California

The first Europeans entered the region in 1542, but with only sporadic forays, and only by ship along the coast. The early Spanish explorers named the land of our current U.S. state “Alta California” [Upper California], as opposed to the long peninsula of “Baja California” [Lower California] to the south, now part of Mexico.

In Alta California, these early European ventures also had limited impact on fresh water sources. Spain’s 1500s contact with Alta California was considered dangerous, as they lost lives from Indian warfare, storms, disease, and shipwrecks. In 1607, the government forbade travel there, so no Spanish visits to Alta California were authorized for about 160 years.

By 1769, the Spanish became worried that other powers might encroach on Alta California, which they had never settled, but nevertheless continued to claim from afar, based on their 1542 “discovery.” Starting in San Diego with a mission and presidio [fort], Spain—which had earlier set up missions and settlements in Baja California—began to colonize Alta California in 1769. This started the period of the first continuous European settlement in present-day California. After over a century-and-a-half of virtually ignoring the territory, the Spanish now became eager colonists, up through the early 1820s.

The priests converted many Native Californians to Catholicism and used them as laborers around the missions. If not exactly enslaved, the “Mission Indians” were certainly at least coerced and often subjected to harsh discipline. Still, the worst blows were to the Indians’ health. As elsewhere in the New World, the newcomers brought diseases for which the Native people lacked immunity.

The 20 missions, four presidios, and four pueblos the Spanish established in coastal California greatly changed the local environments, but had limited effect elsewhere. By the end of the Spanish period in 1821, there were only 3,300 non-Indians located along 500 miles near the coast in Alta California, but their impact on California Indians and the environment was greater than their raw population numbers.

Change in Land Management Patterns

The large displacement and rapid population-decrease of California Indians radically changed land management patterns. Spanish practices of intensive land use of singular areas, and the introduction of large numbers of herding animals and non-native plant species were especially destructive to native habitat.

The last [Alta] California mission, the 21st, was actually built in Sonoma by Mexico after it won its independence in 1821. At that point, Mexico assumed the Spanish claims to both Baja and Alta California.

While managed by the priests, the vast majority of labor needed to maintain these fairly-large institutions was performed by Native Californians, many of whom became farmers, artisans, and outstanding vaqueros [cowboys]. In 1946, historian Jo Mora published a book titled Californios: The Saga of the Hard-Riding Vaqueros, America’s First Cowboys. Mora noted that the vaqueros, a mixed-race but primarily-Native-Californian workforce, were controlling huge herds. Mora calculated that—in the first years of the 1830s, shortly before the mission system was secularized and largely expropriated—the 21 missions had amassed 396,000 cattle, 321,500 goats, sheep, and pigs, and 61,600 horses.

The ranching society that followed in the Mexican period, through 1848, continued this intense alteration of the environment. Greater Russian, British, and American influences broadened contact with Europeans outside of California and within the region as well.

As the number of newcomers proliferated, Central Valley Indian societies became more aggressive toward coastal Mexican enclaves. As both invited and uninvited immigrants, Europeans arrived in the interior valley, and Indian numbers there soon also declined precipitously and habitat was drastically changed. Still, despite all these changes and decimation of Native California tribes, water resources in Alta California remained little altered during the long Hispanic period, from 1542 to 1848.

The Beginning of the United States Era in California

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that concluded the Mexican-American War [of 1846 to 1848] transferred the great majority of the current U.S. Southwest from Mexico to the United States. It included all of California, Nevada, Utah, and Texas, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Kansas—roughly half of Mexico’s claimed lands. As the treaty was being negotiated, gold was discovered on the banks of the South Fork of the American River, east of Sacramento at the little outpost of Coloma—one of the more financially-fortuitous occurrences in U.S. history.

The year 1848 represented not only the political transfer of California and almost the entire current U.S. Southwest from Mexico to the U.S.A. (and all that implied for the region’s Mexican citizens). But the political change and discovery of gold was also the impetus for a bigger and frankly-more-brutal flood of newcomers who would soon render some California tribes extinct and severely reduce the numbers of others, over several decades, in an even-worse demographic disaster.

In a very real sense, 1848—and the California Gold Rush that soon followed—also announced the initiation of massive environmental change, especially for water resources.

Dramatic non-Native population increases and near free-for-all mining practices, that Mark Twain said left the Sierra Nevada foothills “torn and guttered and disfigured,” began a new and unique period of change in California. By January 1849, U.S. President James K. Polk confirmed to the nation, and the world, that this was a major strike. The announcement led to the worldwide “49er” California Gold Rush.

Non-Native Population

By December 1849, there were 100,000 non-Indian people in California, 40,000 of them miners. California became the 31st state in September 1850. (By contrast, less-rapidly-settled neighboring territories of Arizona and New Mexico, also ceded by Mexico in 1848, did not become states until 62 years later, in 1912.) By 1852 there were 100,000 miners, which remained a steady number for another eight years (Rice, Bullough, Orsi, and Erwin, The Elusive Eden 179).

These miners permanently altered the riparian landscape in areas that the Spanish and Mexicans had ignored. The unique technique of gold mining that developed in the state was hydraulic mining. Begun in 1852 and practiced for at least another thirty years, it radically accelerated environmental degradation in the Mother Lode and downstream areas. Even upstream areas were affected. Water from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada was carried by flumes to power the hydraulic nozzles that eroded mountainsides into canyons at about the 3,000 foot level.

The Law and Water for Farmers, Miners, and Eventually Cities

By 1860, the end of the main California Gold Rush era, the state population was 380,000 (Rolle 161). San Francisco was becoming a major city of the Pacific Rim. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 would only augment California’s, San Francisco’s, and other cities’ status and growth.

Drought and flooding during this decade diminished the great cattle herds, but agriculture expanded nevertheless. In the 1870s, the “wheat barons” of Glenn, Colusa, and Sutter counties initiated industrial farming on a scale that provided a business model for future agribusiness enterprises in the state. Part of this early agricultural success was because irrigation was not yet utilized for this crop. But global competition in wheat farming, by the 1880s, led to the collapse of wheat prices worldwide, which ended this empire in California.

Agriculture in the state now shifted more steadily to specialty crops that required irrigation. This farming style had been practiced on a small scale since the mission era. After the 1870s, farmers utilized Southern Pacific Railroad shipping and marketing abilities which sent “fruit trains” to the East. By the 1890s, cooperatives like Sunkist helped farmers standardize and market their crops.

State and federal government created bureaucracies and legislation, and court rulings also favored farming, especially large-scale operations. For farming to thrive as agribusiness, meaning industrial farming statewide, access to fertile land and a guarantee of water were both necessary.

Mining vs. Farming

In the 1880s and 1890s, conflict grew between two major state industries, mining and farming. Sediment from hydraulic mining operations in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada clogged downstream river drainages, especially along the Yuba River. In the case, Edwards Woodruff v North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Co., et al, heard before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court in San Francisco in 1884, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer ruled that dumping hydraulic mining tailings into the Yuba River and its tributaries “constituted a general, far-reaching and most destructive public and private nuisance that it must be halted” (Kelley 217).

Robert Kelley, author of the book, Battling The Inland Sea, stated that this decision was unprecedented because Sawyer’s 225-page decision “appears to have been the first major federal court decree ever to be issued aimed at protecting a natural environment from further destruction.” Kelley was keen to point out that Sawyer was not promoting an environmental doctrine, but “that hydraulic mining destroyed the property of others” (Kelley 218). This ruling favored downstream users, like cities, farmers, and navigation, over mining. Still, hydraulic mining continued illegally and also through loopholes. In 1893 Congressman Anthony Caminetti of Amador County got a federal law passed that created the California Debris Commission to further regulate sedimentary runoff from hydraulic mining (Rawls and Bean 209).

Two other important legal changes occurred to California water title around this time. From statehood in 1850 until the 1880s, water law was argued between riparian and prior appropriation rights. The former concept, riparian, was derived from a well-watered England and used in the eastern United States. Landowners along a river could use that water reasonably, but others without river-frontage land, had no rights to its water. Prior appropriation, on the other hand, was the law of Mediterranean nations like Spain, France, and Italy. It was much more suitable to a drier region like California because river water was on a first-come, first-served basis. An owner could sell water rights to anyone and divert the stream (Rawls and Bean 209). This method was most practical for mining and for irrigated farming.

Lux v Haggin

In 1886, “the state supreme court ruled in Lux v Haggin … that the riparian rights of Miller and Lux made such appropriation [by Haggin and Tevis] illegal” (Rawls and Bean 210). This decision was denounced as promoting monopoly of riparian riverbank owners and thwarting irrigation and farming.

The Lux v Haggin case motivated the state legislature to pass the Wright Irrigation Act in 1887. This allowed the development of irrigation districts and gave the state the power of eminent domain to condemn riparian rights to promote irrigation. State courts would hear challenges to this power for over 25 years before it became established law in the 1910s. The authors of The Elusive Eden (Rice, et al.) assess the impact of the Wright Irrigation Act as following:

Reforms were passed in 1911, 1913, and 1917 that strengthened the planning and state supervision of the districts and greatly expanded the scope of California irrigation. Between 1909 and 1920, sixty new districts were founded …. The golden age of California irrigation had dawned …. Once established by the Wright Act, public management of irrigation water spread to other western states, and ultimately the federal government. The National Reclamation Act … in 1902, inspired the construction of still larger federal irrigation systems in twentieth century California. (Rice, et al. 262)

Cities Vie for Water

By 1900 the intensive alteration of the water landscape by Americans in California was 50 years old. The industries of mining and agriculture had fought over water but, as the state’s population grew, cities demanded not only water access, but also ownership and development of infrastructure for storage, delivery, and flood control.

The time frame for the acquisition of Sierra Nevada water for municipal ownership by both Los Angeles and San Francisco was nearly parallel. From 1901-1913 each achieved this goal with a good deal of help from the federal government. But Los Angeles’ method was different than that of San Francisco and they were able to move much faster to bring water to their citizens. So—while San Francisco won the legal right to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park with the passage of the Raker Act in 1913—Los Angeles finished its 200-mile Owens River aqueduct that same year. (San Francisco would not receive Tuolumne River water from the dam at Hetch Hetchy until two decades later, in 1934.)

Around this same time in the early 1900s, flood control was designed and infrastructure begun in the Sacramento Valley. This immense engineering project also had federal direction.

The period 1901-1913 in each of these three cases illustrated Progressive politics and ideology. The business community combined with government and engineers to decide public policy. What followed would alter the environment of much of California for the next 100 years.

But, especially in water policy, a clash of political philosophies had been raging ever since California first became a U.S. state in 1850.

Jacksonian Democrats v Republicans

Robert Kelley, the late Professor of History at U.C. Santa Barbara, wrote about the history of flood control from 1850-1910 in the Sacramento Valley. His coverage also defined the ideologies that separated the Democratic and Republican parties, what that meant for public policy, and how Progressivism emerged from this conflict by 1900.

The variants in public policy between the two main political parties were displayed well in California. Both had peaks and valleys, and third parties even challenged both at times.

The state economy and population expanded rapidly during the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, the building of the trans-continental railroad in the 1860s, and the heyday of the “wheat kings” of the 1870s, followed by the advance of specialty crops, which led to large-scale agribusiness after the 1880s. This tremendous and rapid business growth also led to expanded urbanization, contributing to water resource conflict and the need for flood control for Central Valley communities.

Robert Kelley maintained that Jacksonian democracy placed value in the common individual, and in the 1850s this thinking had controlled state politics. For land use and flood control, landowners largely came up with their own solutions in a very decentralized manner. Republicans, however, sought more government involvement to organize growth with federal and state laws and bureaucracies of experts who made policy more uniform. Democrats, for their part, were suspicious of small numbers of powerful elites who could control the masses.

Folksy or Scientific?

For California, this ideological divide became most evident when Republicans controlled the state in the 1860s with the ascendancy of the Central Pacific Railroad and its subsidiary, the Southern Pacific Railroad, which monopolized that industry in the state for decades. Republicans did not think Jacksonian democracy promoted the best interests of the state because it was too piecemeal and patchwork, and that it was folksy, not scientific, in its approach to policy. They believed that the liberty of one individual could be detrimental to that of another. A governing educated elite, using rational thought, applying science to make government efficient and serve society, was the Republican model.

These differences were played out in flood control policy. Leaving levee design to each individual invited disaster for all. Republicans thought that a standardized, top-down solution, developed by experts, was necessary. But Democrats countered that who knows better how to protect their land than landowners themselves? If the government design was incorrect, then the whole expensive levee system was in error. Kelly recounted this back-and-forth political wrangling in the last half of the 19th century and how flood disasters occurred in either case. Republican Party ideology, for the most part, ultimately became the way society sought solutions in the Progressive Era, but not until major battles were fought.

Federal cease-and-desist orders of hydraulic mining in the 1880s and 1890s were the beginning of that turning point. Government courts and legislation helped farmers, both Democrats and Republicans, by stopping mine sediment from raising river bed levels which, over the years of hydraulic mining, had given them less holding capacity.

Also, court decisions and state legislation began condemning private water deeds with the power of eminent domain, which greatly aided the creation of water districts that irrigated farmland. These twin expansions of government power, over individual businesses and personal water claims, favored what would become a progressive mantra: “the greatest good, for the greatest number.”

The Progressive Era and Its Lasting Effects on California Water Policy

When President William McKinley was assassinated and Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901, the federal government accelerated into Progressive politics. Progressivism was a movement that represented the concerns of a growing middle-class. While not much interested in the problems of rampant racial segregation, they fought to modernize many aspects of American life. They favored women’s suffrage, public education, child-labor laws, combating business monopolies, and professionalizing government service, as opposed to the “spoils system.” It was also the first major American political movement to favor conservation, establishing national parks and forests, and enacting some curbs on destroying the environment.

Roosevelt proved to be a persuasive Progressive. There was, however, a continual intra-party struggle with the “old guard,” such as former McKinley supporters. These struggles would, over time, play out in both major parties.

For water resources this meant that utilitarian conservationists battled the remnants of the Gilded Age “rape and pillage” mentality. A growing preservationist movement, closely associated with John Muir and the Sierra Club, also entered the debate.

President Theodore Roosevelt’s administrations enlarged federal powers from 1901-1909. Within agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department, federal authority over rivers expanded beyond navigation regulation to include “irrigation, power production, recreation, and flood control” (Kelley 269). Also, these new Progressive conservationists looked at entire watersheds, something the federal government was better able to do since state borders had no relation to drainage patterns.

In 1900, “Maverick” Republicans in California were emboldened to organize a Progressive wing within the Republican Party. This movement in the state was institutionalized in 1907, when they openly formed Lincoln-Roosevelt Clubs throughout the state. This meant that, at local and state levels, many in the business community supported government policy to promote economic development, based on non-partisan studies written by experts.Hiram Johnson

In 1911, Hiram Johnson was elected governor, as the policy of Progressivism peaked in the state. He remained a very activist governor until 1917, when he became a U.S. Senator from California for another 28 years.

At the federal level, for nearly 20 years—from September 1901 to March 1921—more-or-less Progressive politicians held the U.S. presidency. Teddy Roosevelt served over 7 years as the epitome of a Progressive Republican. Then his hand-picked successor, the Progressive Republican William Howard Taft, served 4 years. He was succeeded by the Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who served 8 years. Wilson had triumphed over the “old guard” in his own party to campaign on a Progressive agenda.

In 1912, feeling Taft had not been progressive enough—though he did enact some significant progressive reforms—Roosevelt challenged him, running on the newly-formed Progressive, or Bullmoose, ticket. (His vice-presidential running-mate was California Governor Hiram Johnson.)

The 1912 election, won handily in the Electoral College by Wilson, was an unusual one. For the only time in U.S. history, three presidents—past, present, and future—contested the general election. It was also the only time a sitting president [Taft] finished a distant third. Most significantly, it was perhaps the high tide of Progressivism, featuring three distinguished candidates who could all rightfully claim to be Progressives.

Water Resource Development Ramps Up

Water resource development was now a place for civil engineers to work with municipal, state, and federal agencies, who together promoted public water policy on a massive scale. Construction of large dams for hydroelectric power, water storage, and flood control was in the near future.

In the 1930s, drought in California, as well as the Great Depression, left an even larger state population and agribusiness sector in need of further water policy. Under the first and second New Deal plans of President Franklin Roosevelt’s administrations, federal watersheds were defined and developed nationally. The federal government funded the Central Valley Project in California, that was built over the next three decades, to manage much of the region’s water storage and distribution.

In the 1960s, the State Water Project added even more capacity, with the world’s largest earthen dam at Oroville. Since the 1970s, money has gone much less to construction of new water infrastructure than to maintenance of existing water resource facilities.

In more recent decades, conservation has greatly expanded in its many forms. This movement has led to more efficient use of this precious resource. Environmentalists have even enjoyed some victories in water issues. The “Save Mono Lake” campaign was the most popular of these, when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) lost a case in the state supreme court in 1983 to a small group of environmental scientists from U.C. Davis. The LADWP was ordered to restrict creek diversions into Mono Lake so that its level would rise to protect bird habitat. Since then the LADWP has had to restore partial flows into the Owens River and mitigate portions of Owens Lake air pollution.

By late 2014, the state of California had endured three straight years of worsening and extreme drought conditions. Cutbacks of water usage, because of depleted reservoirs, have brought attention again to the state’s water policies. A determination about water policy in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta is overdue. The Salton Sea shore shrinks as its waters get saltier and shoreline residents, businesses, and California Indians are a few of the stakeholders in its future. Colorado River water is very low as seven states vie for its water. Myriad other water issues also face the most populous state in the nation.

One hundred years ago, Progressives used the model of professionals in government and business to study water problems and consult with engineers to find a solution. This combination drove water policy for most of the 20th century.

We live with their answers today, with a statewide waterworks greater than any in world history. In a few instances, engineering has failed. In a few other cases, old technologies and infrastructure have been removed. Otherwise, much of this infrastructure is dated, but operational.

What do we take from this established model, and what do we leave behind? What are the new models of water engineering and conservation locally, within the state, and federally? Where can private and public effort be best utilized, either individually or in combination? What new technologies can now be applied that are already operational or on the drawing boards? What is our statewide and national commitment to habitat preservation?

Literally 100 years ago in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and in the Sacramento Valley, long-range water policy was established. This occurred when many historic forces came together to push Progressive political policy into local, state, and federal decision-making. City mayors, civil engineers, the business community, farmers, and the state and federal governments, united to build the aging California water infrastructure of today. A re-evaluation of where we are today, and where we want to be in the future, is long overdue.

Images Credits

- Hiram Johnson: Wiki Commons