Working the Land: Water Conservation and Policy in “California Cultivator,” 29 January 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Our grappling with persistent, some worry it could become chronic, drought amid climate change means that very tough decisions will increasingly have to be made concerning diminishing supplies of water. Historically, Californians were always sensitive to the availability of that life-giving fluid, especially during severe drought conditions, even as major engineering efforts, like the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Hetch Hetchy system were undertaken to supply its major cities with enough water to sustain enormous population, industrial and agricultural growth.

The featured object from the museum’s holdings for this post is the 29 January 1927 edition of California Cultivator, which was published in Los Angeles and, a dozen or so years ago included the merging of it with The Rural Californian and the Livestock and Diary Journal. Much of the issue focused on the questions of water conservation and policy because, as the main editorial expressed it:

There is nothing that brings us to a proper realization of the real need for a broad and comprehensive program of water conservation in this state as does a series of dry seasons such as we have had the past few years. It is true that California has experienced similar dry periods during the past but never before has there been the great acreage of developed and planted lands all dependent for moisture upon irrigation that there is at this time and never before, except in a few comparatively small areas, have people realized that even the underground waters can be exhausted.

The worst drought on record was that of 1863 and 1864, which followed the heaviest known flooding following the deluge of the winter of 1861-1862, but the population of the state and the investment in irrigable agriculture was so much less. It was one thing to “dry farm” a field crop like wheat, but quite another to have water-intensive ones like almonds, alfalfa, and citrus, all of which were (and still are) grown extensively in California by the first quarter or so of the 20th century.

The editorial noted that, when stream flows were not enough to provide for growth in farming, pumping water from underground aquifers became common and “farmers had come to figure that the great underground supply was always available in case of emergency also that it was practically inexhaustible.” Relentless development, however, ensured that more water was being sucked out of these sources than was being replenished through percolation of rain and snow melt. This was especially a problem in the previous two or three years, with 1922-1925 being a cycle of low precipitation, though there was some improvement in 1925-1926.

Among the concerns was better understanding the sources from which aquifer refilling came as well as to look more carefully at reforestation, because having “that brush and tree growth on our watersheds so necessary to check and hold the rain and snowfall that it may gradually soak into the soil to later replenish the underground streams, rather than rush madly down the canyons and stream beds and on into the sea” was also recognized as vital.

The bottom line, the piece went on, was that “we are faced with the fact that only as we conserve and make proper use of the state’s water resources can California grow in either population or agricultural importance.” It was averred by engineers that there was enough of the fluid for the state’s needs, “but unfortunately the surplus waters and the irrigable lands in need of same are widely separated.”

The problem was that most of the water was in the far north, but a good deal of the agriculture was in the south and this meant that “our conservation problem is of necessity a rather complex one and it will no doubt be years before it is completely and satisfactorily solved.” Meanwhile, the immediate question was to avoid the wasted water in many areas, either through runoff going to the sea or the use of land and the water needed for it.

Another matter pointed out was “the conservation and re-use for agricultural purposes of the great quantities of sewage waters that now daily go into the sea from the coast cities of Southern California.” The piece added that “it is now possible to sufficiently purify and deodorize this water so that it can be safely used for agricultural purposes so instead of dumping this great volume of water into the ocean why not reclean it and pump it on to our farming lands that are now short of water[?]”

The editorial concluded:

As our needs become greater we must of necessity look to every means of conserving the supply we now have so it is well to begin to study the situation from every angle that we may be prepared to get the maximum use of our it for in this great Southwest water is going to be the limiting factor in our progress.

An article by Frank Adams of the University of California’s College of Agriculture sported the headline “A Constructive State Water Policy in Sight” and he noted that, since the beginning of the Twenties, but especially in the last couple of years, “a wide-spread public interest has grown up in the framing of a constructive and comprehensive state policy” for the conservation of the state’s water resources. He argued that “the next two years will determine whether the people of the state really take the matter sufficiently seriously to do anything about it”—this applies to our situation now with climate change!

Adams noted that a six-year study concerning a water development plan was just completed by the state department of public works and submitted to the legislature for its review. He added that it was wrong to say that there was no existing policy, otherwise “we should not now be irrigating in excess of 6,000,000 acres or developing nearly 1,900,000 hydro-electric horsepower.” Since an act of 1913, much work had been done on water rights and dealing with water-rights litigation, while the state and federal governments spent a good deal of money on compiling data on water resources and their use for irrigation and hydro-electric power creation.

Turning to the “Essentials of a State Water Policy,” Adams noted that these included the location of supply, the types of irrigable lands, potential resources for hydro-electric power, aspects of flooding, possibilities for storage and existing works and others. The “essential uses of water” for domestic, governmental, industrial and additional purposes, the prevention of waste, the observance of legal rights, and understanding the role of government in study, administration, and planning of the issue for economic benefit balanced against the cost of water projects.

The state water survey “is a thorough, comprehensive, and sensible presentation and it should be carefully studied by every citizens of the state who has any interest whatever in the public welfare.” Adams cited the “clear realization back of it that so far as irrigation, land, and water supply are concerned, practical considerations force essentially separate treatment” of the Sacramento River delta and valley, the San Joaquin Valley, and the southern part of the state. The surplus of water in the first was to assist with the deficiency in the second, while getting water from the San Joaquin Valley to the southern section of the state was then “beyond our present conception of possibilities.”

Next, was the need to correlate irrigation, power and flood control in the north and irrigation, power and municipal use in the south, though flood control was obviously important in the latter. Also vital was to make sure that statewide policy did not interfere in local projects, but supplement them, and it was noted “that this program is concerned only with what is necessary to be done to effect full economic conservation” without abandoning existing projects in favor of a “new order” but “a broadening of our concepts.”

This, Adams went on, was “a plan and not a project” and the policy had to work “in harmony with existing, pending, and future local projects” so that it was about works and operations not organizational methods and financing strategies. The policy had to allow for adequate state controls over water resources and “will need also to contain a definite declaration as to preferred uses, as, for instance, between irrigation and power, between the cities and the country, and between the slowly and rapidly developing areas.” Balancing public concerns with the use of eminent domain in taking control of water resources that were not being properly used was also critical.

Establishing a procedure for working out the economics of water development was noted, especially with state leadership, support and, perhaps, financial assistance. Questions of irrigation costs, the settling of land, working with the federal government, curbing over speculation, and identifying public benefit so as to not financially encumber local government were also identified as necessary.

Adams was hopeful that with interest and information increased about water conservation, “we now know what is possible in the way of water conservation, as much about what is practical as it is feasible to work out in advance in the case of such a complicated problem, and approximately what it will cost.” He noted that there were proposals from the state and federal government to develop a committee to develop a course of action and sets of procedures and felt that the number of agencies and groups that could help was a positive, though a counter-argument could be made that there were bureaucratic issues that could pose challenges.

In any case, he mentioned departments and cadres of public works, reclamation, mining, power, engineers, academics, societies of engineers, the California Development Association, the Commonwealth Club of California, farm bureaus and more. He did allow that “how to bring all of the above agencies into contact with such a problem is in itself not an easy task,” but believed a committee of state and federal officials would go a long way towards getting the ball rolling, while the next legislative session was slated to hold public hearings on the matter.

Adams concluded that:

With the exhaustive water resources report of the state engineer completed and a coordinated plan outlined, with a general public agreement that a state water policy is desirable, and with a widespread public interest to stimulate action, and finally, with all of the agencies available for helping that have been listed above, I submit that the caption at the head of this article is justified.  The farmers and the fruit growers of California certainly have an interest and a real responsibility in bringing such a constructive state water policy to realization.

A piece called “Water Conservation” delivered by State Engineer Paul Bailey to the Commonwealth Club discussed how important water was to the city, for sanitary and industrial purposes primarily, and the country for agricultural ones, especially through irrigation, and that both were growing by leaps and bounds in recent decades.  Bailey suggested a “residual” precedence for the former over the latter, with agriculture using most water, but argued that resources had to be developed “to make the state’s lands produce to their potential capacity,” while noting that metropolises would expand on former farm properties.

Bailey added that the volume of water in cities expanding where there were irrigated farms was not substantially different and he observed that “the practical measure of a drouth [drought] is purely the degree to which the life of man is affected by its occurrence.”  He went on to suggest that drought “be comprehended only as a measure of a natural obstacle that must be overcome” and offered statistics to show that there was “an ample supply of water in California for the full development of all the state’s resources and to spread across seasons of drouth.”

He noted that 75% of all the water in the state “are flood waters that drain off the mountain areas into the ocean within 45 days after their precipitation” and went on to observe that water courses “are surcharged through the period of the year in which precipitation wets all part of California, both mountains and valleys, so that his great water supply is at hand during the season of the year in which it is needed least.”  In other words, the water needed for warm and dry summers “is but the drain water that passes down the channels in the wake of the winter floods.”

The unusually severe drought of 1923-1924 was discussed and, while the effects were not felt uniformly throughout California, he did note that larger water courses only had from 20 to 70% of “normal” flow, while many smaller ones were bone dry, and the overall average was just about 33% of the so-called normal.  Bailey suggested that the total available water in 1924 “would only be half enough to meet the future requirements for water in this state.”

The engineer added that about 3/4 of all the water in California was north of Sacramento “while three-fourths of the need for this water lies to the south.”  There was the rub: how to transfer water from where it was in over-abundance to where it was significantly lacking, as “South of Tehachapi Pass are one-fifth of the state’s agricultural lands and several of its large centers of population, but little more than 1 per cent of the state’s waters, exclusive of the Colorado River, are in this region.”

Finally, Edward L. Koethen of Riverside wrote of “Two Important Water Conservation Projects” dealing with the Santa Ana River, which flows through the counties of San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange.   The first was the Water Conservation Association, which was “undertaking the saving of the water for use by preventing its run-off,” in other words, diverting water that would largely be going to waste into smaller streams and settling basins in gravel beds for future access. 

The organization was also seeking “to take care of the run-off in the higher reaches” of a canyon “to prevent the sudden rush of water after heavy rains” which was heavy with silt” through dams and carrying water in such a way that allowed for slow percolation and later spreading into basins.  Increased pumping from wells during the three years of drought noted above were also problematic.

The other endeavor was the Tri-Counties Reforestation Committee, comprised mostly of local water company officials and its work was “to retain and build up a forest cover that will aid in precenting rapid run-off,” though this did not always mean trees, but also chaparral.  While progress was not as rapid as with the conservation group, there was county, state and federal aid for such projects as fire prevention, including $100,000 from the feds for lookout stations, a firefighters’ cabin, and the construction of phone lines, trails and firebreaks in four forest reserves.  Koethen added that “it is planned to have a truck with fire fighting apparatus already [sic] for any emergency.”

He reported that the number of fires was dropping, with 45 in the forests in 1926, some two-thirds of which were human caused.  A ban against smoking in forests, outside of designated locations, “is having a very beneficial effect” with over 100 miscreants convicted of violations and fines amounting to more than $2,100 collected.  While there was hope of a doubling of the federal apportionment, the $100,000 allotment was continued for the current year, but “this will provide sufficient funds for a very considerable extension of the work of building fire lanes and trails now well begun.”

As for state support, Koethen observed that the possibility of monies approved by the legislature in the current session seemed strong.  A $3,600 San Bernardino County investment in a nursery at Devils Canyon above San Bernardino was “to experiment with tree growing and panting for reforestation and highway planting” while there was a proposal “on foot [afoot]” to have the legislature revise the 1919 conservation act to, among other elements, allow counties to have more leeway to establish flood control districts.”

This issue of California Cultivator is very interesting because of its discussion of 1920s water conservation issues, matters obviously crucially important to us now nearly a century later, though under some strikingly different conditions.

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