“A Condensed and Systematic Review”: Local Conditions in State Engineer William Hammond Hall’s “Irrigation in Southern California,” 1888, Part Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We continue our look into 1888s Irrigation in Southern California, the important second and final of four intended volumes by State Engineer William Hammond Hall, with a very interesting and informative review of the zanja and reservoir system within the city of Los Angeles. Notably, this traditional, albeit with modern upgrades, system was proving to be problematic with the tremendous growth of the city and environs during the Boom of the 1880s and it increasingly became clear that water had to be imported to provide enough supply for future expansion.

In his review, Hall described the “upper and lower service, and an eastern and western system” and noted that “the high-service works take water from the river about five miles in a stright line above the city limits . . . and deliver it upon the plains of the Los Angeles-west [west of the river] plateau and thence down on to the higher part of the lower plain on the extreme western side of the city, also, upon the plain east of the river about the Arroyo Seco, and, crossing that stream, upon the plains and lower rolling lands of Los Angeles-east [east of the river.]” The first was the Canal and Reservoir system and the other was the East-side system.


A lower service works took water on the west side of the river, a mile within city limits “and where the river is close in against the point of west-side bluff, and serve, on that side, the bottom-lands and plains, within and without the city so far as irrigated.” Here, Hall continued, “the main conduit of this system, by far the largest and most important of the city irrigation works, is called Zanja Madre (Mother Ditch), and its branches, of which there are by secondary division eight or ten.” On the east side of the watercourse, two miles below the head of the mother ditch, was another diversion.

On that west side and its “high-service system” there was a brush and sand dam with the ditch running a couple of miles generally following the river “then getting back on the bench at the foot of the hills, and gradually out of the valley” for some three miles and some fifty feet above the river on a bluff “and at the head of a pass through the hills to the south.” At that point of division, the eastern high-service waters were taken and sent by pipe “across the valley and river, while the west-side supply is carried southerly through the pass in an open ditch, by a very winding course, to a reservoir, in an upper valley of the plateau.” The ditch to that section was the “Main Supply” to the division point and then the “Canal and Reservoir,” while the reservoir, established in 1868, was identified as Number Four and became the lake at Echo Park.


The “Main Supply” zanja was “a plain earthen ditch, six feet wide at the bottom, twelve feet on top, and intended to carry three feet depth of water with a fall of about four feet per mile.” Along its line were three sand-boxes and gates to filter out sand “and twelve flumes, across ravines and washouts, from twenty to two hundred feet long, each provided with a sand gate.” At the division point, was a concrete structure with wood gates to divide the waters between the west and east mains.

The Canal and Reservoir ditch was just over two miles long and three feet wide on the bottom and right on top and “delivers its supply into the reservoir with twenty feet of fal, which is utilized for power purposes, and is a source of revenue to the city.” Reservoir #4 was at a narrow outlet, “but the dam is considered unsafe,” while the outlet was through a tunnel in the bedrock or sandstone beneath the dam. A 22-inch iron pipe ran some seventy feet into te tunnel to deliver the water, but there was an earlier system of a short piece of pipe “but the crown of the tunnel . . . several years ago caved in—emptying the reservoir of its waters, it is said, in about two hours, and without injury to either tunnel or dam.”


Hall noted that “a well built and thickly settled part of the city lies in the path of drainage immediately below this reservoir” but added that “there is no provision for the escape of waste-waters beyond the dam waste-way.” After the 22-inch pipe terminated, there was a cast-iron one of the same size running 8,000 feet and generating power by lease to a woolen mill for that revenue source noted earlier. Though he does not mention it, the Los Angeles Woolen Mill Company formed in 1868 and F.P.F. Temple was one of its founders.

From this point the waters moved by tunnel 50 feet and then were carried in a 22-inch cement pipe “which has taken the place of an old distributing ditch, and is called by the name, Zanja 8-R,” and which “extends southwesternly on the principal street lines (Flower, Pearl, and Figueroa) about two anda half miles to the city southern limit, and thence on for about four thousand feet beyond.” Pearl Street, formerly Grasshopper Street, became Figueroa, though Hall’s reference to it as separate from Figueroa is explained in a post in the Los Angeles Revisited blog.


Hall observed that most of the old ditch was replaced by the 22-inch cement pipe or an open concrete conduit of two-foot width and 18-inch depth with 8-inch walls, while a low fencing wall was built “along the front lines of highly improved residence property, and finished as an ornamental structure, with litle concrete posts at intevals, and bridges of concrete at the carriage entrances to private grounds.” These elements were built by the city and property owners and can be seen in photos along the exclusive neighborhoods lining Figueroa near the University of Southern California.

Zanja 8-R had give branches, extending from its right side and sometimes running parallel “or textending beyond the city’s western border” and most with cement pipes from 16 to 20 inches in diameter “as far as the city limits, and thence are open earthen ditches.” The engineer noted that the high-service system in its drop to the woolen mill came to a plain just above the low-service sytem and “occupies an old low-service zanja, which, however, had always been served with difficulty from that source.” So, he continued, irrigation within the city weere for ornamental gardens and small orchards around houses, but “beyond the city both west and south . . . the service is to a productive horticultural industry.”


East of the Los Angeles River on the high-service system from that division point for 3,500 feet along the bluff was a 30-inch cement pipe and then over 7,800 feet of 22-inch wrought iron pipe “carried across the river on a pile trestling.” From the, a 22-inch cement pipe carried the water to the arroyo, after which a 22-inch wrought-iron pressure pipe crossed the arroyo for 2,600 feet, and, finally, as a cement pipe of the same size to Reservoir Number Five “lying on the eastern border of the city, about a mile and a half below its northeast corner.” This was on the east side of Mission Road, where North Broadway intersects with it about where the Forever 21 headquarters complex is in Lincoln Heights, then known as East Los Angeles.

The engineer continued that a cement pipe followed an old eastern ditch, Zanja 9-E, which used to start on the river where the western ditch began or was carried by a flume from the west side at that location and was nearly 13 miles to Reservoir #5. With its current pressure pipe system the main was over 25,000 feet long from the west-side division point to the reservoir and it was added that “the old zanja was of low grade, insufficient capacity, constantly choked up with weeds, and very wasteful of water-supply.” The new ditch was greatly improved and was bestowed the old name.


As for the reservoir, it had an earth embankment with “the dam rudely put up with scraper,” while the capacity was initially some 20 million gallons. The previous year, the embankment was raised by ten feet with the thinking to strengthen it with the weight, as the water level was not increased. Hall noted that there was a 22-inch blow-off gate for the zanja at the Arroyo Seco crossign, while a 22-inch iron pipe was under the reservoir’s embankment “but there is no provision for the care of excessive storm waters in the valley where the reservoir is located.” Also mentioned here was Zanja 9-R, which was supplied by a discharge pipe on the east side of the river and which was an earth ditch until an 800-foot extension was made with 12-inch cement pipe the year the report was issued.

As to low-service works on the west side, there was a brush and sand dam, near where the river came right near the hills where Griffith Park is located and where the Southern Pacific railroad was cut in the hillside above the watercourse, while “the Zanja Madre is built in the river bed along the base of the rocky slope from the railway.” Moreover, this was considered “a prolongation of the dam of brush and sand, parallel, and about twenty feet from the base of the rock slope, leaving the zanja water-way between.” Because the sand filled the bed of the ditch, water was carried up to 8 feet above the riverbed at one juncture “and there turned in a deep cut away from the river,” from which more permanent construction materials were used.


Zanja 6-1 branched south but was parallel and near the river, while the Zanja Madre went west and southwest along a bluff before heading south. After a mile-and-a-half, Zanja 6-1 split into two, a Zanja 1 and Zanja 2, which were half a mile distant from one another going south “but with some jogging off, parallel with the river, near two and a half miles to the city limits, and there again branching continue[s] in three or four parallel channels, nearly three to four and three-fourths miles farther.”

Meanwhile, the Zanja Madre also split, about 1 1/4 miles southwest of the branching off of Zanja 6-1 and the four new challens were denoted 3, 4, 5 and 8, which “extend southerly and southwesterly from a quarter to half a mile apart to the southerly limits of the city, beyond which they extended up to three miles. To summarize this west low-service system, Hall stated that it “covers within the city a triangular space near four miles on its east side along the river, and three and a half west therefrom on the south boundary,” while it continued up to 4 1/2 miles wide and nearly five miles long beyond city limits. The westernmost branch was Zanja 8, which joined the aforementioned 8-R and these services a west-side zone that “is continuous around from the river to and out on the plain west of the city” covering some 25 square miles.


As for the east side low-service system, there was only Zanja 7 in operation and it “diverts from the river by means of a sand and brush dam, about a mile and three-quarter below the head of Zanja Madre” and then headed south “for near three miles in length to the southern line of the city” and then continued on for about two more mioles beyond the limits. Notably, Hall stated that the first examination of the Angel City’s system by his department was in 1879 and that, far less of the distrubtion was by tight conduit and much of it was by flume, while very little water went beyond city limits. Almost a decade later, there was about 40 miles of ditches outside the city, though “owned an controlled by associated irrigators and companies.”

Because of the piecemeal construction done over some years without good record-keeping and includeing reconstruction of some the work, replacement of flumes with pipes, substitutions of pipe (iron for cement, for example), and other elements, it was hard to determine a cost for the system. Hall also noted that “no small part of the work done has been abandoned and fallen into disuse” but he hazarded a guess that existing works cost in the neighborhood of $350,000. In the late 1870s, there were issues of 20 and 30-year 7% irrigation improvement bonds and modest expenditures of over $32,000 tax monies “in laying pipes at various points in carrying the zanjas through the crowded parts of the city.”


With the sale of city lands, a pipeline fund was established and raised some $30,000 for putting the iron pressure pipes across the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco to improve service on the east side. Then, in 1886, as the great Boom of the Eighties was ramping up, the city’s engineer board and the council committee on water-supply recommended bonds, approved by the voters, for general improvements, including for a new city hall (completed in 1888), streets, sewers and irrigation. $125,000 of the $245,000 issued were for irrigation and most of the funds were spent within the lat year for the laying of pipes. Finally, a “New Water Fund” from water sales and leases, fishing licenses, and other sources yielded about $50,000 in a dozen years, while private monies of up to $15,000 were also made available along with funds from property owners wanting improvements through or in front of their holdings.

As had always been the case, the city had a zanjero (Thomas Weiss was in this position in 1888 and one of his predecessors was “Father of the Aqueduct” William Mulholland) and it was not until 1903 that the position was eliminated. Because of the rapid urbanization of the city, irrigable lands diminished significantly in recent years and those practicing irrigation “have more [water] than they require” and were “allowed all the water he wishes to buy and pay for without restiction,” leaving surplus sold to outside associations beyond city limits. These irrigated lands adjoining the city were growing to the extent that there were primary districts closer to the boundaries and then second dary ones further out. Explosive growth, however, would soon pose problems until the Los Angeles Aqueduct could be opened about a quarter century later.


In this section, Hall also recorded that water supply “has not varied greatly from year to year, but has increased, somewhat, subsequent upon the deepening of the channel [of the Los Angeles River] by the scouring floods of 1884.” He also noted that the city claimed ownership of all of the river’s flow, but the owners of the Rancho Los Feliz and irrigators using the Feliz and Chavez ditches just outisde the city’s northerly limits successfully sued for their share, though the city acquired the rancho’s rights for $50,000. He added that there was just under 3,000 acres of irrigated lands owned by 125 persons or entities within city limits and just more than 8,000 outside them, though it was added that there were 3,000 acres provided for by city sewers.

In 1880, the totals were almost 5,000 acres inside and about 3,500 outside city limits, so the effect of the boom can be easily discerned with that change, as Hall stated that the 1886 figures demonstrated “this was just at the beginning of the great ‘boom’ of the city property, when hundreds of acres of vineyard and orchard, formerly cultivated, were cut up into town lots, and no longer irrigated.” What was lost within the city, however, was almost exactly made up for in new irrigated tracts outside the city and new pipe-laying projects would “still further increase the outside irrigation.”


An accompanying table showed the amounts of irrigated acreage by zanja inside and outside the city in 1880, 1886 and 1888 and he also recorded that, in 1880 within the city, vines and citrus constituted about 30% each of the crops grown, with deciduous fruits at just below 20%, and other items taking up the remainder. Outside city limits, 40% was for gardens, 20% each for deciduous and citrus fruit, and 12% for vines. Eight years later, almost two-thirds of all irrigation as for vegetable gardens and it should be added that Pierce’s disease would soon kill off virtually all vineyards in the region, outside of Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario and a few other areas.

Tomorrow, we resume with the review of the Hall report and look at the history of water supply and irrigation in Los Angeles,so be sure to check back for that important part of this post.

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