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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Moving along with our survey of the important 1888 study by California State Engineer William Hammond Hall, Irrigation in Southern California, we look at his discussion of history and water rights for the city of Los Angeles, dating to an order of the colonial government of New Spain (México), which stipulated:

Before the foundation of the pueblo of the “Queen of Los Angeles,” in the vicinity of the river Porciuncula, and on the land designated to this effect, there would be examined all the lands which may receive the benefit of irrigation, marking the place most proper to divert the water, so that it may be allotted to the largest portion of lands.

The order went on to state the site of the town was to be such as to be protected from winds, being in the right locale, and “in the immediate neighborhood of the mother ditch, preoviding that from the pueblo there can be seen the whole or a major part of the agricultural lands.” In establishing lots, it was important to maximize “the benefit of irrigation” for cultivated tracts that had “a space of two hundred varas [a vara being just under 3 feet] between them and the town.” These lots were to be 200 x 200 varas “this being the space commonly occupied in the sowing of [a] fanega (a measure of about three busels) of maize,” while settlers were to receive a suerte [allotment] of irrigable land and two that were not.


Hall continued that archival references in the pre-American period to irrigation were frequent, adding that Los Angeles and San José, the other surviving pueblo [Branciforte, later Santa Cruz, was abandoned], “were established for the express purpose of promoting agriculture by irrigation, with the view of supplying [a] food deficiency” because the missions did not grow enough. He added that there was evidence that it was intended to give the pueblo exclusive rights to manage the river and its water.

Upon the establishment of American authority, the engineer went on, “among the first acts of the state of California was the passage of laws ratifying and confirming to the city of Los Angeles those rights and privileges which had been held by the old pueblo.” Legislation in April 1850 and May 1852 provided that the Common [City] Council was “to pass ordinances providing for the proper distribution of water for irrigating city lands,” while an April 1854 statute reaffirmed “the same power and control over the distribution of water for the purpose of irrigation or other, among the vineyards, planting grounds, and lands within the limits” of the city. In 1857, another law added that the city could “take fromthe river of Los Angeles the water needed for irrigation of said lands by means of a dam or dams built without the incorporated limits . . . but the [city] shall exercise no municipal authority over said lands, except to regulate the taking and distribution of water.”

There was a challenge, however in the City of Los Angeles vs. Baldwin, a case decided in the local district court in 1877 and then heard at the state supreme court in early 1879. Leon M. Baldwin, sometimes confused with Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, came into the ownership of the Rancho Los Feliz, which was on the west side of the river “and where diversions of water were made for the irrigation to the detriment of the city supply.” What was determined was that a substantial section of the ranch was within city limits and its owners allowed to divert water up to a certain amount specified by agreement with pueblo officials.


It was asserted that, as the city grew and its demands for water correlatively increased, there was some 11,000 acres of the 17,500 within the bounds that were to have access to irrigation, this eing a doubling in ten and a tripling in twenty years. Los Feliz, on the other hand, only had 400 of its 11,000 acres that were irrigable, but the court ruled that,

notwithstanding the said amount of land irrigated has so largely increased, the city of Los Angeles has made no substantial improvement in its works to appropriate said waters, and that its present system of appropriation is very primitive, defective, and inadequate, and that by making proper expenditures and improvement in its system of appropriating the available waters of said river, the said city can have at its disposal more than sufficient water for all its uses, exclusive of the waters used as aforesaid by defendants.

Moreover, the supreme court ruled, in affirming the lower court’s decision, “that the city was not the owner of the corpus or body of te water of the river, that her claims to its use were not of higher order than those of the rancho owners as riparian proprietors and appropriators.”


When the Los Angeles Canal and Reservoir Company was formed in 1868 by Prudent Beaudry, Solomon Lazard, John S. Griffin and others, it acquired the Feliz ditch and its right-of-way “for continuing it through their lands to the city,” while reserving water for irrigating ranch lands.” The company had a charter from the city “authorizing it to divert some certain amount of water on behalf of the city, from the river, for that purpose, and to construct works within the city.” The firm made the Feliz ditch larger and extended it to Reservoir #4, which later became the lake at Echo Park. The city then leased the company’s works and lter purchased them and paid $50,000 for the Feliz rancho water rights “except the right to water sufficient for the old irrigators, form the lower Feliz ditch.”

In 1879, there was the case of Feliz vs. Los Angeles, involving the ditch of that name, followed by Elms vs. Los Angeles and concerning the Chavez ditch. In the spring of that year, the level of water in the river was lower than ever and, because of this, “the supply was made so short to the Zanja Madre that the irrigations in Los Angels seriously suffered.” When city officials appropriated the water from the two ditches, the suits were filed as injunctions to keep the authorities from denying the private irrigators their share of river water.

Here, again, the district court ruled “that, as riparian proprietors, the upper irrigators [on these two ditches] were entitled to the use of the water taken by them,” their amounts were not more than required, while city officials “were not themselves taking any more than was required for the city purposes.” Yet, the state supreme court, in conflict with the Baldwin case, overturned the lower court’s decree, stating in part, that, because the Feliz and Chavez ditches were built about 1844 and the diversion of water was under a city license which asserted municipal authority over the river dating to the pueblo’s 1781 founding.


Consequently, the city was well within its rights to appropriate water for its needs in the dire conditions of spring 1879. Hall concluded that this ruling and the acquisition of the Rancho Feliz rights “settled, apparently for all time, the right of the city of Los Angeles to the low-water flow of the river to the extent of municipal requirements and the necessities of irrigation within the corporate limits” and h noted “the stream does not course through to lower lands at that stage, and no claimant has ever appeared there for its waters.”

With respect to the system of zanjas, the engineer observed that this was “a gradual development from the crudest possible system of irrigation ditches—the old Mexican low-land zanjas—and much of the general character of the primitive works themselves, as well as the generic name they bore, adheres to the works of the present day.” This was, though, more applicable to low-service ditches, while those of higher service, initiated in 1877, were “somewhat more of system and stability in their planning and their character,” even as the were “far from well ordered, and much has been done only to be abandoned, commenced only to be stopped, or planned only to be upset.” Very recent conversions to pipe and conduits were “a long step in advance.”

Before 1877, ditches were such that they were “requiring no engienering skill to lay out and little expense to construct.” most irrigation was within city limits and only rarely extended beond the south boundary, with what little was delivered only after substantial waste because of “the rude earthen ditches of the time,” with varied sizes and grades. The western Zanja Madre, branched into a half-dozen smaller ditches, labeled 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 8, while, on the east side from the Macy Street (now César Chávez Avenue) bridge, there was Zanja 7 and its upper and lower diversions, “of the same indifferent character.”


The change in 1877 was brought about because of $115,000 appropriated through two city bond issues and a board of engineers was formed, while “plans were formed for additions to and remodeling the old work.” Hall recorded that “these proposals were, in a way, carried out” so that the irrigable district grew from about 4,400 to about 10,000 acres within city limits. Subsequent boom era development led to the conversion of farm property to city lots and, along with conduit improvements, led to the great expansion of irrigated lands south and west of the city and water carried several miles outside the city’s bounds. Moreover, sewer irrigation meant that ditches were built further out, as well.

Notably, one recommendation, never folowed, was “the construction of a submerged, or bedrock, dam across the river, either above or below the mouth of the Arroyo Seco, to throw the underflow of the stream to the surface,” but it was noted that city engineers expected that this would eventually be completed. Otherwise, the Canal and Reservoir Company ditch was improved and altered and was then known as the “Main Supply” zanja, while the east-side ditch was constructed, including with transmission via a flume, although recommendations were for doing so by pipe, something accomplished later. In fact, Hall lamented that “the good work done by the commission . . . does not seem to have been appreciated or heeded, in many important details.” This included poor construction and neglect on some of the works that ere built and whcih, in turn led, to an unfair appraisal of the commission and its efforts.


A main example of this had to do with the Zanja Madre, which was an open earthen ditch with water diverted to it by a temporary dam. As it ditch ran along the bluff at the west bank of the river, it proved to be “difficult to maintain, and wasteful of water,” so a wooden pile dam was constructed across the river and a 2300-foot tunnel was drilled “in the soft sand rock of the bluff” and which was to be five feet wide and the same in height. Yet, Hall continued,

its construction seems to have been made altogether without engineering supervision, as it had no regularity of grade or alignment—was most abominably crooked in every way. After a few months’ use, it cut out in places, and filled with sand in others, and caved badly because of percolation from the Water Company’s ditch, cut in the hillside overhead. After costly repairs had been made, by partially lining it with brick, it was finally abandoned when a flood [in 1884] carried away the dam, and for some years past the original open ditch and wing-dam diversion have been returned to.

Hall went on to record that, “in January, 1884, when disastrous floods had caused great damage and demoralization to the ditches,” another board of engineers was established to plan for irrigation system improvements to both reduce funds spent of cleaning and repairs each year and to save water. The subsequent report suggested “that pipes be laid in all the zanjas throughout the city . . . that the tunnel at the head of Zanja Madre be repaired and out in use again, and that Zanja Madre be carred in a close brick conduit, from the mouth of the tunnel to First street, and down First street to the river, as an outlet for storm waters” that two zanjas (6-1 on the west side and 7 on the east) be abandoned with lands irigated by them supplied by the mother ditch and Zanja 9-R and that all dams be properly repaired. Finally, Zanja 9-E was to be abandoned fo its first seven miles with an iron pipe across the river substituted and with water provided from ditches C and R further down.


The recommended work would have involved nearly 220,000 feet of various sized pipes and brick conduit at an expenditure of north of $288,000 and “would have effected a radical change in the irrigation system of the city” including directing storm water from the streets to the zanjas, rather than having them go into the sewer system. Hall noted that “the report was adopted, so far as the work of the pipe-lines across the river and Arroyo Seco were concerned” and added that a June 1885 committee recommendation was to spend $125,000 for certain ditches. The council passed a resolution and submitted the matter to a vote of the electorate, which was passed with bonds issued for those funds.

The engineer then discussed “An Old City Irrigation Map,” writing that “one of the most interesting records of the archives of Los Angeles is a map hanging in the office of the city clerk, made in 1849, by Lieut. E.O.C. Ord, U.S. A[rmy]., and William R. Hutton, assistant, under a contract with the ayuntamiento (local government) to make a detailed survey and map of the city, for $3,000.” Not stated by Hall was that the pueblo did not have the funds at hand to pay Ord and Hutton so one of the ayuntamiento members, Jonathan Temple, who was syndico (roughly equivalent to a city attorney, though he had no legal training or epxerience) paid from his own resources and then was reimbursed from the sale of public land identified in the survey. Hutton, who kept a diary, also recorded his displeasure at Temple’s nagging about how the survey was conducted.


In any case, Hall added that the map showed not just the residential and commercial sections of the town, but “the adjacent fields, and, by conventional signs, the vineyards, cornfields, gardens, and pasture lands are shown in detail.” The engineer continue that the population was centered on Main and Los Angeles streets, south from the Plaza to First Street and north into what was called Sonoratown. Spring Street had buildings from its intersection with Main, where Temple later was built, down to First and it was observed that “on either side a number of rectanglar blocks had been laid out in the American fashion by Lieutenant Ord,” while the farm tracts were between Los Angeles Street and the river and did not quite get as far south as where Washington Bouevard now is.

There were up to 1,600 acres of irrigated lands, these being “nearly equally divided between vineyards, corn, gardens, and pastures,” while “the Zanja Madre is shown in nearly its present position, following along at the foot of the bench on top of which Main street runs.” A branch began where the Capitol Mills was located in what is now Chinatown and went parallel down to San Pedro Street, following this thoroughfare down to near Washington Boulevard. A second branch was located east of Alameda Street and near the river. The agricultural area “is to-day cut up into lots and built upon, and scarcely two hundred acres of it is now attempted to be irrigated,” much of this became the industrial zone. It was added that “the town has grown over it, and the cultivated lands are, chiefly, miles below.”


Lastly, Hall briefly discussed “Old Outside Irrigations” comprising the aforementioned Feliz and Chavez ditches. The first diverted water from the river at the west bank some three miles above the city limits “and serves a little bottom-land district lying between the river and the hills [at Griffith Park] outside the city line. While it was owned by a small cadre of those irrigating the tract “it is administered, by arrangement, as part of the city system, under control of a zanjero [Thomas Weiss] appointed by the city council.”

The Chavez was about a mile above the city limit and supplied water to a section of bottom-land “between the river channel and the bluff, just above the narrows.” It was considered “a very old work, and, in common with the Feliz, of the most primitive class.” It was administered as was the Feliz and both were subject to the lawsuits discussed earlier.” Then there was sewage irrigatrion, which Hall wrote, diluted and increased in volume the city sewage with waste zanja and irrigation water and which served sections south of the city limits beyond where city ditch water served. He concluded that, while “very much might be said to good purpose” about the sewers, there was no room in the report for this.


Tomorrow, we’ll return with a look at some of the irrigation ditches and works in the outlying areas of the county, so plase check back then..

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