“California is an Empire in the Making”: A “Report of the Joint Committee of the Senate and Assembly Dealing With the Water Problems of the State,” 18 January 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

An article today from the San Diego Union-Tribune observes that “rising reservoirs and a deep snowpack have officials crossing their fingers that hydropower will have a good year,” because the onslaught of rain and snow from the series of “atmospheric river” storms that have caused significant problems in California, but also portend some positives with the decimating drought of recent years and the availability of hydroelectric power supplies come summer.

The article includes, as one of several illustrations, a panoramic photograph of the massive Shasta Dam, which, the piece observed, is at about 83% of average, while Oroville and Folsom are at 104% and 123%, respectively. Snow pack levels are at a point they would generally be in late March. So, for hydroelectric power, which, in good years, supplies about a fifth of the state’s energy, these are encouraging signs, though many experts caution that, should the rest of the winter and early spring be very dry, the situation could change quickly. One official suggests that water conservation efforts continue, because the wet season could suddenly stop, as occurred last year after a good start.

The highlighted object from the Museum’s collection for this post proves to be particularly timely because the Report of the Joint Committee of the Senate and Assembly Dealing With the Water Problems of the State, submitted to the legislature on 18 January 1929 includes a good deal of material on hydroelectric power generation, along with other contents, and a major project being contemplated was the Kennett Dam, named for a copper mining boom town that was later flooded when the dam and reservoir, finished in 1945 and renamed Shasta, were established.

In the general report, it was noted,

California is an empire in the making. Since the days of the padre there has been a continuous development of the agricultural lands of the state. In order to do that, reclamation of lands from overflow was necessary. Provisions for flood control to prevent storm water inundating cities and valleys have been made. The state being semi-arid, irrigation has been gradually developed for summer cropping. The growth of our large cities has required the storage and transportation of domestic water supply and the building of large dams for the development of electric energy . . . These developments have continued steadily with the growth of the state.

There were many areas of concern featured in the report, including continued reclamation and dredging, an over-reliance on pumping groundwater supplies, a lack of certainty of future supply for irrigation and domestic needs, and more.

With respect to southern California, it was noted that the coastal plain “comprises one of the richest and most densely populated sections in the state” and “within is located practically all of the cities and metropolitan areas” while “its development has been rapid and to meet its ever increasing demands, its water resources have been exploited to the maximum.” Consequently, it was plainly stated that “if growth is to continue and further development in this region take place, the water necessary therefore must come from the Colorado River” as “this is the only available source.”

Federal legislation, through the Swing-Johnson Bill just recently passed by Congress, means that the building of the Boulder, renamed Hoover, Dam was possible, so that “a sufficient quantity of water can be obtained from this source” and transported about 225 miles only for domestic, not irrigation, uses. The committee concurred that “the procuring of such water from the Colorado River is absolutely essential to the further development of southern California.”

While the project was completed in the mid-1930s, the growth of Las Vegas, Phoenix and other areas tapping the Colorado and the onrush of global climate change now leads us, close to a century later, grappling with the implications of dramatically reduced supply—and we have to remember that a thirsty southern California has also tapped into sources from the Delta region through later water delivery systems!

Also highlighted in the general summary was the Santa Ana River, supplying parts of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, but with its oft-immense flow emanating from the San Bernardino Mountains and quickly descending into the valleys and plains below, flooding was a significant risk—the 1861-1862 flood was a terrible example of this and the havoc wreaked in 1938, especially to Latino barrios in Placentia and nearby areas, was under a decade away. To date, however, only a small part of the work needed to deal with this problem had been conducted, and the committee observed that “the project is of such magnitude and the cost of a proper solution so great that it cannot be borne by those directly interested” at the local level.

In 1925, the state engineer was tasked with studying this matter and a report was expected imminently, but the only possible dam site “with sufficient reservoir capacity to make flood control feasible by storage” was at Prado, where Orange and Riverside counties meet. While work was authorized in 1936, the deluge of two years later then took place and construction was not completed until 1941. Downstream of the dam, which was raised several feet in recent years, there are some two dozen storage ponds, but recent rains have been so heavy that, within the last week, some water was actually released into the ocean.

Concerning the role of the state, it was noted that California “has been fortunate during the past fifty years in that physical conditions have been such that private interests of one kind or another or subdivisions of the state could successfully develop the water resources of the state sufficiently to supple all the needs of the people and to build up unlimited values in property and create vast wealth.” Matters, however, changed so that “present investments are endangered and future developments are about to cease” due to challenges in water supply. What was needed was coordinated planning, though nothing specific was recommended, as yet.

As for stream replenishment, it was recorded that 75% of water emptied into the Pacific within a month-and-a-half of falling as rain or snow in the mountains, but the runoff from these sources was such that “the long, warm, almost rainless summers require water in large quantities for all human endeavors.” This goes to the point of today’s article, but it was added that, in the late Twenties, three-quarters of the water in the state was in its northern third, but that percentage of demand was from the rest of California.

This was why Kennett/Shasta was considered so vital for the state’s future of water storage and delivery, though it was added that the projected cost was $80 million, while even a reduction in the power plant component only brought the total down by $10 million. Discussion included the potential of having a large portion paid from power sold when water was not released mainly for irrigation use. Then there was the question of federal funding and former Secretary of Commerce and incoming President Herbert Hoover was quoted extensively from a June 1925 speech in Sacramento, with part of the extract reading,

I feel we need a reconsideration of the whole basis of the expenditure of the reclamation fund. I would have these funds used in pouring cement into our canyons and thus [used for] storage and more storage . . . We should by this time know that the federal government has made a ghastly failure as a land speculator . . . [but] it can never make a failure in contributing to storage works that will last over a hundred generations . . . a soundly run business house not only looks after expenditure, it looks to increased revenue. A nation reduces taxes by increasing its wealth and thus spreads the burden . . . I am convinced that a marginal contribution to these great works, over and above private and local effort should, if necessary, be borne by the state at large and by the nation at large.

The committee had nine recommendations as it concluded its report. Coordinated planning, the state’s construction of the Kennett Dam, the Colorado River project, “financial cooperation of the United States government,” and improvements with the Santa Ana River were among these. A legal committee submitted its thoughts on the matter of water and a statewide policy for conservation and use. Always thorny was the question of law and the primacy of riparian rights, which basically allows for landowners to have a reasonable share of water flowing past or through their property.

Concerning the state’s police power, it was noted that “the Legislature has full power to require such economy in the use of water as is necessary, at all events, in order that all those entitled to use the water may enjoy it,” while the federal government assumed power to determine allotments to states under the 1922 Colorado River compact and it is currently wielding that authority through thorny discussions with, for example, Arizona about what is granted to it. There was, however, uncertainty about the state’s ability for “a more extended use of the water by a general plan for the conservation and use” of this resource as well as whether it could restrict quantities to owners with riparian rights.

The committee did, however, conclude “there is adequate machinery in the law for the determination of its validity,” while it also went into great detail about eminent domain and reasonable compensation under that concept. After talking at some length about hydraulic power generation, the group of nine ended by observing that any state effort to change water allotments under riparian rights meant that owners “should be awarded just compensation for any damage which they may suffer.”

Within the lengthy report about the Kennett Dam project are some interesting and instructive aspects dealing with southern California. For instance, it was noted that there was a tremendous development in hydroelectric power generation over the prior quarter century and a map showed four large systems in the state, with the third covering most of greater Los Angeles through the independent entities of the cities of Los Angeles (in what became the Department of Water and Power) and Pasadena, as well as Southern California Edison.

A table showed that Edison’s production of some 2.5 billion kilowatt hours was over a third of the state’s total, with Pacific Gas and Electric at more than 20% of the total. Another showed the delivery of kilowatt hours by county and Los Angeles represented a third of the California aggregate with the second largest county being San Francisco, representing the city, at under 15%. A plate starkly showed just how much distribution of power went to Los Angeles County compared to the rest in the Golden State, while another showed that power installation since 1911 leap by more than five times through the end of 1927.

Also of interest was a plate showing projected growth through 1950, with about a threefold increase expected in the following thirty or so years. Another notable table examined existing and ultimate power development in thirty-three groupings, most rivers, with the largest, by far, being those on the San Joaquin River and comprising more than a quarter of the state total. The San Gabriel River had just one plant and none were projected for the future, while the Santa Ana River had eleven with four more expected and nearly a doubling of future output.

Quite useful for the layperson was a plate denoted a “Graphic Presentation of Source of cost of Electricity” and pictorially showing the project from the water storage and power house at the dam site, to the purchase and distribution of power. These were for such uses as a manufacturing, irrigation, transportation and general lighting with the $5.30 per kilowatt hour figure vertically represented in terms of a variety of costs in production, transmission, and distribution as well as consumer and general expenses and 7.5% state taxes.

In a section concerning salt water intrusion in the Bay Area and Carquinez Strait, there are a couple of tables of general interest, including the cost of a half million gallons of water a month, showing that for Los Angeles, at $72.16, was far cheaper (though costs were expected to rise after the St. Francis Dam collapse of April 1928) than the $157.56 and $161.71 for San Francisco and Oakland, respectively (though rates for Portland and Seattle were, respectively, $44.11 and $32.94. Another showed that calcium carbonate levels, reflecting hardness, in water was much higher in the Angel City than its northern counterparts, though far lower than in Stockton, while the northwest metropolises had minuscule levels in comparison.

Towards the end is a statement titled “California Now In The Industrial Age” and which reported that “approximately one-third of the people of the state are engaged in manufacturing and mechanical industries as compared with less than 20 per cent engaged in agriculture, forestry and animal husbandry (the next largest class of workers.)” Modern growth in the state was reflective of the increase in industrial development. It was observed that there were, to date, three major phases of economic activity in American-era California through gold mining first, agriculture following to about 1915, and the current phase bolstered by the phenomenal growth of oil and electricity, so that cheap supplies of fuel and power obviously supported incredible industrial increases.

Farming was adjusting to less use of human power and those engaged in it were certainly not expected to grow in numbers, but towns and cities employing industry were to be the flashpoint of the state’s future development. With the greater costs of supplying water and the pressing need to deal with such issues as salt water intrusion, among many others, the warning was that, if nothing was done to improve water quality, the cities of Portland and Seattle could take advantage and draw away industrial enterprise from California metropolises. A memorandum on urgency for flood control for the American River, which was always a supreme threat to the state capitol at Sacramento concluded the report.

Looking back at this report, nearly 95 years after its issuance, is a reminder that California always has major water supply issues that require great coordination, detailed planning and enormous levels of funding, much of which comes from the federal government. What planners and politicians did not have to worry about in 1929 that their descendants do (or should) now are the incredible challenges posed by climate change. Our recent windfall of rain and snow is obviously welcome, but the likelihood that, for any one year of abundant precipitation, there might be several of drought, is a reminder that water retention and storage, along with conservation and better uses of what supply we have are increasingly urgent for the future of the Golden State.

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