By Mark Gutglueck
The Cadiz Water Project is not the first effort by outside business entities to lay claim to San Bernardino County’s water resources and utilize them elsewhere in Southern California.
For nearly 120 years, speculators have sought to capture local water rights and profiteer by selling the water to local users or diverting it elsewhere within or outside of the county. Most of those efforts pertain to water which originates in the San Bernardino Mountains and flows northward into the Mojave River or southward into the Santa Ana River.
Between October and December of 1892, a group of investors from Minneapolis and St. Paul raised $1.5 million and before the close of the year used a portion of that money to purchase from the Hesperia Land and Water Company an option on the water rights and dam site at Victor Narrows. Working in conjunction with Dr. Joseph Jarvis from Riverside, James E. Mack of Bloomington as well as A. H. Koebig and O.J. Perkins of Los Angeles, the group was purposed to buy outright or otherwise purchase options on property that carried with it the existing water claims around the Mojave River and a suitable site for a 171-foot high and from 75-foot-to-150-foot-wide dam and reservoir above the Upper Mojave Narrows that would house enough water to irrigate 250,000 acres in the High Desert.
When the Panic of ‘93 hit later that year, the resolve to continue the effort dissolved. A handful of the participants reformed as another corporation headquartered in Springfield, Illinois led by J. C. Dickson of Sierra Madre and the previously referenced James E. Mack, still intent upon a venture to harness the Mojave River. That effort, too, foundered. But in 1895, J. W. Wilson, together with O. O. Howard, formed a corporation, the Columbia Colonization Company of Chicago, and bought the Victor reservoir project for a promissory note of $80,000. Later that year, Howard dropped out of the venture, to be replaced by H. P. Sweet. The Columbia Colonization Company entered into agreements with homesteaders of 320-acre ranges provided for in the Desert Land Act to permanently provide those homesteaders with water in exchange for 280 of their claimed acres. The company then sought to sell land thus obtained to investors or buyers interested in occupying it. Questions about the legality of the company’s sales of land to which the government still held title emerged, resulting in a federal district court order enjoining the Columbia Colonization Company from marketing unpatented government land or their bonds outside of California. The company subsequently faltered when it failed to deliver on its promissory note to the Springfield, Illinois company, which then attempted to reassert its water rights and possession of the dam site.
That scheme was superseded by one pursued by another group of speculators, the Appleton Land and Water Company of Los Angeles, led by P. D. Hatch. Hatch’s plan was to construct a dam much closer to the ultimate source of the water, more than 11 miles above the Victor reservoir, to not only control the flow of the Mojave River itself but to reroute a major portion of the water flow coming northward down the slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains in flumes and aqueducts eastward on the other side of Hesperia.
At that time, both wells and the Mojave River were being tapped by a handful of farmers who planted non-citrus orchards in what would eventually become known as Apple Valley.
In the 1890s, hundreds of acres in Hesperia had been converted to vineyards, which yielded fruit utilized as much for raisins as wine.
Simultaneously, up in the San Bernardino Mountains, the Arrowhead Reservoir Company had formed. That company’s goal was in no small part crosswise of what were the intentions of the Appleton Land and Water Company and other speculators in the desert, in that it had designs to dam up the water at a spot in the mountains and then divert the water through a tunnel to be dug and blasted out through the mountains southward to irrigate San Bernardino, Highland, Redlands, Colton and other growing communities well removed from the Victor Valley.
These competing designs and claims on the Mojave River’s water intensified in the late 1890s.
In 1899, Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Division of Forestry, which would later become the United States Forest Service, personally came through the Victor Valley during a tour of California and its vast undeveloped wildlands. Upon his return to Washington, he commissioned a comprehensive survey of the Mojave River watershed. After President William McKinley was succeeded by the more conservation-minded Theodore Roosevelt, the Newlands Reclamation Act, authored by congressman Francis G. Newlands of Nevada, was passed by Congress in 1902, funding irrigation projects for the arid lands of the American West.
The act’s passage set off a second round of even more intensive and bitter legal battles between the Arrowhead Reservoir Company and nearly all of the water interests along the Mojave River. The Hesperia Land and Water Company, led by its then-president, W. A. Field, in both legal and bureaucratic filings maintained that the Arrowhead Reservoir Company’s proposed project would deplete, obstruct or eradicate the natural flow of water into the Mojave River.
Simultaneously, a group of small stakes West Coast investors who were backed by a syndicate of larger stakeholders from the East Coast assembled and headed by James Westwater of Ohio, employed Arthur E. Poole of Los Angeles, whose brother Charles was an engineer working on the city of Los Angeles’ Owens River Aqueduct, to purchase options on the properties and ranches lying along the lower Mojave River. By these purchases, Poole secured the lion’s share of water rights along the Mojave River through the Victor Valley, including the property that had been intended as dam and reservoir sites in the area. In 1904, the Arrowhead Reservoir Company commenced construction of a dam in the mountains.
In early 1906, Poole and Westwater announced they intended to initiate by July 1906 the construction of a dam in the Victor Valley along the Mojave River that would be used for both irrigation and power generation. By that summer, Westwater’s East Coast co-investors were expressing doubts about any large projects in California in the wake of the San Francisco Earthquake. As Westwater’s access to capital dried up and Poole failed to make good on promissory notes he had provided to secure property along the river, the duo ultimately were unable to retain control of any of the river bank property or the attendant water rights.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, The Arrowhead Reservoir Company continued to assert its Mojave River Basin water claims, making renewals on them every two months. But during the same time frame, Field and his Hesperia Land and Water Company claimed to have indisputable possession or control over 33,000 acres bordering the river. Field marshaled his company’s filing for one million miner’s inches (equal to 1.5 million cubic feet of water per minute) on both forks of the Mojave, which predated the Arrowhead Reservoir Company’s competing claims by more than two years, to assert that his company’s rights to the disputed water eclipsed the rights Arrowhead adduced. The Hesperia Land and Water Company had consistently utilized 5,000 inches of water from the East Fork every year for two decades, establishing, Field maintained, an inviolable right that would legally preclude the Arrowhead Reservoir Company or any other entity from diverting the Mojave River’s water away from the desert.
In 1909, a slew of other riparian owners along the Mojave filed suits against the Arrowhead Reservoir Company to prevent the diversion of the San Bernardino Mountain water away from the Mojave River Basin. While these suits were pending, the California Supreme Court entered a judgment in a case in the San Joaquin Valley involving a similar proposed rechanneling of water from its natural drainage area which barred such diversions where they would negatively impact existing agricultural operations.
Thereafter, the company’s subsidiary, the Arrowhead Lake Company, pursued transforming the once-contemplated reservoir site into a resort, completing that project, which had only minimal impact on the flow of water northward into the Mojave Desert, in 1922.
In October 1913, a San Francisco corporation, of which J. R. Wilbur was president, Ray K. Barrows vice president and A. L. Dahl secretary and treasurer, filed an application at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Forestry Service for a right-of-way to dig a tunnel twenty miles long through a portion of the San Bernardino Mountains to divert flood waters from the Mojave River to provide power and irrigation to citrus orchards in and around the cities of San Bernardino, Redlands, Riverside and that vicinity, where water would be used for citrus groves. One of the corporation’s board members was A. E. Boynton, at that time the speaker pro tem of the California State Senate. Wilbur’s corporation proposed locating a reservoir for the water at Victorville and a powerhouse to be driven by the gravity-fed water in San Bernardino.
Opposition to that undertaking involving the Victor Chamber of Commerce and local agricultural interests formed. The Victor Chamber of Commerce reclamation committee, led by its chairman, John D. Reavis, moved, according to a report in the Victor News-Herald, “to retain the most competent water attorney and engineer available” and immediately filed a protest with the government against the granting of a permit for right-of-way for a tunnel to divert water from the Victor Valley’s watershed to the San Bernardino Valley “on the grounds that it is contrary to law.” The tunnel project was not undertaken.
In 1921, the city of Pasadena filed with the California Water Commission to divert Mojave River water to Los Angeles County, spurring the Mojave River Irrigation District to take action to ensure that water rights along the river be secured by interests which would not allow the water to be appropriated by irrigation or municipal uses outside the local area. In the spring of 1922, the Mojave River Irrigation District asked a judge to set for trial the district’s request for condemnation of the Arrowhead Reservoir & Power Company’s land holdings along the Mojave River, which had gone unused since 1909, when the Arrowhead Reservoir & Power Company had abandoned its plans to divert a large portion of Mojave River water southward. Throughout late 1921 and early 1922, the Mojave Irrigation District along with a collection of Victor Valley residents lobbied San Bernardino County officials to use the authority of the county to oppose the city of Pasadena’s effort. In June 1922, interests in San Bernardino, in apparent reaction to Pasadena’s effort to secure water from the Mojave River, undertook an effort to divert an annual flow of 2,000 inches of water from Lake Arrowhead and an additional 4,000 inches from Deep Creek to San Bernardino, Redlands, Colton, Rialto and other cities south of the Cajon Pass.
In November 1926, a dispute within the Victor Valley over the use and monopolization of Mojave River water erupted when land owners along the lower Mojave River, objecting to the proposed use of river water in the Apple Valley region, filed suit to test the validity of the state water commission’s granting of a permit to the Mojave Irrigation District to impound the headwaters of the Mojave and use that supply in Apple Valley for agricultural purposes. The suit alleged the use of the water in Apple Valley would cause a shortage in the lower region.
In August 1927, sixteen cities located in Riverside, Orange, Los Angles and lower San Bernardino counties organized to form a metropolitan water district to undertake a $150,000,000 project to bring water to thirsty Southern California from the Colorado River. The effort represented a landmark in terms of lessening, though not eliminating, the threat that entities outside of the Victor Valley would divert Mojave River water away from the High Desert.
In December 1930, residents of the Victor Valley were shocked to learn that Ralph E. Swing, the attorney who was hired to represent the county before the state water commission to resist the city of Pasadena’s attempts to appropriate water rights along the Mojave River in 1921 and who was now a state senator, was assisting the city of San Bernardino in its filing to obtain 1,000 inches of surplus water in the Mojave river basin and transport it through the mountains in a three-mile tunnel and an aqueduct as part of a $3 million project to deliver the water to San Bernardino, Riverside, Rialto and Redlands to provide irrigation for citrus groves. The proposal also entailed plans to utilize the water to generate electrical power at a powerhouse in Devil Canyon as well as a 160- foot high dam near the junction of the east and west fork of the Mojave River to impound water at an elevation of 3,800 feet. The Victor Valley Chamber of Commerce immediately went on record against the project proposal.
Less than two weeks later the chamber hastily formed a committee composed of E. E. Kiggins of Oro Grande, L. G. Merritt of Helendale, T. J. Thomas of Apple Valley, Frank Hubbard and C. M. Moon of Victorville with Judge J. P. Hoffman elected as temporary chairman, to formulate some method of organization which would guard against encroachments on Mojave River water.
In February 1931, the Mojave River Irrigation District filed with the California Department of Water Resources to divert 85,000 acre feet per annum from Deep Creek and the West Fork tributary to the Mojave River for irrigation and domestic purposes onto 26,878 acres. This application was made as part of an effort to protect the Mojave River basin and forestall any diversion to the Mojave River water south of the mountains by establishing rights of priority over any applications which were to follow, subject to existing rights. The same month, 23 ranchers, well owners, riparian rights holders and other citizens formed the Mojave River Valley Protective Association with Judge J.P. Hoffman as chairman to safeguard the waters of the Mojave River from diversion. The association engaged attorneys Grant Holcomb and Byron Waters to protect its members’ water rights.
In June 1931 the Mojave River Valley Protective Association lodged a petition to the county board of supervisors for an election for the formation of a county water district, resulting in just such an election on August 21, at which the creation of a local water district passed by a vote of 183 to 41.
On August 4, 1932, the state filed a suit to cancel the rights of the Arrowhead Lake Company granted 18 years previously. According to the action, the rights in question pertained to the proposed construction of a 150-foot dam on the Mojave River for irrigating the 35,000 acres of land near Victorville. The state asserted in its suit that the Arrowhead Company failed to carry out provisions of the agreement on which the rights were granted, specifically undertaking the $3.25 million dam and reservoir construction project.
In December 1933 the directors of the Orange County Water District in Tustin advanced a $6 million-to-$10 million plan to purchase land along the Mojave River and develop a water project near Victorville and divert water to the Santa Ana River in Orange County.
While the Orange County water officials alleged in excess of 100,000 acre feet of water from the Mojave River was available annually and that only 6,000 acres in the Victor Valley were being irrigated with the available water, water owners and the communities in the Mojave Basin held a different viewpoint regarding the surplus water of the Mojave River and its availability for any use on the south side of the mountains. On Sunday, January 7, 1934, the Mojave Basin Protective Association authorized the expediting of conservation measures on the Mojave River, including the construction of dams at several points, as part of an effort to utilize the water locally and stave off the attempts of outside interests to seize a portion of the river’s water.
In July 1934, as the High Desert was gripped by a drought and Mojave Valley farmers and stockmen were applying through the county to the federal government for drought relief funding, Orange County water interests renewed their effort, which had lain dormant for several months, to divert to their county a portion of the Mojave River’s flow. At a meeting in Anaheim held under the auspices of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, a resolution seeking an engineering survey to determine the cost of such a venture and the amount of water it might yield was passed.
In December 1934, before the interests in Orange and Riverside counties could themselves appropriate Mojave River water, the city of Los Angeles filed for 400,000 cubic feet of water from Seeley Creek, a tributary of the West Fork of the Mojave. Los Angeles’ stated intention for the water was to use it for domestic purposes at the “city playground at Camp Seeley,” owned by the city of Los Angeles. By establishing water usage there, the city of Los Angeles could at some indefinite future date discontinue its local utilization of the water and then divert a like amount to Los Angeles.
On January 12 1935 the Mojave Basin Protective Association met at the office of A. S. Amaral to ready protests of the Los Angeles filing and the anticipated filing by the Riverside, Orange and lower San Bernardino county interests.
On February 16, 1935 a meeting of the Mojave River Basin Protective Association was held in Helendale and an effort was initiated to organize all of the territory along the Mojave River from Yermo to the mountains into a county water district, incorporating the communities of Barstow, Helendale, Oro Grande, Victorville and Hesperia.
On June 12, 1935, the California state assembly, at the importuning of Assemblyman Gordon Corwin, amended legislation related to the Orange County Water District, Senate Bill 112, to prevent Mojave River basin water from being diverted to the headwaters of the Santa Ana River for use in Orange County. As originally drafted and passed by the state senate, Senate Bill 112 granted the Orange County Water District the power of eminent domain in areas beyond its jurisdiction, permitting that entity to condemn lands and water rights along the Mojave River. Though the measure passed the senate, it was amended and eventually defeated in the assembly.
In September 1935, a report by irrigation engineer Harry F. Blaney and irrigation economist Paul A. Ewing made at the request of the Riverside Water Company and other water organizations in Orange and Riverside counties entitled Utilization of the Waters of the Mojave River became public. Although the Orange County and Riverside County interests had hoped the report would serve them in an effort to appropriate a portion of the High Desert’s water, Blaney and Ewing made findings that any substantial diversion of water from the Mojave River at its headwaters would produce a small deficiency between the forks and Victorville, some deficiency between Victorville and Bastow and very likely a substantial deficiency below Barstow. According to the report, “Any diversion of Mojave River water outside its watershed should be made only after care is taken of the normal agricultural, domestic and industrial needs (including those of railroads) of the valley itself. The valley’s rights should stand in the preferred position, and outside claimants should be satisfied with what is left. Hence, provision should be made to protect the present water needs of the valley before the diversion is begun in any year.”
In the first week of October 1935, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and San Bernardino County District Attorney James L. King filed upon all the surplus water of the Mojave River with the proviso that the filing would within sixty days be turned over to a water district to be formed within the Mojave River Basin. The action was taken in response to reports that water interests in Riverside and Orange counties were planning to file on a portion of the Mojave River’s water for diversion into the Santa Ana River.
On October 9, 1935 a meeting of Orange and Riverside county’s governmental officials and public and private water interests was held in Riverside. San Bernardino County First District Supervisor Arthur Doran and district attorney James L. King attended the meeting to represent San Bernardino County. Also present were San Bernardino mayor C. T. Johnson and a number of water users from the Mojave basin. Discussion at the meeting centered around a report by federal engineers regarding the amount of water that might be diverted from the Mojave River. After the San Bernardino County contingent went on record as being opposed to any diversion of Mojave River water to Riverside or Orange counties, the other attendees of the meeting protested the San Bernardino County delegation’s continued participation, and Doran and King left the confab.
On January 21, 1936 voters within the boundaries of the proposed 60,000-acre Mojave River County Water District between Victorville and Barstow ratified its creation 149 to 28.
In 2001, Los Angeles-based Cadiz, Inc. proposed a project calling for pumping water from the Colorado River during wet years, storing it in an underground aquifer beneath the Cadiz Valley in the Eastern Mojave, and selling as much as 60,000 acre-feet of the native groundwater and Colorado River water mix to the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) in Los Angeles during dry years. That proposal was ultimately rejected by the Metropolitan Water District’s board of directors after conservationists raised concerns over possible environmental damage.
In 2009, the city of Riverside proposed laying claim to a considerable amount of Santa Ana River water at the south end of San Bernardino County through an undertaking to be known as the Riverside North Aquifer Storage and Recovery Project.
Through its public utilities division, Riverside has plans to construct a 700-foot wide dam extending across the Santa Ana River north of the Riverside County Line on 30 acres of unincorporated San Bernardino County land owned by the city of Riverside just beyond the outskirts of Colton to capture the river’s flow and provide a ready supply of millions of gallons of water that originates in the San Bernardino Mountains to be conveyed by aqueducts or pipes to areas of the city of Riverside’s choosing for use in recharging groundwater basins.
The part concrete, part vulcanized rubber dam, has been designed to be retracted, i.e., deflated, at will to allow the river to continue its southward flow.
Plans are that the $15 million project’s cost would be borne entirely by the city of Riverside. The undertaking would be of primary benefit to the Western Municipal Water District in Riverside, which is to be the recipient of over 80 percent of the water to be collected by the dam. The city of Riverside intends to sell some of the water to the city of Colton and the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District. The project has not yet proceeded to completion and Riverside is yet working on the environmental impact report for the project, according to Kevin Milligan, the chief financial officer and interim chief assistant general manager of Riverside’s utility division.