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We have the climate; we have the soil of a first
class country; but, for the want of that water which runs
to waste at our very doors, and which a little sagacity
and industry could make pour itself over our rich earth,
we are living in a comparative desert, and are becoming
notorious for our poverty.
This was the November 3, 1871, editorial comment
of John Dillard Spencer, publisher of the Stanislaus County
News and one of the strongest proponents of irrigating
the lands of Paradise Valley. He was describing the Stanislaus
scene and dilemma of the day.
In reality, Stanislaus County already was ascending
to recognition as Californias king of wheat, a most
profitable crop. However, the vagaries of weather would force
many smaller farmers to consider diversification for better,
more profitable crops. That could be accomplished only through
the development of a workable irrigation system.
Irrigation was not invented in California, nor for
that matter in America. Irrigation had been practiced for
thousands of years. The Tigres and Euphrates Rivers in the
Middle East and the Nile in Egypt had been diverted by ancient
people to water fields. Greek and Roman empires developed
Evidence has been found of irrigation systems dating
to prehistoric times in Arizonas Salt River Valley,
which is the location of an early U. S. Bureau of Reclamation
irrigation development, the 250,000-acre Salt River Project.
When Spanish explorers first entered the Pacific
Southwest in 1545 they found Indians irrigating in the Rio
Grande Valley as they apparently had done for generations.
Missionary priests coming to the New World appreciated the
value of irrigation and located missions close to sources
of water. In 1771 Father Junipero Serra relocated Mission
Monterey to take advantage of a better source of irrigation
water. That same year, Mission San Jose dammed a river to
divert water for crops. It is said that within hours after
the Mormons arrived at Salt Lake in 1847, they were digging
irrigation ditches. The State of Utah in 1865 became the first
in the nation to enact irrigation district laws, although
they were used very little.
Early California settlers and gold miners dug ditches
to water small fields, run sluice boxes and serve hydraulic
mining operations. But these were individual efforts.
The potential for larger systems was evident, however.
Only six months after Stanislaus County was created,
Silas Wilcox issued his first official report as county surveyor:
"The plains in this county could be irrigated by taking
water from the rivers running through it as the foot of the
mountains by means of canals." He went on to say, however,
the idea was not "expedient" because of the "great
expense," an insufficient number of consumers and the
belief that windmills would provide sufficient water for this
purpose. These convictions were held by some farmers for the
rest of the 19th century.
The first irrigation systems to be developed in California
were privately owned, starting with James Moores Ditches
diverting Cache Creek water to Yolo County farms. Established
in 1856, this small beginning was to become nearly a century
later the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation
District, formed in 1951. During the late 1850s and 1860s,
several water companies were created, many of those in Central
California utilizing abandoned mining ditches.
In the 1860s irrigation pioneer Will Green devised
a canal system to serve the Colusa area from the Sacramento
River. The estimated $350,000 cost was beyond the ability
of the local community, so the plan was turned over to the
state Legislature for consideration. By the time that body
revised the plan, the scheme involved a 100-foot-wide navigation
canal costing nearly $12 million. The idea was abandoned in
1866 as too grandiose.
It would be a German immigrant who arrived in San
Francisco in 1851 with only $5 in his pocket who was to develop
San Joaquin Valleys largest privately-owned irrigation
works. A butcher by training. Henry Miller followed his trade
rather than search for gold. Within a year, he owned shops
in San Francisco and soon was acquiring his own supply of
livestock for his retail and wholesale business. In the mid-1850s
he rode through Pacheco Pass to the San Joaquin Valley and
promptly purchased the 9,000-acre Santa Rita Ranch near Los
Banos and 7,500 head of cattle.
Ultimately, he and his partner, Charles Lux, were
to own 400,000 acres stretching for more than 100 miles along
the San Joaquin River from where Highway 99 today crosses
it north of Fresno to the vicinity of Crows Landing in Stanislaus
County. The partnership also owned 70,000 acres on the
Kern River in the vicinity of Tulare Lake and vast holdings
elsewhere in Northern California. Pasture was the sole use
of the land until the droughts of the 1860s when Miller, the
dominant partner, turned to irrigation to raise feed for stockpiling.
In 1871 the San Joaquin and Kings River Canal Company
was organized. When the San Francisco speculators behind the
project found themselves in over their heads, Miller and Lux,
who controlled the San Joaquin Rivers riparian water
rights, bought the company at a small fraction of the original
investment in works already constructed. Miller was the driving
force behind completion of a canal 45 feet wide, four feet
deep and 75 miles long, extending from a diversion point near
Firebaugh to Orestimba Creek, four miles south of Patterson.
It was from this project that Stanislaus County farmers received
their first canal water to irrigate 10,000 acres in the vicinity
of Crows Landing.
Although Miller & Lux Company operations would
give impetus to the irrigation district movement a decade
later, the presence of this canal caused the failure of Californias
first serious proposal for public ownership of an irrigation
system where the land would own and control the water it used.
In the spring of 1875, 50 Grange delegates representing
counties from Fresno to Contra Costa met in the western Stanislaus
community of Grayson for a two-day convention to discuss ways
of irrigating lands west of the San Joaquin River.
Out of this meeting came legislation signed April
3, 1876, by Governor William Irwin that created the West Side
Irrigation District, designed to construct a canal from Tulare
Lake to Antioch, a distance of 187.5 miles. Engineering studies
proved the $4.3 million project would provide water for more
than 340,000 acres. A new concept in irrigation development
which would be fundamental to the success of future irrigation
district proposals was introduced. All water rights would
be inseparable from the lands to be irrigated.
Directors were chosen and taxes approved by the electorate.
But on the day in May 1876 that the governor and other dignitaries
were celebrating establishment of the district in a major
festival held in the Town of Grayson, the California District
Court declared the authorizing legislation to be unconstitutional
because it permitted the condemnation of Miller & Luxs
San Joaquin and Kings River Canal Company system that extended
through the area to be served by the new district.
Although the West Side Irrigation District failed
two years before Miller & Luxs canal reached its
southern terminus in 1878, the concept of marrying the rights
to water with ownership of the land through the establishment
of a public district prevailed. This concept became a key
element in the subsequent Wright Act, under which the Modesto
Irrigation District was created more than a decade later.
While west side farmers were trying their hand at
developing a publicly-owned irrigation district, on the east
side of Stanislaus County the owner of a private dam and canal
system was trying to win government support and subsidy for
completing and extensive irrigation system served by the Tuolumne
In 1852 a group of San Francisco financiers constructed
a dam for hydraulic mining diversions near La Grange. The
sturdy structure had withstood many floods, including the
disastrous 1861-62 runoffs which devastated much of Northern
M. A. Wheaton, a San Francisco lawyer, subsequently
acquired full title to the dam and adjacent ditches. As mining
waned, he created the Tuolumne Water Company for irrigation
diversions. Wheatons plan envisioned 200 miles of main
and branch canals extending down both sides of the Tuolumne
River to the San Joaquin. The scope of the project was far
beyond Wheatons willingness to finance and he conceived
a scheme whereby Stanislaus County would subsidize the private
corporation by issuing $300,000 in bonds as a loan to the
In February 1872 Senator T. L. Keys of Stanislaus
County submitted a Senate bill based on this plan, "An
Act for the Encouragement of Irrigation." Upon introduction
of his bill, Senator Keys presented petitions signed by 130
supporters. In a rather unusual turn of events, he also presented
the Senate with another petition signed by 400 opponents who
feared higher taxes would result and objected to the county
subsidizing a private company.
The Stanislaus News, an outspoken advocate
of public irrigation systems, editorialized against Wheatons
plan because government "should not depart from the purpose
for which it was created" and making the county a "banker"
for a private corporation was not a proper purpose of government.
The bill received little or no consideration.
For the next five years, irrigation was discussed.
Meetings were held, but nothing positive was accomplished.
Severe droughts in the late 1860s had demonstrated the need
for irrigation in Paradise Valley. During the 1870s, however,
farmer enthusiasm for the idea rose and fell in direct relation
to the dryness or wetness of the rainy season.
In a letter to the Stanislaus Weekly News, published
July 7, 1876, Wheaton again proposed the creation of a private
stock company to purchase the dam and its canals, offering
to sell "for just what it has cost me, which is not a
tithe of its actual value." Again he suggested the shareholders
in the company be limited solely to owners of land to be served
and that each be allowed to acquire only as many shares as
the number of acres of land owned, adding, "Land which
has no stock subscribed for it shall have no water."
A drive to raise volunteer funds to achieve this
goal began early in 1877. Involved were many community leaders,
such as rancher and banker Robert McHenry and others who subsequently
played vital roles in the ultimate establishment and operation
of the Modesto Irrigation District.
William H. Hall, who had completed the West Side
Irrigation District engineering surveys the previous year,
was hired. Hall submitted a most enthusiastic report at an
April 4, 1977, meeting presided over by A. G. Carver, a sailor
from Maine who abandoned the sea to search for gold, then
in 1868 turned to farming. Carver later was to serve as president
of the MID Board of Directors.
Halls proposal again embodied the concept of
bringing "the land and the water together in joint ownership,"
which he first had advanced for the ill-fated West Side Irrigation
District. The corporation was organized, to be activated when
40,000 shares one per acre were pledged. The
goal was never reached. No more than 1,300 shares were signed.
In 1878 the Legislature authorized the creation of
a Modesto Irrigation District, a quasipublic landowners
corporation to be subsidized by the county. This proposal
contained, for the first time, provisions, for the sale of
surplus water to generate electrical power. Apathy prevailed
once more and the corporation was never formed.
As the years passed, the pressure for irrigation
continued. Various proposals were submitted to the Legislature
while farmers close enough to the rivers dug their own private
ditches. Stanislaus County reports of 1881 show there were
26 miles of irrigation ditches in operation.
Then in 1886 Miller & Lux re-entered the picture.
When California joined the Union, its Constitution
was based on English common law, which included riparian water
rights. In brief, these provided that the owner of land bordering
a stream had a right to use the water of that stream. State
courts subsequently confirmed that this right included use
of the water for irrigation. Gold miners did not accept this
rule. Instead, they simply posted notices "appropriating"
the water for sluices and hydraulic mining, a practice approved
in 1872 by the Legislature. Thus, California law possessed
two conflicting approaches to the use of natural flowing water,
one constitutional and one legislative.
James B. Haggin owned thousands of acres of land
between Bakersfield and Tulare Lake, but he held no riparian
water rights. He built a canal and "appropriated"
his irrigation water from the Kern River.
As riparian owners along the Kern River, Miller &
Lux sued to block the diversions. The Kern County court decided
in favor of Haggin, finding that the lack of rainfall demanded
that water be taken away from riparian lands if the rest of
the region was to be developed. The California State Supreme
Court reversed this decision in 1886, upholding Miller &
Luxs riparian rights.
This meant that if Paradise Valley farmers not adjacent
to the rivers ever were to get water, some public system had
to be developed.
In fact, the Miller & Lux decision caused such
consternation among farming communities throughout the state
that Governor George Stoneman called a special session of
the Legislature early in the summer of 1886. Some of the Supreme
Court justices were accused of incompetence, but nothing was
Hall, by now the state engineer, published several
reports attacking the riparian laws as unsuited to the environment
of the West and opposed to the public welfare. Once again,
he urged the development of a system by which the land and
the water rights could be married, as he had advocated in
It was this climate that the state legislative election
of 1886 was held. Both political parties in Stanislaus County
were dedicated to the cause of irrigation. C. C. Wright, a
La Grange schoolteacher who had become a most successful self-taught
lawyer and served as district attorney, accepted the Democratic
Party nomination for state assemblyman. His sole purpose was
to achieve the enactment of a workable irrigation district
law. This was his only campaign promise and he was elected
by a substantial majority.
On January 11, 1887, Wright introduced a bill to
authorize the creation of irrigation districts. These would
be subdivisions of the State of California much as are counties
and school, fire and other special districts. Boards of directors
chosen by popular election would have the power to assess
and tax all property within the district. One major difference
between irrigation districts and the other special-purpose
agencies was in the apportionment of the divisions from which
each director would be elected. They were divided not only
by population, but also by area. This departure of the "one-man,
one-vote" doctrine has been upheld by the courts as recently
In those days, the Legislature moved with considerably
more speed than at present and the proposal was given unanimous
approval by the Assembly on February 18. The state Senate
took immediate action, amending the bill to strengthen the
declaration that the use of water for irrigation is a public
purpose and to safeguard existing rights on streams. The bill
passed the Senate February 25th without a dissenting
vote. On the following day the Assembly concurred in the amendments.
Miller & Lux and Haggin, still battling in the
courts, united in a last-ditch effort to obtain a veto. In
spite of the unanimous vote in both houses of the Legislature,
Governor Washington Bartlett was wavering. Veto demands by
Miller & Lux, Haggin and other "water monopolists,"
as they were labeled by the San Francisco Chronicle,
were self-defeating. The governor was convinced such vigorous
opposition from these people meant the bill must have substantial
merit. He signed it on March 7, 1887.
Wright, who was 38 at the time, returned home to
be met by a large, enthusiastic crowd which escorted him to
his home with "pomp and ceremony." Although Wright
was to practice law in Modesto for eight more years before
moving to Los Angeles, the Iowa native did not seek state
office again. He served one term for a single purpose, a good
irrigation law, which he had achieved. In later years, attorney
Wright defended the act in the United States Supreme Court.
With passage of the Wright Act, the stage finally
was set for the development of successful publicly-owned irrigation
districts. It also was set for legal and political battles
which were to plague the Modesto district for a decade and