Print version of chapter
One day in 1909 I was delivering
a load of barley to the warehouse at Waterford
and was returning home with an eight-mule team
and two wagons when T. K. Beard and attorney L.
L. Dennett overtook me at about the location of
the Davis Drop near the Roen Ranch on the La Grange
Mr. Beard told me he was trying
to get farmers to agree to include their land
in a water district in cooperation with him. I
heartily agreed with him and with others, that
all this arid but rich and fertile land needed
was water to bring it into a land of fruit trees,
pastures and gardens.
In this manner, Alfred E. Ketcham first heard
about the idea of creating a Waterford Irrigation
District, which after 64 years of independent
operation merged with the Modesto Irrigation District
His dream of "a land of fruit trees, pastures
and gardens" quickly turned to reality once water
was brought to the land, but as was the case with
the creation of almost all irrigation districts,
it took time.
Irrigation was not new to Waterford, known as
Bakersville until 1870 ? there were too many "Bakers"
towns in California. The name Waterford was chosen
because the Tuolumne River could be forded there
during much of the summer and fall.
Adrien Fauvre, a native of France, came to California
in quest of gold in 1850 but in 1869 turned to
produce farming in Waterford. "Monty" Fauvre immediately
built what probably was Stanislaus County?s first
true irrigation system. Certainly it was the most
complex works of the day. Windmills pumped water
from wells into several large storage tanks. Horses
also powered a lift from the river. From both
sources, he irrigated extensive holdings. But
nothing of the scope envisioned by Beard, Ketcham
and others in the first decade of the 20th
Century had ever been tried in Waterford or any
other community as small.
In 1913, four years after Ketcham first was approached
about the proposal, the district was formed and
the Roberts ferry farmer was one of the three
original directors. He filled the post for more
than four decades, one of the longest records
of services as an irrigation district director
in the State of California.
The project got off to a modest start, as Ketcham
years ago told his son Donald R. Ketcham, who
still lives on the property which has been in
the family since 1856:
Most of us donated 5 cents per
acre to run a surveyor?s line around an area of
land that we thought would irrigate successfully.
T. K. Beard, at one time owner of 6,000 acres
in the district, was the moving factor in the
organization of the district. The project was
made possible for he was willing to cut his property
up into smaller irrigated farms and bear a great
deal of the costs.
Thomas K. Beard, the son of Elihu B. Beard, who
first settled in the Waterford area in 1852, was
born on the family farm in 1857, the year in which
the town of Waterford was established as Bakersville.
Although the Beards subsequently moved to Modesto,
the family maintained their Waterford area holdings.
The original Beard home at the end of Tim Bell
Road still is in the family. When T. K. reached
the age of 20, his father gave him 1,000 acres
to farm on his own.
T. K. always was a practical visionary as well
as an innovative, enterprising worker. As he continued
farming, T. K. branched out into the construction
business and land development. As a contractor,
he built the Modesto Irrigation District?s Dallas-Warner
Reservoir, Owens Reservoir for the Turlock Irrigation
District and Goodwin Dam, which diverted Stanislaus
River water for the Oakdale and South San Joaquin
Irrigation Districts. While his construction work
included roads and other public works throughout
California, his specialty was reservoir, canal
and other irrigation-related construction.
Recognizing that for stability wheat farmers
had to look a different future and believing there
was something better for the small settlement
of Waterford than dry farming primarily by absentee
landowners, T. K. began to agitate for the development
of an irrigation system to serve the area.
The basic motivation behind the development of
the WID was to convert large land holdings into
small farms. In this manner, Waterford would become
a prosperous and congenial community of family
Beard, Ketcham, Tim Bell Road grain farmers Jess
M. Finley and Waterford blacksmith Joe Prouty
? Ketcham, Finley and Prouty were to serve as
interim directors during the organizational period
?had seen irrigated agriculture develop in a few
short years in the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation
Districts. They realistically dreamed of the transition
from dry-farmed land to orchards, vineyards and
pastures. The concept was to sell 20-acre plots
for $500 per acre. Twenty acres was believed to
be the proper size for a family which farmed alone
without hiring additional help. Horses and mules
were used for motive power.
And their dream was realized in the late teens
and early 20s of this century as soon as water
was brought to the soil.
Fresnan Robert H. Nicol, writing in the Modesto
Morning Herald in December 1921, only three
years after water first was distributed through
the Waterford Irrigation District system, reported:
"(Waterford) was a live community in the days
when Bret Harte and Mark Twain lived in those
hill?(but until) 18 months ago was only a memory
of the past."
Since the advent of irrigation, Nicol wrote,
Waterford had become a "progressive community,"
which had three stores, a lumber yard, a bank
"located in a substantial cement building," a
drugstore, a newspaper, garages and other "minor
business houses," he added:
There are three church organizations
with good buildings, the Baptists, Dunkards (or
Brethren) and Methodists. A fine school building
houses the pupils of the community with a competent
corps of teachers. A lighting system has been
installed and many civic improvements are planned
for the community.
Like all live communities, this
one has a live chamber of commerce?with 100 members
(all of whom) take an interest in its meetings
and work shoulder to shoulder for the upholding
of the town and country.
All this, according to Nicol?s 1921 account,
had occurred in a mere 18 months, due entirely
to the delivery of water to the lands of the Waterford
In 1917 the assessed value of the land was $701,758.
Five years later it exceeded $1.1 million. Before
the first water was delivered, there were 103
properties on which assessments were levied in
the district. The number had tripled by 1922,
as larger holdings were broken up into smaller,
more-intensely farmed parcels. Many of these were
only one to five acres in size.
Much of the rapid development between 1918 and
1920 was due to the formation of the Waterford
Development Company by T. K. Beard. During those
years, Beard subdivided much of the family holdings
in cooperation with a colonization program headed
by Levi Winklebleck, an elder in the Church of
The district was organized September 15, 1913.
The vote was 63-1 for its formation. Although
the ballot was secret, everyone believed they
knew the lone dissenter, an individual who liked
to be against most anything everyone else was
for. Throughout its history, bond elections all
received near-unanimous support.
In later years the WID was to have a few legal
problems, but its formation was not delayed by
litigation which had plagued irrigation districts
that were created earlier. The issue of whether
the Wright Act and the districts created under
it were legal had long been resolved.
However, it was to be almost five years before
the WID was to have water.
Even before the district was organized the first
filing for water rights was made February 27,
1913, by ardent irrigation enthusiast Finley.
Upon creation of the WID, Finley was to become
its first assessor. Eight months later he became
a director when original Director Al Gatzman?s
land was excluded from the district and he resigned.
Once the district was organized formally, Finley
transferred the water rights to it. This and a
subsequent filing on November 13, 1913, were for
the floodwaters of the Tuolumne River, which assured
water only during the high runoff season that
ended in June or July. There would be no WID water
for irrigation after that.
The district had the water rights but no way
yet to deliver the water to the land.
Only 14,000 acres, in size, the district was
a narrow strip of land 16 miles long extending
along the north side of the Tuolumne River from
near La Grange to the eastern border of the Modesto
Irrigation District. On the average, it was a
mile and a quarter wide.
Running through the middle of the Waterford district
for 15 miles between La Grange Dam and the Dallas-Warner
Reservoir was the main canal of the Modesto Irrigation
District. From Waterford?s standpoint, it would
be far more practical and economical to contract
with the Modesto district to deliver water to
Waterford via the MID main canal than to build
an entirely separate large canal or to pump from
the Tuolumne, which was 100 feet lower in elevation
than most of the WID land.
When Waterford approached its much larger neighbor
to the west, the Modesto district was most reluctant.
It was not until Waterford threatened to go to
the California State Legislature with a proposal
to declare all irrigation canals to be "common
carriers", and filed a Stanislaus County Superior
Court condemnation suit against the Modesto district
that the older district grudgingly agreed to deliver
the young upstart?s water via the MID ?s main canal.
When agreement finally was reached, a consent
judgment of condemnation was entered in court.
A minority of the Modesto board still opposed
steadfastly and the vote to accept the compromise
was 3-to-2. Waterford was unanimously in favor.
A formal settlement between the two districts
was not reached until September 25, 1916. On the
strength of preliminary agreements, however, Waterford
voters four weeks earlier had approved, 81-to-18,
a $465,000 bond issue to pay $254,000 to the MID
for enlarging its main canal to carry 250 second
feet of water from La Grange to WID diversion
points. The bond issue also included $211,000
for the construction of Waterford?s canals and
Construction on a delivery system could finally
begin, three years after formal creation of the
Negotiations over the cost maintenance continued.
The MID wanted Waterford to pay one-twelfth of
all maintenance costs, which the small district
could not afford. The final settlement was that
the WID would pay a flat $100 a month as its share
of the maintenance of the Modesto?s main canal,
an agreement which remained in effect for 60 years
until the merger of the two districts.
Work had progressed during the first three years
with formal organizational paperwork and engineering.
The fact that the district had three engineers
during those years slowed the process through
a lack of continuity.
In September 1913 upon formal establishment of
the district, S. A. Hart became the first engineer,
primarily to do the survey work. He was replaced
in mid-1914 by A. Griffin, hired away from the
Modesto Irrigation District. Griffin stayed two
years. In August 1916, just two weeks before the
first bond issue was approved, Everett Bryan,
an Irishman who once got in a fistfight with a
land-owner during a meeting of the board of directors,
The hard-driving, positive-mannered Bryan supervised
construction of the district?s system of 50 miles
of canals and laterals, all to be served by the
enlarged Modesto main canal. The Waterford work
was done with district employees and various contractors,
all under Bryan?s engineering supervision but
under the direct administrative control of the
board of directors, which passed on the most minute
In 1917 and 1918 even a few miles to town was
too far to commute, so construction crews camped
out; the irrigation district supplied the camp
cook. The board minutes show that a discussion
of the finer personal qualities of an applicant
for the cook?s job ended when one director said
bluntly: "If he can cook, hire him!"
Construction was difficult. Everything was done
by hand. Canals were graded with the only land-leveling
equipment available in those days, the old Fresno
scrapers pulled by horse or mule. Although primitive,
they did the job. A 1,900-foot long free-standing
tunnel through solid hardpan was dug by crews
using picks, shovels and black powder. Rails were
laid in the floor of the tunnel and donkey carts
were used to haul out the blasted rock.
The first water was delivered to 800 acres in
1918. The primary crops irrigated were alfalfa,
corn, hay beans and tree crops.
Even before that first irrigation season was
over, it was obvious the "floodwaters" of the
Tuolumne were not adequate to meet the district?s
needs. By June or July the water was gone, even
before crops matured. An additional source had
to be found to carry irrigators through the rest
of the summer.
Nearly half a century earlier, on June 8, 1871,
Edmond Green and A. D. Allen had filed a claim
on the Tuolumne River for the construction of
a dam to divert approximately 66 second feet (3,000
miner?s inches) of water and a ditch to serve
the mining districts around the town of La Grange.
This is the earliest Tuolumne River water right
now recognized. Through a succession of transfers,
the La Grange Mining Ditch water rights were conveyed
to the Sierra & San Francisco Power Company.
To augment its own floodwater filing, the WID
in 1919 bought for $170,000 the right to the La
Grange Mining Ditch water for six months of each
year, May 1st to October 31. Of this,
three second feet were reserved for domestic water
purposes in the town of La Grange. The ultimate
63 second-foot yield was enough to carry the WID
through normal irrigation seasons for the immediate
Ultimately, on May 12, 1922, the Modesto and
Turlock Irrigation Districts bought the La Grange
Mining Ditch water rights to the 66 second feet
during the other six months of the year to use
for power generation. The original water rights
filed in 1913 and those purchased in 1919 by the
WID went to the MID at the time of the merger.
Thus, the Modesto district now owns the oldest
rights to Tuolumne River water.
The WID?s second bond issue was approved May
2, 1919, by a unanimous vote of all 65 who went
to the polls. Of the total $205,000 in bonds,
$170,000 was used to purchase the mining ditch
water rights. The balance was used to complete
irrigation laterals and canals.
Although the costs of operations and bond retirement
were high during the 1920s, things went along
smoothly until the depression days of the 30s.
The total bonded indebtedness of the WID at that
time was $670,000. Taxes needed to retire the
bonds and to operate the district were substantial
for such a small district. Most depression-struck
farmers and townspeople could not pay. By 1933,
61 percent of all WID taxes levied were delinquent.
The WID was forced to take possession of 400 unimproved
lots in the town of Waterford and 2,000 acres
of farm land for non-payment of taxes. Thus, the
WID owned approximately a seventh of the total
area within the district. For the most part, these
were plots subdivided by the larger ranchers but
never sold. The ranchers chose to lose these lands
and use their limited funds to operate their improved
and more productive property.
At this point, the Waterford district, facing
default on its bonds, called in the Federal Reconstruction
Finance Corporation. The RFC reorganized the district?s
financial structure and sold off land which had
been seized for non-payment of taxes. Town lots
went for $25 to $35 an acre. Even at that price,
purchases were paid for by installment. Town buyers
primarily were Midwest dust-bowl refugees who
had been working in the producing orchards of
the region and wanted to settle down. Farm land
which originally had been priced at $500 an acre
went largely for $40 to $50 an acre.
In addition to selling off irrigable acreage,
the district in 1940 and 1941 excluded 3,466 acres,
including rolling-hill lands which could not be
irrigated by gravity flow. Some of these lands
were still in private ownership, although taxes
were in default, and some already had been taken
over by the district. In either case, no one wanted
the land as long as it was subject to irrigation
taxes with no hope of receiving water. With the
exclusion, tax delinquencies were wiped out and
original owners retained title to the property.
After the 1978 merger of the Modesto and Waterford
Irrigation Districts, some of these lands were
annexed again and now, with plenty of MID water
available, are producing almonds and Ladino clover
with flood irrigation and sprinklers.
Settlement with the bondholders was the most
difficult of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation
tasks and involved considerable litigation from
the mid-1930s to 1941.
When the RFC took over the district, it appraised
the holdings and agreed to refinance only $312,500
of the $632,000 indebtedness, which meant a payoff
of only 48 cents on the dollar. Many bondholders
agreed, but some with larger bond portfolios held
out for full payment. After several years of litigation,
the Waterford district filed for bankruptcy under
new federal laws enacted specifically to meet
the needs of public entities such as the WID.
The court forced acceptance of the 48-cent settlement.
The bondholders ultimately received 65 cents on
the dollar, however; the increase was made possible
by the sale of tax-default lands. The litigation
consumed much time, effort and money for the WID
and still left the district with a sizable indebtedness
which was not retired until 1957.
Once water was brought to the lands, the acreage
converted to irrigation rose dramatically. Only
800 acres received water in 1918, the first year
deliveries were made. By 1920, acreage jumped
to 2,400 and two years later nearly doubled with
4,663 acres under irrigation. By the time the
two districts merged, 700 irrigators were farming
10,600 acres in the WID.
Almost every crop imaginable was tried. Early
in the district?s life, even cotton was raised
briefly. Rain and cold weather came too early
at the edge of the hills for the cotton to mature
and be harvested. Most of the former cotton land
now is in rice. Also tried were figs, apricots,
almonds, walnuts, vegetables, permanent pasture,
beef cattle, dairying, boysenberries, beans, alfalfa,
melons and other typical California crops. As
time passed, however, the primary crops became
Ladino clover, almonds, walnuts, peaches and grapes,
as is the case today.
Permanent Ladino clover pastures, introduced
in 1928, became the predominant crop by 1952 with
3,584 acres in production, 53 percent of the total
Each new crop demanded more water.
Again by the late 1930s, Waterford needed more
water than could be supplied even by the two water-right
sources. During late 1939 and early 1940, Bill
Lehmkuhl, who served the WID as engineer for 46
years, negotiated a novel contract with the TID.
Because of intensive irrigation in the Turlock
Irrigation District, the control of groundwater
levels required pumping that cost about $1 per
acre foot. Lehmkuhl persuaded the TID to sell
to the WID an equivalent amount of water from
the river for $1 an acre foot ? offsetting pumping
costs ? and irrigate from its drainage wells.
Once more, the WID had enough water to meet its
needs, but this situation was not to last for
As the Waterford district struggled to keep pace
with its water needs, the idea of merging with
the Modesto districts surfaced. When first mentioned
in 1959, there was reluctance on the part of both
boards. The Waterford district did not wish to
give up its independence. The Modesto board, entangled
in problems leading to the construction of New
Don Pedro Dam, was uninterested in any new venture.
Relations between the two districts were good,
however. Since 1926 Modesto had been serving electrical
energy to Waterford homes, farms and businesses.
The Modesto district had come to consider Waterford
as a "small neighbor" to be cared for ? if it
didn?t prove too costly.
Additional water was obtained in 1964 when the
Modesto and Turlock districts sold to the WID
up to 15,000 acre feet for delivery during normal
years ? whenever the Tuolumne River runoff from
April to July amounted to 900,000 acre feet. This,
however, was of no help in the one out of three
years when the runoff did not reach that level.
Cecil Hensley, who served as WID secretary from
1955 until he succeeded Lehmkuhl as WID general
manager in 1966, was convinced that a merger was
the only solution and kept nudging Waterford toward
By the 1970s water supplies again were to become
a problem as agriculture became more water intensive.
At that point, really serious MID -merger talks
The Modesto district was prospering due to the
sale of electrical energy. From 1959 until 1974
MID water users had paid nothing for their water.
On the other hand, the WID irrigators were paying
at much as $14.88 per $100 assessed valuation
in taxes plus an additional $4 per acre water
charge even when the district maintained a staff
of only seven employees.
With these facts of life in mind, the WID Board
of Directors formally proposed a merger of the
From a financial standpoint, there was no argument
about the advantages to WID irrigators of merging
the two districts. Even more important, from Waterford?s
point of view, was the fact that the merger would
guarantee it a dependable supply of water. Possibly
a half dozen Waterford people objected, but not
too strongly. They disliked giving up their independent
identity ? it is hard to give up habits of more
than a half century ? but generally everyone was
resigned to the fact that it was the only practical
solution to Waterford?s fiscal and water problems.
The benefit to Modesto was that it replaced farm
land which had been lost to urbanization and industrialization,
giving the larger district a fine opportunity
to put its water rights to beneficial use, as
it must do if it is to maintain them.
The difference in taxes and the wide divergence
of standards in the canal systems of the neighboring
districts caused Modesto to "drag its feet," as
former MID Board President Mathew Fiscalini described
it, until these problems could be resolved without
imposing an unfair financial burden on MID taxpayers.
The marriage was not to be consummated until
January 1, 1978.
The merger agreement provided for a 10-year program
of upgrading Waterford?s distribution system,
which consisted mainly of unlined dirt canals
and ditches. The $1 million program was completed
in seven years, during which approximately 10
miles of the primary lateral canal and distribution
ditches were lined or piped. This was financed
by a special $6.50 per acre annual assessment
levied against the property formerly served by
the Waterford district. The assessment was in
addition to the regular MID water charges.
Once the work was done, the special assessments
were ended and everyone in the Modesto district
now is on the same financial and water footing.
In the nearly 70 years from the time that creation
of the Waterford Irrigation District first was
proposed, three names stand out: T. K. Beard,
whose initiative, determination and financial
assistance has been detailed, Alf Ketcham and
A. E. Ketcham was a young 29-year old grain farmer
following a family tradition which had lasted
for more than a half century when in 1909 he first
was approached for support in creating the WID.
He devoted the next 48 years to the district and
to the cause of irrigation throughout the State
Appointed by the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors
as an "interim director," he served on the WID
board from its creation in 1913 until 1957, with
the exception of two years.
In April 1930 he resigned in order to bring suit
against the Waterford and Modesto Irrigation District,
contending their operations had an adverse impact
on his Tuolumne River bottomlands. Alkali from
rising water tables was a threat to land on which
Ketcham had grown for 17 years the crop of which
he was most proud, spinach. He blamed Waterford?s
unlined canals and Modesto?s Dallas-Warner Reservoir
just north of his farm.
A Stanislaus County Superior Court jury and the
appellate court agreed with Ketcham?s claim and
awarded him a judgment of $7,500 plus expense.
When Ketcham resigned, William Rushing was appointed
his successor. After the litigation was resolved,
Rushing resigned November 12, 1932, and Ketcham
was reappointed to the board. He served until
he was 77 years old.
Bill Lehmkuhl deservedly was known as "Mr. WID."
An engineer working with T. K. Beard on a variety
of projects, including the construction of dams
and canals throughout the state, Lehmkuhl decided
to settle down for a few years so that his two
daughters might go through school without moving
around. He had no intention of making it a prolonged
stay. It was 46 years of building "Bill Lehmkuhl?s
district" before he retired in 1966.
Retirement came only after a serious heart attack
which made him realize he could not maintain the
seven-days-a-week pace he had set for himself
for nearly a half century as the WID engineer
and general manager.
When Lehmkuhl retired, he was succeeded as general
manager by Hensley, who worked through the difficult
merger negotiations and then for the next seven
years supervised the improvements to the Waterford
system. With the system up to standards, he was