Water Resource Collections and Archives


Liquid Gold: California's Water

Liquid Gold: California's Water

An Exhibit by the Water Resources Collections and Archives

WRCA is pleased to present an exhibit featuring unique historical and contemporary photographs, documents, maps, and books showcasing several aspects of California's water development.


California and water.The two always have been, and always will be, inextricably linked. No resource is as vital to California's urban centers, agriculture, industry, recreation, scenic beauty, and environmental preservation as its "liquid gold." And no resource is as immersed in controversy.

"Whiskey is for drinkin', water is for fightin' over"--Mark Twain

Throughout California's history, battles have been waged over who gets how much of this precious resource. While the echoes of rifle shots and dynamite blasts are part of the state's distant past, the fight continues today in courtrooms, the state Legislature, and the U.S. Congress.

The fundamental controversy surrounding California's water is one of distribution, over both distance and time, combined with conflicts between competing interests over the use of available supplies. About 75 percent of the water supply originates in the northern third of the state (north of Sacramento), while 80 percent of the demand occurs in the southern two-thirds of the state. The demand for water is highest during the summer when there is little rainfall or snowmelt. California's fickle climate also leads to extended periods of drought followed by flooding.

These basic problems have been remedied in large part by the construction of the most complex and sophisticated water storage and transport system in the world. An integrated system of dams, reservoirs, pumping plants, and aqueducts transport about 50 percent of the state's water up to hundreds of miles. However, moving water over great distances has created intense regional rivalries in California. These feuds have historically divided the state -- north against south, east against west, environmentalists against water developers, agriculture against cities. Since the 1970s, the environmental movement, backed by strong state and federal legislation, has effectively blocked the construction of most new dams and conveyance facilities.

A time of unprecedented growth in California has coincided with what many consider to be the end of the dam-building era - an end to the way that new water supplies traditionally have been acquired - and the beginning of a new era of water resources management. The Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA), the CALFED Bay-Delta Program, and Proposition 204 are evidence that future water development will only be achieved through cooperation among California's water "stakeholders" -- urban and agricultural users, fishing interests, environmental organizations, businesses, and others. Only then will there be a truce in California's "water wars."

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San Francisco's Water Supply

Hetch Hetchy Dam. 
Crest and downstream face - with City 
Engineer [O'Shaughnessy] and 
group - Jan. 18, 1923. (Galloway 94(2))Beginning in 1858, the privately-owned Spring Valley Water Company provided all of San Francisco's water. Growth of the city, along with the failure of the system during the 1906 earthquake and fire prompted San Francisco to look at ways of providing the area with a dependable public water supply. Civic leaders decided on a dam and reservoir in Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley, with a gravity-flow aqueduct to the Bay Area. Opposing this plan was famed naturalist John Muir, who formed the Society for the Preservation of National Parks in a losing fight against damming the valley. San Francisco prevailed, and in 1914, work on the project began. Nine years later, the dam, dedicated to City Engineer M. M. O'Shaughnessy, was completed, with water finally reaching San Francisco in 1934.

Hetch Hetchy Dam.
Crest and downstream face - with City Engineer
[O'Shaughnessy] and group - Jan. 18, 1923.
(John Debo Galloway Papers)

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Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the San Francisco Bay form the largest estuary on the West Coast. Estuaries are coastal areas where fresh water from rivers mixes with ocean water. The Delta is a unique resource which is an integral part of California's water system. It receives runoff from over 40 percent of the State's land area including flows from the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Mokelumne, Cosumnes and Calaveras rivers. The Delta provides habitat for many species of plants and animals, supports agricultural and recreational activities, and is the focal point for water distribution throughout the State to the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. The Delta is vitally important to the economy of California. Two-thirds of the state's residents receive at least a portion of their drinking water from the Delta. Consequently, whatever effects the Delta also effects large portions of northern, central and southern California.

The importance of the Delta is illustrated by the large number of federal, state and local agencies involved in Delta issues. Each of the Delta's problems -- whether it's preserving fisheries, maintaining levees, or providing water for agricultural or urban needs -- brings with it opposing views. Only recently have state and federal partnerships (Framework Agreement and CALFED Bay-Delta Program), legislation (Proposition 204), and other programs (San Francisco Estuary Institute and the San Francisco Estuary Project) begun to address the estuary as a whole.

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The Reber Plan

Since the 1860s, Californians had discussed the idea of building a dam between salty San Francisco Bay and the fresh water Delta. The most popular proposal came in the 1940s, when non-engineer John Reber came up with a plan to create two fresh water lakes in the upper and lower bays by means of dams between Richmond and Marin County, and San Francisco and Oakland. Over these would pass high-speed roadways. The Reber Plan claimed to provide 20,000 acres of additional filled land, increase the deep water harbor by 50 miles, and conserve 2,400,000 acre-feet of fresh water annually. Critics pointed out the plan's destruction of commercial fisheries, increased sewage disposal problems, adverse effects on the ports of Oakland, Stockton, and Sacramento and flooding potential. Although it attracted considerable attention, the Reber Plan found little support among engineers and was never adopted.

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Water for Los Angeles

Los Angeles RiverIn Los Angeles the problems of water development were more acute than in San Francisco and the solutions were, consequently, more severe and more rapidly achieved. Los Angeles is situated in a semi-arid coastal plain. The principal indigenous source of its water supply is the 502.5-square-mile basin of the Los Angeles River. Its tributaries in the San Gabriel, Santa Monica, and Santa Susanna mountains drain their often meager flows into the extensive groundwater reservoirs of the San Fernando Valley.

Channel of the Los Angeles River
(Walter Leroy Huber Papers)

WeirIn 1905, the city of Los Angeles filed for water rights on the Owens River in the eastern Sierra Nevada, 250 miles to the north. A growing population and a series of dry years were creating a serious water shortage for the city. According to the Municipal Water Bureau, the Los Angeles River's normal supply was capable of supporting no more than 220,000 people. In 1907, William Mulholland, the Bureau's chief engineer, began work on a 233-mile aqueduct capable of delivering four times more water than the city required. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in 1913 under the leadership of Mulholland and Joseph B. Lippincott, head of the U.S. Reclamation Service in Southern California. Fred Eaton, a former Los Angeles mayor, is credited with conceiving the idea of the aqueduct. On November 5, 1913, the first Owens River water arrived in the San Fernando Valley. At the ceremony, Mulholland delivered one of the shortest speeches on record: "There it is. Take it!"
Weir H, City of Los Angeles
(Joseph Barlow Lippincott Papers)

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The Colorado Aqueduct and MWD

In the early 1920's, Los Angeles began investigating the Colorado River as a possible source for water. A drought and expanding population had placed a strain on existing supplies. Building an aqueduct from the Colorado, however, would require more resources than the city could muster. In 1928, Los Angeles joined with several other communities also seeking more water to form the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Over the next decade the District obtained voter approval to fund the project, and constructed a network of pumping plants, reservoirs, and canals to bring water from Lake Havasu, behind the Bureau of Reclamation's Parker Dam, to the coastal plain. Deliveries from the Colorado River began in June, 1941. San Diego completed its connection in 1947, with water arriving in the Coachella Valley two years later.

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Mono Lake

In 1940, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power received permits to divert water from four streams that are tributary to Mono Lake in Mono County. The permits authorized diversion of water for municipal use and hydroelectric power production. Los Angeles' diversions of water from the Mono Basin resulted in approximately a 45-foot decline in the water level of Mono Lake and a reduction in the surface area of the lake from 54,924 acres in 1941 to 37,688 acres in 1982. In 1979, the National Audubon Society, the Mono Lake Committee, and others filed the first in a series of lawsuits challenging Los Angeles' water diversions in the Mono Basin. The resulting court decisions reexamined the water rights previously granted to Los Angeles and laid the groundwork for the State Water Resources Control Board's 1994 Water Right Decision 1631.

Mono LakeThe order does not restore the Mono Basin to its pre-diversion conditions. However, it does prohibit any diversion of Mono Lake water until the lake level reaches 6,377 feet above sea level. Decision 1631 also restricts future water exports in a manner that is intended to result in the water level of the lake rising to an elevation of 6,391 feet in approximately 20 years. The higher water level will protect nesting habitats for California gulls and other birds, maintain the long-term productivity of the Mono Lake brine shrimp and brine fly populations, meet applicable water quality standards, and reduce blowing dust from exposed lakebed areas in order to comply with federal air quality standards.
Mono Lake, July 1911
(Walter Leroy Huber Papers)

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Dams in California are built and operated primarily for flood control, municipal and agricultural water supply, the production of hydroelectric power, or a combination of these uses. Recreation, fish and wildlife are also sometimes additional stated purposes for dam/reservoir projects. Water that is stored in reservoirs is later released downstream during the dry season. In California, agriculture uses 85 percent of developed water sources. Releases usually coincide with crop demand. Rivers which would normally have low streamflow in the summer may have their natural flows augmented by water that has been captured and stored behind dams.

John S. Eastwood and the Multiple Arch Dam

San Dieguito DamJohn S. Eastwood was a trailblazing hydraulic engineer of the early 20th century who steadfastly promoted the dramatically less expensive - and controversial - multiple arch dam. Despite intense opposition from several respected hydraulic engineers and businessmen, Eastwood built seventeen multiple arch dams in the West from 1908 through 1924. Twelve of those dams are in California. Eastwood was drowned in 1924 while swimming at his Kings River Ranch, which is now covered by water from the building of the Pine Flat Dam above Fresno.

San Dieguito Dam
(Walter Leroy Huber Papers)

Folsom Dam

Folsom Dam, located on the lower American River, made news headlines when a spillway gate partially failed at about 8:00 AM on July 17, 1995. The failure resulted in flash floods in Sacramento County when the water volume moving through the dam increased from 6,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to about 40,000 cfs. The most dramatic moment occurred on July 20, when a State Park lifeguard boat, on visitor safety patrol near the dam, lost power and was swept over the dam. The two lifeguards operating the boat by swam to safety before the boat went over and escaped without injury.

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William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam

St. Francis DamOn March 12, 1928, after its reservoir reached full capacity for the first time, the St. Francis Dam began to leak. At 11:57 PM, the dam collapsed, sending 12 billion gallons of water raging through the narrow San Francisquito Canyon into the Santa Clara Valley (today's Santa Clarita Valley near the Magic Mountain amusement park area north of the San Fernando Valley). Designed and built two years earlier by William Mulholland to store water brought by the Los Angeles Aqueduct from Owens Valley, the dam stood 180 feet high and 600 feet long. Its failure resulted in a flood which killed over 450 people and destroyed buildings, bridges, railroads, and farms. The St. Francis was only one of 19 dams that Mulholland had constructed to store Los Angeles' water supplies, but it was considered his finest. Mulholland, who privately believed that the dam had been sabotaged, accepted full responsibility for the failure. Although he was exonerated from any wrongdoing, his public career essentially ended when St. Francis failed. As a result of the disaster, California began a program to monitor the safety of dams in the state.
Center Section of the St. Francis Dam
(Walter Leroy HuberPapers)

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Bringing the Colorado River to California

On March 4, 1929, President Herbert Hoover declared the Boulder Canyon Act in effect. This followed almost a decade of political and legal wrangling among the states of the upper and lower Colorado River basins for shares of the resource. In 1922, the Colorado River Compact began the process by setting aside portions of the river's flow for each basin. Disagreements between California and Arizona over the lower basin's share prolonged the debate until 1928 when California agreed to limit its request. The principal feature of the Boulder Canyon Project would be a massive dam in Black Canyon of the Colorado River. Completed in 1935, Hoover Dam was the world's largest, and served as the cornerstone of the nation's first great multi-purpose reclamation project.

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Central Valley Project

In 1919, U.S. Geological Survey employee Robert Bradford Marshall published a pamphlet urging Californians to solve their water problems by shipping water from the Sacramento River to the San Joaquin Valley. His plan attracted wide public interest, and during the 1920s, the Department of Public Works' Engineering and Irrigation Division developed a State Water Plan which called for a dam on the Sacramento River above Redding and pumps to send water from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta into the San Joaquin Valley. The Legislature and voters approved the $170 million plan in 1933, but because of the Depression, the state could not market the bonds needed to build it.

When it became clear that California could not build what had come to be known as the Central Valley Project on its own, the state turned to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1935, an emergency relief measure was passed which allotted $20 million for the Bureau of Reclamation to begin work. Construction on Shasta Dam and Friant Dam was completed in 1945 and 1944 respectively and, along with canals and a pumping plant at Tracy, formed the basis of the project which became operational in 1951.

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Hydroelectric Power Development

California has all of the requirements for the development of large amounts of hydroelectric power: mountain ranges of sufficient height and slope to provide the necessary fall, precipitation on the higher elevations so that adequate runoff is available, and ample storage sites. California also has a well-diversified power demand. For example, use of power for irrigation pumping occurs in the summer months when the general heating and lighting load is below its winter peaks. The development of hydroelectric power in California has been as significant as the projects for other uses of water. Practically every major stream in California has one or more hydroelectric plants along its course.

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Irrigation and Water Rights

In 1879, California's "Cattle King," Henry Miller and his partner, Charles Lux, filed for an injunction against irrigation developer James Ben Ali Haggin. At issue was water from the Kern River in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Miller held that his Riparian right to the river, rooted in English Common Law and the California Constitution, prevented anyone else from taking water which he needed to grow grass along the river to feed his livestock. Haggin countered that appropriating the water into a canal which ran some distance from the river improved the land through irrigation.

The Riparian Doctrine comes from English Common Law and holds that the owner of a riverbank owns the right to water flowing past the property. It does not allow water rights attached to the property to be separated from it. The principle of Appropriation, however, provides that the first person to divert water from a stream has the right to continue diverting as much as needed, even if the water is transported to a location remote from the stream. The appropriator has the right to the water itself, separate from any rights to the land adjacent to the stream from which it is taken. The conflict between these two principles resulted in the "California Doctrine" of dual water rights, established by the State Supreme Court in the case of Lux v. Haggin in 1886.

The Wright Act

After the State Supreme Court's Lux v. Haggin ruling, irrigation advocates in the Legislature argued for laws to limit riparian rights. In a special session in 1887, lawmakers debated issues of appropriation, riparianism and the role of government. The most significant legislation to come out of the session was sponsored by Assemblyman C.C. Wright of Modesto. This law provided for the creation of irrigation districts under local public control. It did not, however, abolish the "California Doctrine" of dual water rights, which would continue to be defined in the courts. Few of the initial districts formed under the Wright Act were successful, but by the beginning of the twentieth century much of the Central Valley had been brought under cultivation by irrigation districts and private water companies.

Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts

In 1887, Turlock Irrigation District became the first irrigation district formed in California under the Wright Act, with the first water becoming available in 1901, when 3,757 acres were irrigated. Modesto Irrigation District's history parallels that of TID, with water becoming available in 1904 and delivered to 7,000 acres. Today, the two districts combine to irrigate over 200,000 acres of agricultural lands in the lower San Joaquin Valley. TID and MID are located opposite sides of the Tuolumne River in Stanislaus and Merced Counties, about 90 miles southeast from San Francisco.

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Coastal Engineering

California's 1,100 mile long coast contains many distinct habitats and is a vital part of the economic prosperity of the state. Coastal engineering emerged approximately 50 years ago as a new discipline within the field of civil engineering, although coastal works have been designed and built for hundreds, even thousands of years. Early coastal works were primarily concerned with navigation. The use of beaches for recreational purposes began in the mid-nineteenth century and expanded rapidly after World War I. The American Shore and Beach Preservation Association and the Beach Erosion Board were founded in the late 1920's and 1930's and had a major impact on the development of coastal engineering. However, the unique combination of engineering and the scientific analysis of wave forces began during World War II to assist the U.S. and U.K. in their beach landing operations.

The term "coastal engineering" was first used in print in 1950 in the Proceedings of the First Conference on Coastal Engineering held in Long Beach, California. This conference was organized by two professors from the University of California at Berkeley, Morrough P. O'Brien and J.W. Johnson. Today, coastal engineering is a broad and complex discipline dealing with: beaches, ports, dredging, shore protection, coastal wetlands, estuaries, ocean outfalls, flood control, piers, breakwaters, and recreation. Walking along a beach or fishing from a pier gives one the idea that coastal processes are simple, but they are extremely complex interactions.

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The Environmental Movement

Over the last three decades, there has been increasing environmental opposition to the construction of dams in California. In addition, river rafters and recreational fishing enthusiasts have fought against river developments that would destroy natural features of the streams. The Dos Rios Project, the Clavey River Project, and Auburn Dam have all gone down to defeat. The Dos Rios Project would have inundated Round Valley in Mendocino County in order to transfer Eel River water to Southern California. The Clavey River Project, to be built on a tributary of the Tuolumne River in Tuolumne County, was to provide water and hydroelectric power to Turlock Irrigation District. Auburn Dam was first authorized by Congress in 1965 to be built on the North Fork of the American River. Proponents of the dam say that it will provide much needed flood protection for Sacramento; opponents point out that there are other flood control alternatives which are more economically and environmentally sound. Construction actually began in 1967 but was halted for seismic safety reasons. Since then, seismic, economic, and environmental concerns have prevented completion of the dam. In June 1996, federal funding for Auburn Dam was denied for the second time. Congressional supporters of the dam have vowed to continue to fight for its construction.

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Kings River"With its diverse climate and landscape, California contains the greatest variety of rivers found anywhere in the United States. Over the last 150 years these rivers have been dammed, diverted, polluted, lined, and leveed to supply the needs of an expanding population and economy. In spite of these changes, rivers and the waters they carry remain one of California's most significant natural hazards and most contested resources"-- Jeffrey Mount, California Rivers and Streams.

Kings River at Kingsburg Bridge, circa 1900
(Joseph Barlow LippincottPapers)

Cottonwood-AndersonDieselhoist's Wheel, Cottonwood- Anderson
(Walter Leroy Huber Papers)

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California Department of Water Resources

In 1956, a special session of the Legislature, called by Governor Goodwin J. Knight, created a single State Department of Water Resources (DWR). It replaced the State Engineer's Office, the Water Project Authority, the State Water Resources Board, and the Division of Water Resources of the Department of Public Works. The Department's original focus was on delineating California's water problems, forecasting future water supply needs, and evaluating existing water resources.

In 1957, the Department published the initial California Water Plan (Bulletin no. 3), which presented preliminary plans for developing all of the state's water resources. Bulletin 3 became the foundation for a series of water plan updates, known as the Bulletin 160 series. The updates have been published six times between 1966 and 1994.

The Department's responsibilities have expanded to include flood control, design and construction of water facilities, dam safety for more than 1,200 dams statewide, local assistance projects, water management strategies, water quality improvement programs, and water supply data collection and studies.

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Liquid Gold: California's Water

Exhibit History

Jan.-Mar. 1997:
Doe Library, U.C. Berkeley
Aug.-Dec. 1997:
Shields Library, U.C. Davis

Table of Contents

  1. San Francisco Water Supply
  2. Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
  3. The Reber Plan
  4. Los Angeles Water Supply
  5. Colorado Aqueduct
  6. Mono Lake
  7. Dams
  8. St. Francis Dam Failure
  9. Hoover Dam
  10. Central Valley Project
  11. Hydroelectric Power Development
  12. Irrigation and Water Rights
  13. Coastal Engineering
  14. The Environmental Movement
  15. Rivers
  16. California Department of Water Resources

Thank You

The Archives would like to acknowledge and thank the following individuals and organizations for their support and assistance in making this exhibit possible:

The Friends of the Archives Board, Library Graphics Office, Water Education Foundation, California State Archives, Professor Robert L. Wiegel, Roger and Royetta Brandt, and Bart Stephan.

Last modified: 11/21/2011 7:08 AM by A. Morita

UCR Contact Information

Water Resources Collections and Archives
Tomás Rivera Library, 4th Floor
PO Box 5900
University of California
Riverside, CA 92517-5900

Tel: 951-827-3233    Fax: 951-827-4673    email Email

CSUSB Contact Information

Water Resources Institute, CSUSB
Boykin Witherspoon III, Institute Director
California State University, San Bernardino
PL-401 5500 University Parkway
San Bernardino CA 92407-2318

Tel: 909-537-3685    email Email