The Rising Tide, 1920-1941

CHAPTER THREE: Water is King

Nature had been kind to Southern California except in one gift, water. In the 1880’s Theodore S. Van Dyke wrote that “rain was the sweetest music to the California ear.”

The Southern California that most of its residents knew, and the site of all its large cities, is a lowland strip of 200 miles formed by two coastal mountain groups. Most of it is open to the sea, and invading cool marine air maintains relatively temperate conditions.

The two mountain groups are the Transverse Ranges and the Peninsular Ranges. The Transverse Ranges stretch inland from Point Arguello while the Peninsular Ranges extend northward from Mexico. The little moisture that comes with the marine air is left on the western slopes of the mountains. Even if all of it could be trapped and stored, it was all too obvious that there never would be enough.

Beyond the mountains lie what are known as the “rain-shadow” deserts which are so peculiar to the Pacific coastal regions of the North American continent. North of the Transverse Ranges is the Mojave Desert; to the east of the Peninsular Ranges, the Salton Sink. In the coastal area strip ten to fifteen miles wide, rainfall varies from ten to thirteen inches annually. In the foothill areas, the average rainfall is about seventeen inches, and in the higher mountains, it might be as much as forty-five inches a year.

However, there is no constant relationship between rainfall and runoff, as much depends upon the intensity and duration of storms and the amount of moisture aleady in the ground. A normal annual rainfall near the coast of about ten inches might come in one or two storms and produce heavy runoff. Another season of fifteen inches of rain might result from a number of small storms producing little or no runoff.

As early as 1908 Los Angeles had begun to reach northward across the Transverse Ranges and the Mojave Desert toward the Owens Valley to catch the melting snow of the eastern slopes of California Sierra Nevada Mountains and provide water for the thousands of settlers entering its coastal plain.

San Diego, with even less rainfall than Los Angeles, several times in its history had been near disaster because of a lack of water. Periods of three years without any runoff had been recorded, and San Diegans had learned that to develop streams for stable supplies of water required expensive storage works and long transmission lines.

Exploration of its water resources largely had been by private companies, though there was an awareness that there had to be sufficient storage for domestic and irrigation uses to carry over for a period of at least seven years, the calculated length of possible periods of drought when there might be little or no runoff. But development always seemed to lag behind demand.

By the 1920’s San Diego’s margin of survival was no more than four years. Where would its future lie? Would its growth be forever dominated by the extent of its own meager resources, or could it, too, turn to a source far beyond its own borders?

The Owens Valley was 240 miles from Los Angeles, at the foot of the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. The Colorado River was 200 miles from San Diego. None of the water in the Colorado rose in California. Instead, the river collected the runoff of the Rockies and carried it along part of the California border and into the Gulf of California.

Between San Diego and the river were 100 miles of desert and sixty miles of mountainous country of the Peninsular Ranges with rocky peaks over 6000 feet and rugged, broken ridges and valleys gradually falling off toward the sea. In the early 1920’s John R. Freeman, an eastern consulting engineer retained by the city to advise it on developing its water resources, told the City Council that for the people of San Diego to hope to take water from the Colorado River was like hoping to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The efforts of Representative Phil Swing, to obtain congressional approval for construction of the All-American Canal in Imperial Valley and a necessary storage reservoir on the river at Boulder Canyon, brought into contention the question of the rights of all states of the Colorado Basin.

In the semi-arid West the prevailing doctrine on water was “first in time, first in right.” This had been applied in assigning priorities between users in states. But the question of the rights of states had not been settled. It became known, though, that the Secretary of the Interior, A. B. Fall, would affirm federal interest in the river and that the government intended to seek congressional authority to construct the projected dam, and that revenue from the sale of hydroelectric power would be used to defray costs of construction. In self-protection private power companies hurried to make filings on the river.

At a meeting of the City Council in San Diego in July of 1921, Fred Heilbron, a member of the Council who was in business as a plumbing and heating contractor, suggested that as a precaution the city of San Diego also file a claim to water, before all of its flow could be allocated. Los Angeles had gone several hundred miles to obtain water, and Heilbron, who had arrived in San Diego in 1888 at the age of eleven, had never forgotten the drought that began with the winter of 1895-1896 and persisted into the new century. He recalled in later years:

“There wasn’t a lawn in the city. But some people went without baths so they could water their pet shrubs. Everybody with money left town. Those of us who remained became water experts.”

A short time later, in the heat of mid-summer, and as instructed by the City Council, the city manager of operations, Fred Rhodes, and a deputy city attorney drove to the Colorado River to the site of the Laguna Dam. It was a low dam of rock, with control gates at each end, thrown across the river where it begins to narrow into the dry hills a dozen miles above Yuma. The Reclamation Service had completed the dam in 1909, to divert water to the Yuma Valley Project in Arizona, and considered it a model project for the development it envisioned for much of the West.

The site was selected because it was near the point where the Imperial Irrigation District hoped to divert water into the projected All-American Canal. Instead of being passed through Mexico, the water would be driven through the sand hills, carried across the harsh East Mesa and dropped into a vast farming area largely lying below the level of the sea.

On the west bank of the river, on the California side, in the tradition of mining claims, Rhodes erected a small monument of rocks and inside it placed a can containing a legal claim to power as well as water, on behalf of the people of San Diego. A stick with a little flag was left to mark the spot.

At a Southwestern Water Conference held at San Diego on December 12, 1921, A. P. Davis, director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, presented the government’s plan and it was endorsed by nearly all who attended, including Mayor Bacon of San Diego. The early support of San Diego was more in the interests of Imperial Valley than in anticipation of its own future demands for water, and in the exciting possibilities of irrigating more vast empty desert areas.

This was the land which Spreckels had tried to penetrate with the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway, and he expected that some day products for and from all of the Southwest would move over his tracks and across the docks of the port of San Diego. As The San Diego Union stated editorially regarding the Fall and Davis program:

“There is epic inspiration in its vision of what this gigantic enterprise will induce…it will be the foundation for a new nation within the confines of a vast arid region that for nearly a century has lain waste for lack of water with which to develop its limitless possibilities of soil and climate. What the possibilities are is apparent in the development of the Imperial Valley from the source of wealth which lies in the Colorado River.”

By 1923, six of the seven states in the Colorado Basin, including California, ratified a compact dividing the river’s water between the upper and lower basins. At the last moment Arizona failed to do so, bringing proposed developments to a halt, and thus a long and bitter struggle was opened and waged in and out of Congress for years. In May representatives from Imperial and Coachella valleys, Los Angeles, the San Diego City Council, and other counties of Southern California met at Fullerton and formed the Boulder Dam Association. Their leaders were Mayor Bacon of San Diego and Mayor S. C. Evans of Riverside. Opposed to them were the private power companies, who were facing a challenge from public power advocates, and the Chandler interests with their huge acreages below the border in Lower California who saw a threat to their water supply by the All-American Canal.

A year had gone by and Swing had been unable to get the House Committee on Irrigation and Arid Lands to vote on his bill for Boulder Dam and the All-American Canal. He reintroduced the measure in 1923, and again hearings dragged on through another year, without any action. Senator Johnson introduced a companion measure in the Senate and the Boulder Dam legislation became known as the Swing-Johnson bill.

A drought in 1924 brought Los Angeles to a suspicion that the Colorado River might be “the last waterhole in the West.” As with San Diego its original interest had been concerned more with the possibilities of electric power and the irrigation of desert lands than in water for its residents. Los Angeles now filed on the river for water for domestic uses, thus precipitating a new round of argument and opposition in other basin states.

While the arguments raged, the fiercely independent settlers of Imperial Valley uneasily watched the swift increase in the use of Colorado River water by the land owners of northern Lower California, both American and Mexican. From 1908 to 1925 land under cultivation increased from 7000 acres to nearly 217,000 acres. The longer the dam and the canal were delayed, the less water there might be for the farms of Imperial Valley.

Mexico had insisted on the right to appropriate half the water that the Imperial Irrigation District was able to divert through Mexican territory. But the large acreages being put into cultivation suggested a possibility that Mexico, through prior use, might establish rights to even more water.

There was one thing the Imperial pioneers of a desert empire wanted, and that was control of an assured water supply. They had managed to take over the former private irrigation systems serving the valley and proposed to repay the federal government for the cost of the All-American Canal.

No one could foresee when the dam and canal would be built, and in San Diego there was an insistence that the county’s available water resources should be fully developed before there was any thought of trying to tie the city’s future to the distant Colorado River. But as Heilbron had commented, droughts had made everybody a water expert and all suggestions or plans were met with controversy.

San Diego County forms a rectangle, and its dimensions are about sixty miles from north to south and seventy miles from east to west. The Peninsular Ranges which traverse the county from the northwest to the southeast are made up of the Agua Tibia, Palomar, Hot Springs, Volcan, Cuyamaca and Laguna ranges. Approximately two-thirds of the county lies west of the divide, and the waters of the western slope drain into the Pacific Ocean. The runoff of the precipitous eastern slope, or what little there is, drains into the Salton Sea which is the lowest level of the Imperial Valley basin and once the site of ancient Lake Cahuilla.

There are seven principal streams which collect the runoff of rainfall and mountain snows and carry it down the western slope to the Pacific Ocean. They are, from north to south, the Santa Margarita, San Luis Rey, San Dieguito, San Diego, Sweetwater, Otay and the Cottonwood-Tia Juana rivers. From a vantage point on Volcan Mountain at 5500 feet above sea level, it might be possible to see the headwaters of all the major streams of San Diego County, with the exception of Santa Margarita River.

These were not the same type of rivers which the early settlers of Southern California had known in their homelands in the Midwest and East. The longest river in San Diego County was only sixty-five miles in length, but in that distance it dropped 5000 feet. The rivers generally had running water only in certain seasons but could spring from trickles to floods almost overnight.

The Spaniards who first explored California were never able to follow all of the rivers to their sources. After the American conquest United States railroad engineers had traced the courses of rivers in San Diego County in disappointing searches for usable passes through the mountains.

The Santa Margarita begins as Temecula Creek, on the northern slopes of Palomar Mountain, and flows in a northwesterly direction, crossing into Riverside County and, passing through Aguanga Valley. It then swings westward to a point south of Temecula, where it enters the narrow gorge known as Temecula Canyon. From there it emerges in San Diego County as the Santa Margarita River and empties into the Pacific Ocean north of Oceanside, forty-five miles north of San Diego.

Water from the southern slope of Palomar helps to enrich the San Luis Rey River. Upper San Luis Rey has two forks, one coming down from Palomar and the other from the Hot Spring Mountains. They come together in San Jose Valley near Warner’s Hot Springs and flow as one, northwesterly, plunging down through rocky canyons which United States railroad engineers had once described as impassable even for mules. But by the time it reaches the San Luis Rey Valley it has become a full river. In the California pattern, however, it can dry up in summer, yet in exceptionally wet years roll toward the sea with devastating fury. It also reaches the ocean north of Oceanside.

The first of the rivers to flow in a southwesterly direction is the San Dieguito which begins as Santa Ysabel Creek, collecting the runoff and melting snow of the west slope of Volcan Mountain with its great stands of giant cedar and pine trees. It passes gently by the site of a little Spanish asistencia mission in Santa Ysabel Valley and then winds through several deep canyons and enters San Pasqual Valley. Here the creek becomes the San Dieguito River, which in very wet winters gathers up a tremendous volume of water and spreads it through the wide San Dieguito Valley and into the ocean north of Del Mar.

The huge bulk known as Volcan Mountain also furnishes the first of the water for the San Diego River. This river begins on the south side of the mountain and only a short distance from the San Dieguito. At a point below Julian and just above the settlement of Santa Ysabel, it leaves the pine and oak country of the Julian area and begins a mountainous journey, plunging south through an inaccessible canyon. From its walls the stream that is to become the San Diego River can barely be seen a thousand feet below. In the shadows of the depths the green of heavy underbrush becomes a hazy blue. Eventually the river emerges from the mountain country and rounds El Cajon Mountain, which stands above the water as a guardian of the wealth that it promises to all who can hoard and use it. From there it begins to spread out, crossing the north side upper section of El Cajon Valley and sweeping past Lakeside and Santee.

At the edge of the valley it penetrates the last of its hilly barriers, Mission Gorge. Over vast periods of time the river cut its way through six miles of almost solid rock in order to reach its flood plain in Mission Valley. Thousands of years ago before the onset of drier ages, the San Diego River gouged a canyon 500 feet deep in the San Diego mesa. This mesa originally was one mass, but was cut in two by the river, with the San Diego mesa to the south and the Linda Vista mesa to the north.

As a raging torrent in ancient times the river ran rapidly to the coast and fell into the ocean. As the continental ice caps melted, over thousands of years, the ocean slowly rose 100 feet to its present level. As it rose, the river silted up its own bed to the level of the ocean. The same silt alternately threatened to destroy both the San Diego and Mission bays, until in modern times the river was channeled directly into the ocean.

In the 1920’s the San Diego River was the only one that passed through the city of San Diego. It also was the river that had given life to the first Franciscan mission and to the first Spanish presidio of California. Though dry for much of its length for most of the year, the power of its periodic floods was demonstrated in 1916, when highway and railroad bridges were smashed and the town almost isolated.

The Cuyamaca Mountains to the south of Volcan are the source of the Sweetwater River. This river flows in a southwesterly direction for forty-five miles and empties into San Diego Bay between National City and Chula Vista. Its watershed is not a large one, compared to that of the San Luis Rey and the San Diego rivers. The smallest of the rivers is the Otay, with a length of only twenty-five miles. It actually is made up of the flows of a number of creeks of the lower mountains. It also ends its limited journey at the southern edge of the bay.

It was the Tia Juana River which was causing San Diegans some concern in the early 1920’s. This river begins as Cottonwood Creek, high upon the 5000-foot slopes of the Laguna Mountains, and was one of the earliest sources of developed water. After flowing south for a considerable distance, Cottonwood Creek turns westward, with two tight canyons providing ideal sites for dams and reservoirs, and then heads south through another canyon toward the Mexican border.

To this point the river has traveled fifty-two miles. In Lower California it flows through a large valley which is five miles below the boundary. It becomes the Rio Tecate and flows to the southwest until it merges with the Tia Juana River coming up from the south. As the Tia Juana, it flows northward past the town of Tijuana and crosses the United States border to empty into the Pacific Ocean just above the international line.

Less than thirty percent of the drainage basin of the Tia Juana River system is within the United States, but that thirty percent contributes most of the water. As it is an international stream, it soon became involved in the Colorado River controversy. Mexico was becoming concerned over United States appropriations of water from the Tia Juana-Cottonwood system and the Rio Grande in Texas, as well as from the Colorado.

The Chandler interests were suggesting that they might want water from the Tia Juana River for their lands in Lower California, if their claims to Colorado River water were reduced. Negotiators in both countries also heard suggestions that water from one river could be “traded” for water from another river.

Representative Swing warned San Diego that it should establish rights to as much water as it could develop from the Tia Juana River as well as Cottonwood Creek, before any agreements for division of the water of the three rivers were entered into between the United States and Mexico.

More than any single individual Ed Fletcher had realized the potential value of sites on the rivers for storage reservoirs, and over the years he had walked and ridden through river canyons in search of the narrow gorges and rock hillsides where dams could be anchored. The city of San Diego itself had neglected more available sources and reached into the southern part of the county to acquire the transmission system and reservoirs of the Spreckels interests on the Otay River and on Cottonwood Creek. Purchased were the Upper Otay, Lower Otay and Morena dams. A fourth, Barrett Dam, also on Cottonwood Creek, was completed by the city in 1922. The city also had a pumping capacity in the San Diego River of 4,000,000 gallons daily from underground supplies.

The Sweetwater River system was supplying water for National City and Chula Vista. In the north county the Santa Fe Railroad had financed construction of the Hodges Reservoir on the San Dieguito River, and it was the primary source of water for the creation of irrigation districts which were opening frost-free coastal areas to settlement and development. It was in this area in 1922 that the tropical avocado from Mexico and Central America was first planted in large experimental acreages.

The figure behind the Santa Fe Railroad’s interest in the San Dieguito River watershed and the development of Rancho Santa Fe lands which it owned was Fletcher. In 1920 the city had contracted with Fletcher and William G. Henshaw for water from Hodges reservoir to supply the La Jolla area. Henshaw was owner of Warner’s Ranch, an original Spanish land grant, and became involved with Fletcher and the Santa Fe Railroad in acquiring dam sites and water rights in San Diego County.

Among water rights obtained by Fletcher and Henshaw were ones on the San Luis Rey River, and they had tried on a number of occasions to interest the city in a plan to develop water on Warner’s Ranch and transport it by gravity flow to the Linda Vista mesa north of the city. They were met with rebuffs. Henshaw formed the San Diego County Water Company and took over the water rights, though Fletcher remained as a director, and began building a dam on Warner’s Ranch by which he intended to supply water to the inland agricultural areas of Escondido and Vista.

More important was the fact that Fletcher and the Cuyamaca Water Company stood astride the San Diego River. As early as 1889 the privately-owned Cuyamaca Water Company had delivered water to San Diego from Cuyamaca Lake on Boulder Creek, a tributary of the San Diego River, through a wooden flume thirty-five miles long. The system was purchased by J. A. Murray, a Montana capitalist, at the instigation of Fletcher, and Murray Dam was built as a storage reservoir on another tributary of the river.

In 1922 the system, improved over the years with storage reservoirs, was still serving East San Diego, La Mesa, El Cajon, Spring Valley, Lemon Grove, Grossmont and the El Cajon Valley as far as Lakeside. The newly organized La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Spring Valley Irrigation District expected to obtain its water from the same source or to acquire the Cuyamaca system.

Upstream filings for water had been made under state law; downstream the city was pumping in the sands of the same river. Whether the city or the Cuyamaca Water Company had the superior right to the water of the river divided the town for years, reduced friends to enemies, delayed necessary improvements and involved the courts in deciding between conflicting rights and decrees originating in Spain and Mexico.

Twice in the past the Fletcher interests had offered to sell the Cuyamaca system to an uninterested city. At one time the city could have acquired all of its water rights, as well as the original flume system, for $300,000, and later, when Murray Dam had been built, for $745,000.

When the city finally turned its attention to the San Diego River watershed it selected a tentative site for a reservoir and obtained federal approval to flood some of the lands of the El Capitan Indian Reservation. Fletcher withdrew opposition on assurance the city was concerned only with impounding excess flood waters and would not interfere with his diversions in the upper river or challenge his claim to legal ownership of all the flow he could impound.

It soon became apparent to engineers that the El Capitan site at El Cajon Mountain, which was owned by the Cuyamaca Company, was the key to the entire river watershed. The city attorney, Shelley Higgins, fell back on a decade-old opinion written by a predecessor, T. B. Cosgrove, which concluded it could be established that, by virtue of Spanish colonial law, the city actually was lawfully entitled to all water of the river and all of its tributaries. Rights granted under the laws of Spain, he stated, had passed successively from Spain to Mexico to California, and hence to the United States by the treaty which ended the war with Mexico.

As it long had threatened to do, the city brought suit to establish its paramount rights and decided to proceed with construction of El Capitan reservoir and the necessary pipelines. After a conference which brought together two old antagonists, Fletcher and Spreckels, the Cuyamaca system was offered to the city for $1,400,000, which would have ended the dispute over rights and averted long and costly legal proceedings.

The sale was blocked by members of the City Council majority which told Fletcher, and a group of prominent citizens who appeared with him, that he and Murray had nothing of value to sell except a broken-down flume system without any water; that the city owned all the waters of the river and the Council was not going to buy something that already belonged to the people of San Diego.

Whether to proceed with El Capitan Dam, as recommended by the city attorney and the city manager of operations, Fred A. Rhodes, soon embroiled the town in controversy. A City Council majority supported the city attorney and Rhodes and brought about the dismissal of the city’s hydraulic engineer, Hiram Savage. Savage favored an alternate site in Mission Gorge on the same river but below El Capitan. The private consulting engineer retained by the city, John Freeman, did not believe the city could afford a costly dam at El Capitan and recommended that its construction be postponed for perhaps twenty years.

Voters at a special election were asked to decide whether they wanted to go ahead with an alternate dam in Mission Gorge. Mayor Bacon, the Citizens’ Water Committee and the Chamber of Commerce favored Mission Gorge. They were supported by Scripps’ San Diego Sun. Spreckels’ truce with Fletcher was at an end and he set his newspapers against the mayor and with the Council majority which favored building El Capitan. The community cooperation, for which Spreckels had pleaded in his talk before business leaders the year before, was forgotten. As regards El Capitan, Bacon said:

“It may be a better dam site for Spreckels, Heilbron or others that will have a chance to sell the city the material for the million-dollar pipe line, but the voters will know better than to take the advice of “engineer” Rhodes instead of that of such men as Freeman and Savage.”

The voters, however, on September 10, 1924, heavily rejected a bond issue to construct a dam in Mission Gorge.

The City Council rejected another offer to settle the river dispute in 1925. Soon afterward, the County Grand Jury indicted a councilman on charges of asking for and agreeing to accept bribes from Fletcher and Charles F. Steam. Fletcher’s partner, Murray, had died and his interests had been purchased by Steam, a resident of Los Angeles.

The indictment was based on incidents alleged to have taken place two years before. Fletcher and Stearn claimed that councilman Harry K. Weitzel had asked $100,000 to use his influence to have the Council buy the Cuyamaca system and $4000 for his influence in helping to bring about the annexation of East San Diego.

No money had been paid though the conversation had been recorded by Fletcher. Weitzel raised the question of why Fletcher and Steam had waited two years to bring the matter to public attention, and until after the collapse of the final negotiations over the purchase of their system. However, he was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. The verdict later was set aside by the State Supreme Court on the grounds that the state laws on bribing public officials did not embrace legislative officers.

Realizing that they now faced a protracted legal struggle over the site of the proposed dam and the rights of the Cuyamaca Water Company, Fletcher and Stearn turned about and agreed to sell the system to the La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Spring Valley Irrigation District for $1,201,980. Included in the sale was the site favored by the city for its proposed El Capitan Dam.

Conditions now had changed, and the city’s opponents were not private interests but neighboring communities in the metropolitan area which were as dependent as the residents of San Diego on the river and its water. Spreckels found himself opposed by the most influential and prominent citizens, who over the years had been in the forefront of civic planning and beautification. Among them were George W. Marston, S. M. Bingham, Melville Klauber, O. E. Darnall, Hugo Klauber, L. A. Wright, Milton Heller, Albert E. Scott, Alfred Haines, A. H. Frost, J. W. Sefton Jr., Mat F. Heller, G. Aubrey Davidson, A. S. Bridges and M. T. Gilmore, all of whom favored a compromise settlement.

Though he insisted he no longer had any financial interest in the outcome of the dispute, Fletcher urged his fellow citizens to reject any bonds for El Capitan Dam and accept the compromise settlement with the irrigation district:

“The compromise plan of the district is that they shall have an equitable supply of water from the San Diego River, which has been allocated to the district by the State of California. This will leave 15,000,000 gallons daily for San Diego City when the San Diego River is completely developed — certainly an equitable adjustment.

“The district now owns El Capitan reservoir site not the city. Neither can the city condemn said site as against the district. Whoever thought of borrowing money to build a house on another fellow’s lot which he can’t buy and can’t condemn? Vote “no”…and help to keep the city from making itself ridiculous.”

Under the influence of Spreckels the city attorney, the city manager, and a City Council majority, who argued that the failure to proceed might impair the city’s claims to paramount rights, the people rejected all suggestions of a compromise and on November 18, 1924, approved by a three-to-one margin a $4,500,000 bond issue for El Capitan Dam. But ten years would go by, and many billions of gallons of water would waste into the sea, before the dam finally would be built.

In preparation for a court trial, early settlers were questioned as to diversions and uses of river water. The history of Spain in America was studied and old archives searched. San Diego’s position was founded primarily on a prior California Supreme Court determination that Los Angeles City held paramount rights to waters within its boundaries as successor to the original Spanish pueblo, or town. Whether the Spaniards expected San Diego to remain a presidio, or military garrison, and not be raised to the status of a pueblo was the question at issue.

Attorneys for Fletcher and the irrigation district produced a document they had located in the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley. It was addressed to Fr. Junípero Serra, founder of the Franciscan Missions in California, and signed by Julio Ramon Mendoza, second secretary to the Spanish Viceroy of Mexico, Antonio María Bucareli y Ursúa, and approved by him on December 17, 1773. It authorized removal of the original San Diego Mission from Presidio Hill to a new site in Mission Valley and construction on the San Diego River of a dam and irrigation system. In the body of the document, it was stated:

“Referring to the specific purpose of this letter, and for the better understanding of Your Reverence, His Grace reposes herein a sacred trust in your integrity, and that of the Reverend Mission Fathers, to acquire and administer, by means of this Royal Concession and Privilege, the waters of aforesaid stream, for the common benefit of all the people, both Gentiles and converts, who now reside, or in the future may reside within the jurisdiction of Mission San Diego de Alcala. This concession, and the benefits thereof, is to be held for their sons, and the sons of their sons, and successors, for all time, forever.”

In carrying out their grant, and assuring a steady supply of water for the mission and its lands, the padres went up the river into Mission Gorge and near its head built a dam 224 feet long and thirteen feet high, which was to withstand the storms and floods of a century. A tiled aqueduct carried the stored water down the gorge for six miles.

The document from the viceroy took note of the existence of the presidio near the mouth of the river, but said this could not prejudice the water rights of the mission as there would always be sufficient water for the army. For the military’s lands and herds there was another river to the south where the King’s, or National Ranch, was located. This is now known as the Sweetwater River.

The “gentiles” to whom the document referred were pagan Indians. The assignment of water rights to them and to converted Indians was in the spirit of Spanish intentions that mission lands were being held in trust for the natives, and that when they were civilized, missions would be converted into self-governing pueblos. Mission San Diego administered more than 58,000 acres, all west of the presidio and a great proportion of it straddling the San Diego River.

It was the contention of Charles C. Crouch, attorney for Fletcher, that the water rights in the San Diego River had been formally withheld from the settlement at San Diego, and with the secularization or confiscation of the mission by the Mexican government, they had passed to land owners and to those who had filed for water under the laws of the State of California.

It was necessary for the city to remove all doubts about the settlement of San Diego, as to whether it was to be a pueblo or a presidio. Its own investigators produced a copy of the Plan of Pitic, which was an order describing the manner in which the pueblo of Pitic in the New World province of Sonora was to be established, and that the plan was to be extended to all other new pueblos. It provided that its boundaries should be marked out and, as translated by city attorney Higgins, it stated:

“…its pastures, woods, water privileges, hunting, fishery, quarries, fruit trees and other privileges shall be for the common benefit of the Spaniards and Indians residing therein, and its suburb or village…the residents and natives shall enjoy equally the woods, pastures, water privileges and other advantages of the royal and vacant lands that may be outside of the land assigned to the new settlement.”

The city contended that it was clear from the instructions given to Serra and to Captain Gaspar de Portola, leader of the Royal Expedition, that San Diego was to become a pueblo in the general plan for the colonization of California. However, a pueblo was not formally organized until the Mexican period when the old presidio had crumbled away and residents were living in Old Town at the foot of the hill. This was on December 21, 1834. The boundaries of the pueblo were vague but generally in keeping with Spanish regulations. These boundaries were officially accepted by the United States, after the defeat of Mexico, as being the lands of the City of San Diego. A large proportion of the original pueblo lands were still being held by the people at the time of the trial.

From old local histories, written memoirs and the direct testimony of early settlers, a pattern of continual use of water from the river was established as the means of survival of the settlement, from the time of the original presidio through the life of the pueblo. It could be argued that any water rights conveyed to the mission were intended to be held only in public trust, and died with the mission.

After many court maneuvers, a decision was handed down on December 7, 1926, by Superior Judge M. W. Conkling, of Imperial County, who had been designated by the governor to hear the case. Conkling held that the City of San Diego was the owner of the prior and paramount rights to the use of all the water. However, while denying that any of the city’s rights had been “lost or extinguished or forfeited” by a failure to challenge upper river diversions, he attempted to apportion the water by allotting water to the Cuyamaca Water Company on the basis of established use and because other communities and users had become dependent upon the water. This decision satisfied no one, and the case was carried to the California Supreme Court. Three more years would go by.

The rising boom of the Twenties, and the threat of another period of drought, emphasized the necessity of not only ending disputes over water rights but of assuring adequate supplies. Some of the personal power which a tiring Spreckels had exercised was passing to his son, Claus. The San Diego business leaders, including Fletcher and George Marston, who had felt his opposition, converted their weekly newspaper, the Independent, into a daily and sought to assert a new leadership.

With little prospect of constructing El Capitan in the foreseeable future, the city in 1925 adopted a recommendation of its manager of operations, Rhodes, that another private river storage and delivery system be acquired. This was the San Dieguito system from which the city already was getting water for La Jolla. It also had been privately developed by Fletcher for the Santa Fe Railroad but had passed into possession of the San Diego County Water Company controlled by the Henshaw interests. The city agreed to acquire Hodges and San Dieguito dams and reservoir lands and pipelines, and in addition the Pamo and Sutherland dam sites. The city also assumed the company’s previous commitments to the San Dieguito, Rancho Santa Fe and Del Mar areas. A year later voters approved a $2,000,000 bond issue to construct a dam at the Sutherland site and a diverting dam at San Vicente.

Even the drought of the Twenties failed to move Congress into action on the Swing-Johnson bill for construction of Boulder Dam and the All-American Canal. The farmers in Imperial Valley watched crops wither while for three years they drained a diminishing flow of the Colorado River. In 1925 a new six-state compact was submitted to the basin states, but a provision by the California Legislature that its ratification was subject to federal construction of a high dam, which meant one capable of producing hydroelectric power, threw the entire matter into dispute once more.

Water was becoming more valuable with the arrival of each new settler. In 1926 San Diego, acting on the claim it had filed five years previously and at the urging of Congressman Swing, formally applied to the State Division of Water Resources for a right to 112,000 acre feet annually from the Colorado River. There was no mention of right to power. At that time no determination had been made as to how water from the Colorado River would be delivered 200 miles to San Diego.

San Diego’s claim had been filed at the same point where the All-American Canal was expected to divert its water and carry it across the desert floor to the base of the mountains. There, San Diego’s share perhaps could be lifted and passed through tunnels and finally dropped into reservoirs of the streams of the western slopes. There were two other possibilities: the building of a separate conduit all the way to the river, or joining with Los Angeles in a metropolitan district with a common aqueduct which could be tapped where convenient.

The financial cost of such an undertaking might have seemed far beyond the reach of a town of barely 130,000 population, and Fletcher and many others insisted that San Diego should go ahead with developing all of its local sources. But the rain on which San Diego depended, and which Theodore Van Dyke said was the sweetest music to the ears of Southern California, would always be an unfinished symphony.