The Rising Tide, 1920-1941


When World War II began, the population of San Diego City had reached the predictions of what it would be in 1950. San Diego had been warned that when the population reached 260,000 and all its local sources had been developed, it should begin the long undertaking of going to the Colorado River for additional water. By 1944 the city’s population was estimated to be 286,000 and it was expected to go over 320,000 in another year.

War-oriented companies operated around the clock. Consolidated’s production of B-24 bombers jumped to a peak of 253 a month and a total of 6724 of them were to come off the lines at two San Diego plants. San Diego, which for so long had resented living in the shadow of Los Angeles, had become a city with industry but it was in an advancing technology that would continue to contribute to a different and individual course of development.

All military establishments in San Diego were expanded. The Navy spread out to Camp Elliott on Kearny Mesa north of San Diego, developed an Amphibious Base on the Coronado Strand, and took over some of the exposition buildings in Balboa Park. The Marines acquired more than 123,000 acres of historic Rancho Margarita in northern San Diego County. The Army established Camp Callan on Torrey Pines Mesa.

A county-wide shortage of water was imminent. As it was a center of the war effort, a lack of water could prove disastrous. The Navy became alarmed. In 1943 the federal government entered into an agreement with the city and county to determine the most feasible method of obtaining additional water, whether by a connection with the Metropolitan Aqueduct or by way of the All-American Canal.

Little attention had been paid at the time to the fact that when the city filed for Colorado River water it also had included the “county of San Diego.” This enabled the inclusion of the entire county in a County Water Authority organized in 1944. That same year President Roosevelt appointed a committee on San Diego water problems, which included Phil Swing, general counsel for the San Diego County Water Authority.

It soon became apparent that it was too late to consider the massive pumping system that would be needed to raise the water over or through the mountains from the All-American Canal to San Diego, or to build additional reservoirs entirely dependent on rainfall and which could not be filled even by the runoff of a number of successive wet years.

Before the year had ended Roosevelt sent a message to the Senate asking that it approve the report of the Committee on San Diego Water Problems and announced that he had directed the immediate construction by the Navy Department of a pipeline connecting the San Diego water system with the Metropolitan Aqueduct. Hearings were held in the Senate by a committee headed by Senator Sheridan Downey of California. Downey had lived down his support of Ham and Eggs and was taking leadership of California’s legislative fights for water from the failing hands of Senator Johnson.

The War Production Board, however, interposed objections on the grounds of material shortages and asked for a year’s delay. Conference followed conference and finally it was agreed that work should begin within ninety days. The first construction contract was awarded by the Navy Department on May 18, 1945.

The city of San Diego entered into an agreement to assure completion of the line regardless of when the war might be terminated. In 1946 voters of the city and county approved the transfer of the San Diego-Navy contract to the San Diego County Water Authority and the merger of the authority with the Metropolitan Water District. On December 11, 1947, the new aqueduct was dedicated and put into operation. The population of the city was estimated to be 367,000 and that of the county, 575,000. Even though there had been an average of almost sixteen inches of rain in six seasons, almost six inches above normal, if it had not been for the aqueduct San Diego would have been entirely out of water in 1947.

Before the war was over, however, Senators Downey and Johnson had lost California’s battle to reduce the claims Mexico was making on the water of the Colorado River. The United States Senate approved a treaty which granted Mexico 1,500,000 acre feet of water annually. It was agreed the nations should share the waters of the Cottonwood-Tia Juana river system. It soon became apparent that the “last water hole” of the West would not be able to assure the future of Southern California, and the reach for water turned to new sources in the rain country of the distant north.

The war brought about a revolution in many phases of the economic and social life in all of California. And what of San Diego, and the conflicting aspirations of several generations, as to what kind of a city it should become?

Thousands of men who passed through the various military establishments, or visited the harbor on Navy ships, could not forget the climate or the setting between the bays and promised themselves that someday they would return. In this they were no different from the seamen of the days of the sailing ships who had seen the port as otter fur hunters or hide traders. And the thousands who came for war-time jobs, over the railroads and highways that followed the trails of the covered wagons of earlier migrations, also were to remain, as the others had before them.

Industry also had come. Those who had favored smokestacks over geraniums had won out in a civic struggle that had lasted seventy-five years. But those who had favored geraniums had not lost either. As a few of its more foresighted people had known, smokestacks and geraniums could exist side by side.