California Water Timeline: 600 – 1889

Before Europeans – Scant records suggest California’s indigenous populations practice dry farming and water redirection. The Paiutes built temporary dams with boulders, brush and mud. Shallow ditches redirected water flow.
600  –  Ancestral Pueblo and Hohokam Indians develop water distribution systems in the Colorado River Basin.
1500  –  Spanish explorers introduce livestock and ditch systems called acequias in the Colorado River basin.
1769 – First permanent Spanish settlements established. Water rights established by Spanish law. The Crown owned all water rights. Populations small but water in short supply. Rule of prior appropriation (priority rights to those who first use a water source for beneficial means). Water usage was heavily restricted (e.g. only allowed to irrigate 10% of land). Spanish law reflected in current laws, which are blend of prior appropriation and riparian (equal) rights.
1772  –  First recorded sighting of the Bay Delta by Spanish explorers.
The Mexican War of Independence results in a transfer of power from Spain to Mexico over the region now known as California.
1813  –  Hoping to improve agriculture yields, the Franciscan missionaries organize construction of the first water engineering project on the west coast of the United States with a dam crossing the San Diego River.
1825  –  
California becomes a territory of the Mexican republic.
 –  Winter brings more than 32 inches of rain. The Guadalupe River overflows its banks and floods San Jose’s dirt streets creating a muddy mess.
1846  –  The Donner Party is stranded in the Sierra just weeks after the Harlan-Young Party make it through the mountains to settle in the Santa Clara Valley.
1847  –  Mormons arrive in the Salt Lake Valley; begin cultivating farmland.
1848 – Gold discovered on the American River. Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo signed, California ceded from Mexico, California republic established.
1849 -1850: Gold discovered in the Lower Klamath Basin. Farms and ranches established in the Scott and Shasta valleys.
1849 –  Gold is discovered at Sutter’s Mill, CA.  The Gold Rush Prospectors redirect water with ditches and flumes.
1849 –  Levee construction begins at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
1849  – Settlers begin farming in the Delta.
1849  – The California Constitutional Convention directs the Surveyor General to study water management.
1850 – California admitted to Union. Construction begins on Delta levees and channels.
1850  –  Reuben Kercheval successfully lobbies Sacramento City Council to build the first levee near Sutterville to protect farmlands from Sacramento River flooding.

1850 – California population is 92,597
1851 – Brigham Young, sensing inevitable conflict with the American government, sends disciples cross the San Bernardinos. They begin to irrigate the arid basin now known as the Inland Empire.
1853 – Hydraulic Mining begins. River channels become increasing clogged with debris, increasing flooding.
1853  –  San Diego River is diverted from San Diego Harbor into False Bay (Mission Bay) under the harbor improvement plan of Lt. George Derby.  The “Derby Dike” failed after two years and the river returned to depositing sediment into San Diego Bay until another levee was constructed in 1876.
  –  The first well is sunk in San Jose in late January. Water is struck at just 80 feet. The ensuing eruption of water rises 10 feet above ground.
1853 – William P. Blake, a geologist, took barometric readings which proved that the Imperial Valley was below sea level and could be irrigated by a gravity-flow canal diverting from the Colorado River.
1855 – Appropriative rights upheld and the first market for water was set up with the sale of water to miners.
1855  –  Klamath River Reservation established on the Lower Klamath River.
1856  –  
French agriculturist Pierre Pellier discovers the soil in the Santa Clara Valley is perfect for raising French prunes.
1858  –  San Francisco City Water Works lays the first iron pipelines that will become the foundation of the city’s water distribution system.

1860 – California population is 379,994
1860 – Legislature authorizes the formation of levee and reclamation districts.
1860The Climatology Theory, Rain Follows the Plow, takes hold, convincing Americans that the activity of agriculture will increase rainfall levels in the arid West.
1861: Dr. Oliver M. Wozencraft hired an engineer to take a survey and recommend a location for a canal. He later pushed for legislation in Congress to authorize the development of the Imperial Valley.
1861  –  Reclamation  District Act authorized, allowing drainage of Delta lands and construction of sturdier flood control levees.
1861  –  Storms dump 30 inches of rain on San Diego. Statewide the storms destroy 25% of California’s taxable property.
1862 – Major flood in Sacramento Valley inundates new city.
1862  –  
The Guadalupe River floods in San Jose.
1864  –  Hoopa Valley Tribe and Klamath Tribes cede most of their lands for settlement but retain large reservations.
1864  –  Successive years of light rains bring severe drought to San Diego.
1864  –  
The San Jose-San Francisco Railroad is completed which allows Santa Clara County’s growers to ship fruit and vegetables to the San Francisco produce market.
1865  –  Lower Colorado River lands begin to be set aside for American Indians.
1868  –  Two farmers dig first irrigation ditch in the Upper Klamath Basin.
1858  –  San Francisco City Water Works lays the first iron pipelines that will become the foundation of the city’s water distribution system.
1868  –  Los Angeles lays the first iron pipelines that will become the foundation of the city’s water distribution system.
1868  –  Los Angeles sinks its first artesian well to draw on ground water near what is now the city of Compton. Farmers use the water for irrigation.
1869 – First transcontinental Railroad reaches the west. California begins exporting crops, increasing the need for agricultural water.
1869-71: John Wesley Powell explores the Colorado River by boat; issues report in 1875.

1870 – California population is 560,247
1870 – Rudimentary Groundwater extraction begins.
1871 – First reported construction of a dam on Lake Tahoe.
1871 – Luther and Eliza Tibbets bring two naval seedless oranges to Riverside, launching California’s citrus industry.
1871  –  The first wells are sunk in downtown (new town) San Diego.
1871 – John Muir first visits Hetch Hetchy
1873  –  H.M. Covert and Jacob Gruendike initiate the first major waterworks since mission days forming San Diego Water Company on January 20.
1873 – John Muir first writes about the beauty of “Hetch Hetchy Valley,” in the Boston Weekly Transcript, March 25, 1873, an article later expanded in the Overland Monthly in the same year.
1875  –  Increasing demands for water lead San Diego Water Company to tap water from Mission Valley. The first pumps raise water to a reservoir in University Heights.
1877 – Desert Land Act and Casey Act 1894
(Meant to strength small farmers but back-fired. Effectively strengthened land barons.)
1877  –  Severe drought. A dike across the San Diego River is completed allowing some of the run-off of the river to be diverted into the city’s water system.
1878 – John Wesley Powell of the US Geological Survey produced “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region for the United States” claiming insufficient water for irrigation in California.
1879  –  The striped bass is brought by rail from the East Coast to the Delta.

1880  – California population is 864,694
1880 – First flood control plan for the Sacramento Valley developed by State Engineer William Hammond Hall.
1881  –  
Running water is directed through pipes to Santa Clara Valley residents for the first time.
1882 – City of San Francisco begins to consider Hetch Hetchy Valley as one of several places for the location of a reservoir.
1882 – Farmers begin irrigating in the Klamath Basin. The Linkville Water Ditch Company is incorporated and a shallow canal is dug connecting Linkville (Klamath Falls) town lots to Link River above present day Klamath Falls. 
1880’s – During the early days, Klamath County homesteaders near Bonanza begin using native fish called suckers for fertilizer and oil. They attempt to get laws passed to prevent American Indians, who have fished for suckers for centuries, from catching them.
1892  –  
About 100 new wells are drilled yearly in the Santa Clara Valley.
1884 – Federal Circuit Court decision in Woodruff v. North Bloomfield requires termination of hydraulic mining debris discharges into California rivers.
1884 – Valenicia Oranges Grown in San Bernardino go on display at World’s Fair inspire thousands to move to Los Angeles, and the arid state of California.
1886 – Riparian and prior appropriation rights clashed in legal conflict (Lux vs. Haggin) resulting in a mixture of the two methods being recognized.
(Big water/land grab by major land owners. Move to establish irrigation districts by small land owners.)
1887 – Wright Act created public irrigation districts.
1887  –  San Diego Reservoir is constructed in what is now Presidio Park. Water pumped from Mission Valley supplies the reservoir which has a four million gallon capacity. It remains in use until 1912.
1887 – Turlock Irrigation District becomes first irrigation district formed under the Wright Act.
1887  –  First hydroelectric plant in the west opens in San Bernardino.
1887 – Charles and Rufus Moore excavate a canal on the west side of the Link River to furnish power to a sawmill and float logs down from Upper Klamath Lake. The brothers build a second canal to irrigate gardens and orchards in west Klamath Falls.
1888  –  California State court rules Klamath River Reservation abandoned, opening the lower river to non-Indian commercial fishing overseen by The state of California.
1888 –  The city of San Francisco begins piping water from 30 miles away.
1888  –  Sweetwater Reservoir is completed in southern San Diego County.
1889  –  The 35.6-mile San Diego Flume is completed at a cost of about one million dollars. The flume, a series of five tunnels and 315 redwood trestles, carries water from Cuyamaca Mountain to the University Heights reservoir.
1890“The War and Weather“, By J Edward Powers, is published. Powers demonstrates that the ongoing Indian Wars are changing the climate of the American West. The noise of violence and genocide is increasing moisture, encouraging further colonization.

1890   – California population is 1,213,398
1890 – Yosemite National Park is established, including Yosemite Valley’s less famous cousin, Hetch Hetchy.
1890  – San Francisco Mayor James Phelan first proposes damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley to create a reservoir for San Francisco.
1891  –  Determination that the Yurok Tribe had abandoned its reservation is reversed and the old Klamath River Reservation is attached to the Hoopa Valley Reservation.
1892 – Conservationist John Muir founds Sierra Club.
1892  –  Colorado River water transported across Continental Divide into Eastern Colorado through the Grand Ditch – the river’s first transbasin diversion project.
1895 – World’s first long- distance transmission of electric power(22miles),from a 3,000 kW hydropower plant at Folsom to Sacramento.
1895  –  
Flooding occurs in the Santa Clara Valley.
1895  –  La Mesa Dam in San Diego County is completed. In 1918 it is superceded by a larger dam which forms Lake Murray.
1897-1899: The Santa Clara Valley receives less than 7 inches of rain, half its average rainfall. Farmers become concerned about irrigation, which is indispensable to the valley’s fresh fruit industry.

more california water timelines icon

1850 – 1889 … A growing need for water

1900 – 1949 … Reclamation & Realization

1950 – 1999 … Big projects & legislation

2000 – present … Challenges on all fronts

The timelines above were complied by
Anders Tomlinson from the following sites:

California Water Chronology  … UCSD Water Economics

Water, CA Media BookWater Education Foundation

Imperial Valley Irrigation DistrictSacramento-San Joaquin-Delta

Klamath Basin ChronologyColorado River Timeline

San Diego Water HistorySanta Clara County Water History

Hetch Hetchy TimelineMetropolitan Water District

©2014 Anders Tomlinson, all rights reserved.