Southwest Water History – The American Canal – Part 1

Historically, water has always been a problem in the American southwest. In the 19th century, the problem was either too much water or too little. Too much came in the form of sporadic, intense storms producing uncontrollable flood waters which destroyed everything in its path. Too little resulted from prolonged drought conditions or attempts to irrigate cropland in areas where water wasn’t available.

imperial-valley-hundley-p-52
Image Source: Hundley, “Water and the West, p 52. See below for full reference. 

 

In the mid 1800’s, the 49’ers headed to California to seek their fortunes in the gold rush. Most of them were unsuccessful in their quest for riches but a few took note of promising lands along the way. One of those early pioneers was Dr. Oliver M. Wozencraft who made note of the fertile land area now known as the Imperial Valley.

Soil was good there. Its richness consistently replenished by erosional deposits from the Colorado River as it made its way to the ocean. Periodically the river tore through its upper banks, dumping silt into the Salton Sink basin which sits below sea level. The basin’s topography is unique. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides and bordered on the east by the Sonora Desert and on the north by the Colorado Desert. Due to the mountain ranges, rainfall is limited averaging only three inches per year. Yet the high temperatures, fertile soil and abundant sunlight were perfect conditions for agriculture. The problem was how to get water to crops.

Wozencraft saw great potential in the land. He connected with Ebenezer Hadley, a surveyor with San Diego County, to figure out a way to irrigate the land using the Alamo canal, an overflow channel of the Colorado River which flows through Mexico before heading back into the US. The reason for the canal diversion south of the border was to bypass “the large shifting sand dunes that separated the river from the valley on the American side of the border.”1

Unfortunately, his vision of a fertile land would never come to fruition. Mainly because he felt the need to own the land the irrigation canal would be built upon. His attempts to persuade the California legislature to support his request for a grant of 1,600 miles of public domain land were rejected by Congress. Ultimately, he “spent the remaining 25 years of his life and his entire personal fortune trying to convince Congress to change its mind.”2

Forty-three years later, Charles R. Rockwood saw the incredible potential of this same land. He, too, realized water was the key to its development and began planning a means to bring water to the area. He created the California Development Company and sought funding from financial centers in both America and Europe. He also “enlisted the help of famed engineer George Chaffey” to figure out a way to tap the river’s water and bring it inland to the valley.3

Similar to Wozencraft’s vision, Chaffey’s irrigation design fed water through the Alamo overflow canal for delivery to the US. Rockwood’s dream was realized on June 21, 1901 when the first water reached the valley. A land boom followed. “Within eight months, 2,000 settlers had arrived, the towns of Imperial and Calexico were laid out, 400 miles of canals and laterals were built and 100,000 acres readied for cultivation.”4 By 1909 the population swelled to 15,000 with 160,000 acres being irrigated.

In spite of its initial success, there were problems controlling the diversion route south of the border. Rockwood negotiated an agreement with border land owner Guillermo Andrade to purchase the 100,000 acres on which the canal sat. For payment, Andrade not only wanted cash but water rights. In fact, he demanded “all water necessary…for the irrigation of the other lands” he owned below the border which was over 600,000 acres.5 Rockwood agreed to Andrade’s rather tall order because he felt the increase in land value would more than compensate for the cost of the land and the canal system.

The initial success of the diversion canal would be short lived. The Rockwood-Andrade agreement ruffled the feathers of the Mexican government who became concerned the river flow might be reduced or exhausted by canal users. The Mexican ambassador complained to Washington about a possible treaty violation without success.

In the meantime, in the winter of 1903-1904, the intake for the Imperial Valley canal silted up and the flow of water never reached many residents. Crop losses and lawsuits ensued. More bad news would follow. In 1905, an usually wet winter and spring would result in 5 floods breaching the canal, allowing the Colorado River to pour into the area and decimate the cropland. Financial ruin would force Rockwood to turn over his California Development Company to the Southern Pacific Railroad for help.

Prior to the devastating flood waters, Rockwood had a series of political setbacks as well. He was feeling pressured by the newly formed Reclamation Service which was interested in building four large reservoirs along the Colorado River to reclaim 90,000 acres in Arizona’s Yuma Valley. The Reclamation Service wanted to include the Imperial Valley in its scheme to help reduce the overall cost involved. If the Reclamation Service was successful in its attempts, he would soon be out of business.

He scrambled to get the War Department to give him permission to divert the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley north of the border. Since the river was technically deemed navigable by the US, the War Department was the agency to deal with. The War Department refused saying “it could not approve projects already completed.”6 He appealed to Congress and was shot down.

Much to his dismay, to prevent the Reclamation Service from imposing upon him, he felt compelled to work out a deal with the Mexican government to cut an intake to the river. This deal included some extremely onerous conditions. The government demanded half of the water diverted and the authority to set the water rates for Mexican lands as well as specify where the water would be used. The Mexican government wouldn’t allow Rockwood to sell or partner with any foreign government. The arrangement was “subject only to Mexican judicial system and any appeal or grievance to a foreign power would terminate the agreement.”7 As a result, when the floods did hit, Rockwood could not ask the US Government for help. Instead he went to the Southern Pacific Railroad for assistance. He was fortunate they were willing to assist and had the resources to do so.

Ultimately, the flood event proved to be too much to bear, even for the Southern Pacific. The company went into receivership with both Mexican and American creditors. Chaos ensued with both sides of the border wanting different things. The canal system went unmanaged for years and was left to deteriorate as all sides worked through the complicated receivership process.

Valley residents were understandably upset. They had grown tired of the onerous conditions imposed by the Mexican government and the inability of Rockwood’s company to manage water delivery. They demanded public ownership of the water supply system. Furthermore, they wanted to avoid any further overreach of the Mexican government. They wanted an “All American Canal.”

 

References

The primary reference for this article was “Water and the West – The Colorado River Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West” by Norris Hundley, Jr. Most points are paraphrased. Direct quotes are referenced below.

  1. Hundley, Norris Jr. “Water and the West – The Colorado River Compact and the Politics of Water in the American West”, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975, p. 20.
  2. Ibid, Hundley, p. 20
  3. Ibid, Hundley, p. 21
  4. Ibid, Hundley, p. 21
  5. Ibid, Hundley, p. 22
  6. Ibid, Hundley, p. 25
  7. Ibid, Hundley, p. 26

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