Water rationing in California has a long, tough history

The cascades in Sylmar. LA Observed photo.

By Josh Sides

Southern Californians are atwitter about their lawns, but the California State Water Board's new regulation, forbidding a whole host of wasteful practices, is long overdue. Also long overdue is the $500 fine for violating the new regulation, though some are already decrying these efforts as an intrusion of the so-called "Nanny State." But surely critics would agree that a $500 fine is preferable to being shamed, jailed, exiled, or even executed for their wastefulness. And yet, those are some of the precise punishments visited upon water wasters in the history of California.

Before Europeans arrived here, Native Californians raised no livestock nor did they cultivate any major crops, and the size of their population was close to that of modern-day Stockton. And yet, they were profoundly aware of the region's water scarcity. In addition to performing elaborate ceremonies invoking rain, they also viewed water wasters with deep contempt. In their "enemy songs," for example, the Cahuilla of Southern California taunted their enemies in hydrological terms: "In the middle of the desert lands, lying on his back . . . his food gave out, his water gave out." More to the point, the Gabrielinos exiled, and sometimes executed, community leaders who mismanaged water and food supplies. Southern California natives used tar deposits to carefully seal their water vessels for maximum efficiency, and the practice was more than one of convenience: It was one of survival.

When the Spanish arrived in 1769, they utterly transformed the natural landscape of California, introducing large-scale agricultural cultivation, primitive irrigation systems, and livestock raising. It was their production of beef, in particular, that set California on a new and dangerous path toward the overconsumption of water. The state's native coastal grasses had long ago adapted to drought, but they were no match for vast herds of grazing cattle. The death of thousands of head of Mission cattle during the drought years of 1809 and 1820 apparently imparted no lessons to the Mexicans Californios, who won their independence from Spain in 1821.

Rather than diversifying their agricultural production, becoming less reliant on the American and European trade in hides and tallow, or significantly altering their own diets and customs, the Californios, instead, doubled-down on cattle. They vastly expanded grazing pasturage, even in dry years, because the money was good. Indeed, the Californio cattle barons of the 1830s and 1840s achieved a level of material comfort and prominence that would have been unimaginable in Mexico proper. But they paid a heavy cost - hidden at first - in water: collectively, the Californios and the incoming Americans owned 1.2 million head of cattle by 1860, each of which drank about 20 gallons a day on average. For some perspective, that's roughly equivalent to the DWP rupture at UCLA, occurring every single day. And that doesn't include the water required to grow the feed, alfalfa — which, then and now, is one of the state's largest and most water intensive crops.

The Californios (and their American ranchero imitators) did not fully appreciate the high price of their lifestyle until the devastating drought years of 1862-1864. The drought killed off at least 20% of their herd, decimating the main pillar of the livestock economy at the very moment Californios were being subjected to racist practices that would soon relegate them to the bottom rungs of California's new socioeconomic ladder. Meanwhile, Anglo newcomers to the state scooped up water where they could. Wildly successful enterprises like the Miller and Lux cattle company secured rights to entire rivers, and mid-level players formed conglomerates that allowed them to irrigate the Central Valley, which soon became the breadbasket of the nation.

But it was the homesteaders of California, the forgotten strivers, who evinced the first serious understanding of water scarcity, and the very modest lifestyle these circumstances engendered. More than 58,000 Americans and recent immigrants claimed land in California under President Lincoln's landmark 1862 Homestead Act, granting one hundred and sixty acres to any man or woman willing to "prove up" the land over five years by building a house and making nominal improvements. There were more than three thousand homesteading families in Los Angeles County, most of whom claimed land between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century on the fringes of the city, in the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains, and in the Antelope Valley. For these families, one hundred and sixty acres could be as burdensome as it was bountiful. Though many failed, many more subsisted as small farmers, producing a variety of crops to sustain themselves, often with a few bushels left over to sell at local markets. As the records of the Los Angeles courts (housed at the Huntington Library) reveal, the homesteaders of Los Angeles often died with little more than their land. But they could say something most Angelenos, both then and now, couldn't say: they understood water.

They understood water because its absence circumscribed their endeavors and their comfort, and they persisted in rationing, even into the era of the Owens Valley Aqueduct, when most Angelenos thoughtlessly planted lawns en-masse. Out in the hinterlands, the homesteaders had no appetite for superficial amenities like green grass. More to the point, the adjudication of competing claims to water rights kept them in check. For example, when an irrigation district in the Antelope Valley tried to sue San Gabriel mountain homesteader Abram Shoemaker and his son in 1893 for slaking off too much water from Big Rock Creek before it flowed into the irrigation district, Superior Court Judge (and future California Supreme Justice) Lucien Shaw ruled that the Shoemaker's had as much right to take water from the Creek as the irrigation district did. After roughly calculating what the Shoemakers needed to survive, he set very precise limits on what they could consume. They were allowed one hundred and fifty inches of water under four inch pressure for ten days per month in April, May, June, July, and August and then the same amount for 3-4 days a month in September, October, November, and then none from December through March, meaning that they would have ration and store their supply. The Shoemakers could comply or face jail time. They chose the former.

Judge Shaw was no hydrologist; he simply understood what the indigenous people of California did. First, rationing was essential, even in wet years. Second, punishment, rather than voluntary compliance, was always more effective in producing behaviors appropriate to the realities of the regional environment. Today, we've been spoiled by the Owens Valley aqueduct, spoiled by the Colorado River, and spoiled by the promises of our turf fertilizers. We deserve a stiff punishment.

Josh Sides is a professor of history at California State University Northridge and a current Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Huntington Library.

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