S.D. Water Politics, 19th-Century Style

Mayor Jerry Sanders had a clear message to send in his major speech last week: defeatists have always stood in the way of progress in San Diego.

Just think back 120 years ago, Sanders said, to when voters overwhelmingly passed a plan to bring water to the city. A “clever lawyer” was troubled by the pro-water vote and challenged it in court.

“So apparently,” Sanders said, “no idea is so good that it can’t attract an impassioned opposition.”

Fair enough. But Sanders, who relied on a brief account in a history book, missed the real story behind the epic 19th-century battle over bringing water to San Diego: In a mad dash for profit, wheeler-dealers fought each other in newspapers and the courthouse over who would control water.

In essence, the water wars weren’t so much over good ideas vs. bad ideas as over who’d get rich and who wouldn’t. Local moguls “knew it was a moneymaker, and whoever would control the water could control development,” said Iris Engstrand, history professor at the University of San Diego and co-editor of The Journal of San Diego History.

The problem then — as it is now — was that there’s water everywhere (just walk west) but barely a drop to drink. San Diego’s late 1880s boom times had gone bust, and its population has fallen to about 16,000. But our fair city’s residents still needed water to drink and, just as crucially, to help the city expand. Water from wells just wasn’t enough.

The San Diego Flume, seen here in background, brought water — and controversy — to San Diego from the mountains in East County.

Courtesy: The Journal of San Diego History

There apparently was indeed a water distribution plan on the ballot in 1890, which Sanders referred to in his speech. At issue was how to give the city access to the San Diego Flume, a 36-mile, six-foot-wide aqueduct carrying water from the mountains in East County to the city. However, details about the ballot measure are fuzzy, and it’s not clear exactly why the “clever” attorney opposed the election results.

Water issues percolated for a few more years until a full-scale water war broke out in 1896. By that time, the flume had a competitor, the Southern California Mountain Water Company, writes historian Gregg Hennessey, and bitter battle broke out over who would supply water to the city. It pitted the Union newspaper (which supported the water company) versus the Evening Tribune (which stood behind the flume).

The city’s few thousand voters were in the middle in 1896, and they went against the flume in a bond election. Free water certainly didn’t hurt the cause. As one historian put it, flume opponent Elisha Babcock “sent a tank car of his water around the Coronado Belt Line Railroad. … At all the way-stations, people came with pails and even cups and helped themselves free of charge. Then Babcock left the car standing at the foot of Fifth Street until it was empty.”

Then the lawsuits came, with the distributor of the flume water charging that hundreds of voters were ineligible or bribed. And the 1897 mayoral election rolled around, with water politics at the center of a rollicking campaign full of mudslinging, allegations of conspiracy and barbs over the idea of a municipal water system.

Workers build the San Diego Flume, a 36-mile aqueduct that brought water to San Diego a century ago and played a part in political battles. Courtesy: The Journal of San Diego History

The Tribune accused Babcock of being afraid of “honest municipal government” that would protect the citizenry against his water company’s evil ways. The Union accused a candidate of being a tool of the flume forces and complained of his “erratic disposition, excitability and general lack of balance.”

The water battles went on for years, with the “Flume gang,” as the Union sneered, emerging victorious.

In the early 20th century, however, the city finally took over the water distribution system and signed a contract with a supplier. This “marked the beginning of a new epoch in the city’s life,” a historian wrote at the time.

And so began another century or so of water disputes.

— RANDY DOTINGA

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