History of Irrigation in the Imperial Valley,

Imperial Valley, Ca.


The story of the Imperial Valley is synonymous with the dream of irrigating the desert. In 1859, Dr. O.M. Wozencraft, who had originally come to California seeking gold in the Gold Rush in 1849, prevailed upon the California State Legislature to grant him the rights to 1,600 square miles of the Salton Sink as a destination for a canal carrying water from the Colorado River. His goal was irrigation for farm lands and water for inhabitants of the Colorado Desert Valley. His plans were interrupted by the Civil War, but his cause was taken up by Mr. C.R. Rockwood in 1892.

Rockwood was an engineer originally employed by the Arizona and Sonora Land and Irrigation Company to determine if it was possible to irrigate land in Sonora, Mexico using Colorado River water. Finding this idea unproductive, he investigated Wozencraft's plan to irrigate the Salton Basin and use the Salton Sink as a destination for canal drainage. The Arizona and Sonora Land and Irrigation Company changed its name to the Colorado River Irrigation Company and authorized Rockwood to conduct detailed surveys to plan the project. The money to proceed however, did not materialize. Rockwood sued to gain title to the data he had developed in 1894, and reformed the company into the California Development Company, with Mr. A.H. Heber, a Chicago promoter, as President, and himself as Vice President. But funding remained elusive.



Kevin Starr, in his book, "Material Dreams, California through the 1920s," says "In the spring of 1899, Mrs. Heber pawned her personal jewelry to send Rockwood on another futile fund-raising expedition." The project began to fall apart.

Enter George Chaffey, a Canadian engineer. After an initial career as a designer of ships for the Great Lakes shipping trade, he and his brother William came to California, and formed Chaffey Brothers, a partnership focused on land-development and irrigation projects in Southern California. Their accomplishments include the development of the Cucamonga Plain, later to become Rancho Cucamonga, and the formation of the Etiwanda Water Company. Purchasers of lots were given shares in the water company according to acreage owned. This water company created a standard for all other water companies doing business in the west. The Chaffey Brothers' system of establishing irrigation pipes and a delivery system to lots which they then offered for sale became a trademark of their community developments.

At Cucamonga, not only did they deliver water, but they installed a hydroelectric generator at the head of the irrigation works, which then provided electricity. The list of the Chaffey brothers' accomplishments is a long one, and includes the creation of the Los Angeles Electric Company and the establishment of irrigation colonies in Australia. The Australian government at the time however, held the position that water delivery should be a public function, not a private investment, and the Chaffeys did not make a financial success of their Australian ventures. So George Chaffey returned to California, which was good news for the California Development Company.

Chaffey's Australian experiences led him to believe that Rockwood's irrigation project could succeed. At the time, water was imported by rail from Coachella Valley, severely limiting habitation in the area. But "when it became known that the area was going to be developed, many people moved into the desert valley. Five townsites were surveyed..." (The Journal of San Diego History, Winter 1975, Volume 21, Number 1, When the Imperial Valley Fought for its Life, By Robert L. Sperry). Landowners were assessed for shares in mutual water companies, assuring their rights to delivery of water to their parcels, and raising money for the construction of the canals.

Dredging was begun in 1900 and construction on the canal in 1901. The gate was built at

"Pilot Knob, nearly opposite Yuma... Putting in a head gate there, they carried their main canal southward across the Mexican boundary, in a course nearly parallel with the river, until they reached the dry overflow channel known as the Alamo. As this ancient watercourse meandered westward in the direction of the Salton Sink, they were able to clear it out, enlarge it, and utilize most of it as a part of their irrigation system. Then, at a point about forty miles west of the Colorado, they carried their canal northward, across the boundary line again, into California."
(The Salton Sea, California's Overlooked Treasure, by Pat Laflin)

The City of El Centro's Chamber of Commerce website states, "In 1901, few white men inhabited the Imperial Valley other than the surveyors working on the canals. In four years, by 1905, the residents numbered 12,000. Irrigated acreage had increased from 1,500 acres to 67,000 acres." The Southern Pacific Railroad built tracks into the Imperial Valley. The area was booming in spite of concerns by the United States Bureau of Reclamation, which informed the farmers that the California Development Company was without financial resources, and could become insolvent in an emergency.

And unforeseen problems arose. The original gate which controlled the flow from the Colorado River into the canal, whether by poor design or heavy silt deposits, ended up being 5 feet above the Colorado River much of the time. A weir - a floating mass of brush creating an artificial sandbar - was built just beyond the gate that elevated the river level enough to cause its flow into the irrigation canal. This was only a temporary solution however. Meanwhile silt was building up in the canal.

There are conflicting accounts about the reasons Rockwood had for building a 3,300 foot cut through alluvial fill in Mexico without building a control gate.

One version says that the Mexican government was putting pressure on the United States to allow water from the Colorado River to be diverted to Mexico, and that the California Development Company was required by an agreement with the US Government to put in place and be financially responsible for flood control measures, but any building of such devices had to be approved by Mexican engineers. Under pressure to deliver water, Rockwood created an open river cut, but without any control gate. The control gate was yet to be approved by the Mexican engineers when heavy floods in 1905 broke through the channel and into the Imperial Valley. (The Journal of San Diego History, Winter 1975, Volume 21, Number 1, When the Imperial Valley Fought for its Life, By Robert L. Sperry)

Other people believe it was a political action by Chaffey in order to "thwart the Reclamation Service and the War Department in their statement that the Colorado River was a navigable river and that, therefore filings under state laws for irrigation purposes were null and void." (Conquest of a Continent by Theodore M. Banta)

Whatever the real reason, the cut was made. Rockwood believed it to be safe as his research showed the river had only three minor floods in the previous 27 years.

The year 1905 was an unusual year - in the winter alone there were five floods, prompting attempts by the Rockwood's engineers to close the cut that had no control gate. Attempts to build dams were washed away, and the cut widened to 150 feet. Then the river began to eat away at the banks of the cut. On August 9th, the Colorado River turned 180 degrees and started filling the Salton Sink.

The California Development Company did not have the resources to cope with the flooding. The US Government rejected any request for assistance as the cut, the source of the flooding, was in Mexico. That left the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, which had an interest in controlling the river, as its tracks were flooded. The railroad contributed money after making a deal to insert its own managers into the administration of the California Development Company. Rockwood was made Chief Engineer and stayed with the company until 1906.

1906 saw a series of attempts to control the Colorado River. Dams were built, but the river flooded over them. Plans were made to install gates, so the cut could be fixed during a low water period, but the low water period didn't come. Personnel was a problem. Sperry, in his When the Imperial Valley Fought for its Life, reported that the Federal Government, and Mexico moved "the men, women, and children of six Indian Tribes ... to the area. The Pimas, Papagos, Maricopas and Yumas from Arizona, and the Cocopahs and Dieguenos from Mexico were established in a new village of over 2,000 persons..."

It was an epic battle. The cut in the river had grown to 2,700 feet. A series of three dams built in October and November of 1906 brought the river back to its old pattern, away from the Salton Sea, but these too were washed away in December as the Gila overflowed into the Colorado near Yuma, sending its water flooding into the Imperial Valley. President Theodore Roosevelt himself exchanged telegrams with Mr. E. H. Harriman, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. It was feared the Laguna Dam might be lost if the Colorado was not brought under control. Harriman was the real hero of the hour. Despite Roosevelt's vague assurances that he would recommend legislation to reimburse the Southern Pacific Railroad when Congress reconvened, Harriman continued with the the effort to close the breach and save the Imperial Valley.

Pile bridges were built over the vast breach by the Southern Pacific Railroad crews, followed by trains diverted from all over the west, drawing tons of rocks, boulders and fill material, all poured into the gap. February 11, 1907 was the date the river began flowing back towards the Gulf of Mexico. In 1909, the Colorado

Hoover Dam, completed in 1935, and the construction of the All-American Canal, which flowed solely through United States territory, and was completed in 1942, ultimately sealed the safety of the Imperial Valley. In the end, the South Pacific Railroad Company was reimbursed only $1,012,665, about a third of its actual cost, and then not until 1923.

El Centro Chamber of Commerce
San Diego Historical Society
A History of Etiwanda by Robert L. Hickcox Chairman, Historic Preservation Commission Published by City of Rancho Cucamonga Community Services Department
The Salton Sea, An Account of Harriman's Fight with the Colorado River, by George Keenan, and published by The Machlfflan Company in 1917
The Journal of San Diego History, Winter 1975, Volume 21, Number 1, When the Imperial Valley Fought for its Life, By Robert L. Sperry



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