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San Diego has a History of Water Challenges

One question in particular has troubled arid Southern California for over two centuries. It is the question of water, so fundamental, so obvious -- and so lacking. We have learned that whoever control

One question in particular has troubled arid Southern California for over two centuries. It is the question of water, so fundamental, so obvious – and so lacking. We have learned that whoever controls our water controls our destiny. 

In the earliest days, the native Kumeyaay and other bands knew they couldn’t count on the unpredictable rainfall in this semi-desert, so they controlled their water through an irrigation system.   

When the Spaniards traveled north from Mexico in 1769 to establish a system of Missions, they arrived in San Diego starving, dehydrated and almost dead. They survived only because the generous Kumeyaay hauled water from the San Diego River and nursed the ragtag band to health. The Spaniards eventually repaid their kindness by taking their land, their liberty and, because they were no fools, their water. 


The mission padres built dams, aqueducts and storage systems for water from the San Diego and San Luis Rey rivers. Everyone – priests, farmers, ranchers, natives – was entitled to water. No one was entitled to waste it. 

But as the area grew and became more prosperous in the 1870s, wasting water became fashionable. San Diego’s iconic founding father Alonzo Horton, for one, created a large, lush garden with his own private well water, which he assumed would always flow freely. It didn’t.

Entrepreneurs like the Kimball Brothers saw their chance to direct and control the water supply. They built a reservoir, dam and distribution system to get water to the South Bay, especially to National City where they just happened to live. While in the North County, a private company diverted San Dieguito River water to San Pasqual Valley farms. For farmers, the big money was in citrus, which took a whole lot of water. But then, so did people. By 1880, nearly 9,000 county residents were competing with orange trees for water. The answer seemed to be more and bigger water companies with more elaborate delivery systems. 

In 1886 The San Diego Flume Company built the Cuyamaca Dam more than 50 miles away from the city. It moved water to a flume, which took it 18 miles to La Mesa, where it was piped into San Diego. 

Other private companies searched farther and farther afield for water. Sugar baron John D. Spreckels added water baron to his resume when he built the foundation of much of today’s county-wide system. Ed Fletcher talked the railroad into financing Lake Hodges Dam and pipelines to the coast. It was hardly a coincidence that both Fletcher and the railroad owned property in and around Del Mar, which suddenly became habitable. 


As private companies elbowed each other in the eye over water rights, the City of San Diego at last jumped into the pool itself, creating a municipal water system in 1901. It was the beginning of the end for the private companies.

Today all our water flows through 24 governmental water agencies, each jousting with its counterparts and competitors across the arid West. Nearly three million people live in San Diego County, but 80 percent of the water we use is imported from the Colorado River and Sacramento Delta. The San Diego County Water Authority wants to drop that figure to just 20 percent by 2020. How? Through maximizing local sources: the Imperial Valley water exchange, lining the All-American canal, better capture of surface water, conservation, recycling and even desalination.

But as our sunny paradise attracts more people, more development, more lawns, more golf courses, these measures won’t be enough and the fundamental question asked by the Kumeyaay still hangs in the air: who will control and manage our water so that we have enough for everyone? The only conclusion is that we control our own destiny. Each of us and all of us. Final answer.