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A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County



Sol P. Elias

Modesto, Cal.









pg. 31




The West Side Irrigation District



While the residents of the central portions of Stanislaus were striving to secure water for their lands, the citizens of the west side of the San Joaquin river were equally zealous of procuring the benefits of irrigation for their territory.


Experience had demonstrated that over a period of years, owing to the pronounced aridity of this territory, the rain fall on the West Side was considerably less than that of the central and eastern portions of the county, the fluctuations of the seasons more uncertain and production more precarious. This was clearly shown by the Commissioners appointed by the Governor of the State in 1876 in the report which they were required to make to him on the West Side Irrigation District.


This report was made in February, 1877. It was shown that for the period of eight years preceding, there had been two good crops, one fair crop, two that hardly paid the expenses of the harvest, and three total failures on the west side of the San Joaquin river. J. R. McDonald, one of the pioneers of the West Side, for many years a resident of Grayson, an ardent and active advocate of irrigation, the prime mover in the effort to secure water for this area, the President of the Board of Commissioners, and unquestionably the inspiration of the report, used the following language;


“Grayson is about the center of the district from north to south. The amount of rainfall invariably decreases going south; and it is a known fact that the rain fall is always much less on the west side of the San Joaquin than east of the river. This year (1876), the rain fall at Grayson has been, to March 1st, only 2.75 inches, and south of that point, hardly enough to lay the dust. There is hardly a remote chance of any crop being made and even the stock will die out, or must be removed to other grazing lands.


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Under these circumstances it becomes an absolute necessity to provide water for the lands of the district or to abandon farming.”


The first definite action to secure irrigation for the west side country originated with the West San Joaquin Grange when it issued a call requesting the various Granges on that side of the river to send delegates to a convention to be held at Grayson on April 20, 1875. That all land owners might be represented at this meeting of irrigationists, it was suggested that non-members who might be interested in the subject be also chosen to attend the convention. About fifty delegates from all the principal points on the west side of the San Joaquin river – from Antioch to Badger Flat – were in attendance on the date set forth in the call.


It was an enthusiastic convention of sober minded and determined men seeking to solve an intricate problem that confronted them in their industrial activities. It organized with the selection of Lee Crittenden as chairman and Guy Kilburne as secretary. In the addresses that were made all agreed that irrigation was a necessity to the country they inhabitable; that, indeed, without it there was no assurance of cultivated crops and that the valley must again be surrendered to stock interests. None doubted the practicability of irrigation – the only problem to be solved was the mode of procedure. J. R. McDonald, H. Hamilton, and Guy Kilburne were appointed a committee to receive suggestions.


The proceedings of this two day convention were interesting. Though fruitless of result they laid the foundation of a system that later made the step to the Wright Irrigation Law easy. In fact many of the provisions of the law for the establishment of the West Side Irrigation District are found in the Wright Irrigation Law.


On the following day the convention adjourned after adopting a number of resolutions and appointing several important committees. The following resolution constitutes the gist of the convention's proceedings: “That a committee be appointed to prepare a bill to be presented to the next legislature to create an irrigation district on the West Side of the San Joaquin river, composed of territory capable of irrigation from the proposed canal in the counties of Tulare, Fresno, Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Alameda, and Contra Costa, said canal to begin at the most feasible point in Tulare or Fresno counties and extending to Antioch in Contra Costa County,


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and also to create a Board of Water Commissioners to be elected by the people whose lands would be benefited thereby and providing that all water rights acquired or connected therewith shall be inseparable from the lands so irrigated.” Provision was also made for raising money to carry forward the work and to make the necessary surveys. J. R. McDonald of Grayson, G. L. Fisher, of Bonita, and W. B. Hay of Ellis, were appointed the legislative committee.


During the session of the legislature of 1876, the act creating the “West Side Irrigation District” was introduced and passed. It was approved by Governor Irwin on April 3rd, 1876. This law was generally understood to have been largely the handiwork of J. R. McDonald. It embodied his ideas on the subject of irrigation legislation and represented the scheme that his brain had evolved to handle the problem on the lines of public policy.


The title of this bill was “An Act to Create an Irrigation District, to be called the West Side Irrigation District” (Statutes of California 1875-6, page 731.) The following sections of this act will illustrate its scope and the objects to be accomplished under its provisions:


Section 1. All that certain territory situated in the counties of Contra Costa, Alameda, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Fresno and Tulare and bounded as follows, viz: On the west by a line commencing at the point of intersection of the main canal hereinafter mentioned with the westerly shore of Lake Tulare; running thence northwesterly along the foot hills of Mount Diablo range of mountains, on the westerly bank of said canal as finally located, to its intersection with the shore of Suisun Bay, at or near Antioch; and northerly and easterly by a line commencing at said point of intersection of said bay, and running thence southerly and easterly along the segregation line between the swamp and overflowed lands and high lands lying westerly from the San Joaquin, Fresno Slough and King's River, to a point about twelve miles westerly of Lake Tulare; thence westerly to the east bank of said canal, as finally located; and thence easterly along said bank to Lake Tulare, to the place of beginning, is hereby created an irrigation district to be called West Side Irrigation District for the purpose of providing for


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the irrigation of land lying in said district, and furnishing the means of transportation by canal to be constructed from Lake Tulare on the south, and extending northerly along the foothills of Diablo range of mountains to a point on the south shore of Suisun Bay.”


It was provided that the portion of this area within Contra Costa county constituted the first division, the portion within San Joaquin and Alameda counties the second, the portion within Stanislaus the third, the portion in Merced the fourth, and the portion south of Merced the fifth division.


Section 2. Within ten days from the passage of this act, the Governor shall appoint five Commissioners, one of whom shall be a resident of each division of the district, to perform the duties prescribed herein until their successors are duly elected and qualified. - They shall take of (sic) oath of office. - They shall meet at Grayson at which place the offices of all the officers elected under this act shall be kept, organize as a Board of Commissioners of the West Side Irrigation District, elect a President, appoint a Secretary, etc. The Board shall then proceed to locate said canal on the best practicable line from a point to be selected by the Board on the west shore of Tulare Lake, along the foot hills of Diablo range of mountains, to some point on the south shore of Suisun Bay and shall retain a map of such location in their office, and file a copy in the office of the Secretary of State. In the location of the canal, the Board may employ engineers who shall survey and plat on the map the exterior lines of the district and the exterior lines of the several divisions of the district.”


A supplemental act was also passed at this session of the legislature amending the original law for the creation of the District. It was approved on the same date as was the original bill. It provided for the appointment of three competent commissioners to perform the duties imposed upon them by the original act. These commissioners were required as soon after their selection as was practicable to make a careful examination of the district between Tulare Lake and Antioch and cause to be made a thorough topographical survey of the proposed canal and definitely locate the same from the point of beginning to the point of its termination. They were required to accurately determine the extent, limits and the exterior boundaries of the district, make accurate charts and maps of the district and of the line of the canal.


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This data in detail was to be embodied in a report to the Governor to be filed with him on or before the first day of March, 1877.


After the filing of this report the Commissioners were authorized to order an election in conformity with the provisions of the act creating the district for the selection of officers, this being the first election held in the district for any purpose. At this election it was provided that, in addition to the names of the persons to be voted for, the ballot should contain words. “Tax-Yes” and “Tax-No”. If a majority of those voting on the question of the tax voted “No”, no further proceedings were to be taken under the act. If the tax carried, the people of the district were deemed to have accepted the law of the district, and the Commissioners were thereby authorized to proceed according to the provisions of both acts. The Commissioners were also empowered to employ a chief engineer and such assistants as they might require and were compelled to consult with an engineer of the United States Engineering Corps.


In accordance with the provisions of these two acts, Governor Irwin appointed as the Commissioners of the West Side Irrigation District J. R. McDonald, of Grayson, Francis Williams, and Henry De Veuve. At its first meeting held in Grayson on May 16th 1876, the Board organized with the selection of J. R. McDonald as its president, and appointed Amos Lander its secretary. The Commissioners at this meeting selected William Hammond Hall of San Francisco as its chief engineer. Though no remuneration could be promised to him for his services, General B. S. Alexander, of the United States Engineering Corps, accepted the invitation of the Commissioners to act as consulting engineer. As the acts made no provisions for funds a voluntary subscription was raised among those persons vitally interested in the progress and in the irrigation of the West Side in the sum of $25,000 to defray the expense of the surveys and examinations, upon the promise of reimbursement out of the first sale of bonds or from a legislature appropriation.


In proceeding with their work the first problem that met the Commissioners was one of legal authority – whether they could under the law determine the boundaries of the


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district or establish the lines by which land not susceptible to irrigation could be excluded and exempted from its operation – whether the legislature could legally delegate such power to the Commissioners. While these doubts were decided in the negative, the law being obscure on these two vital points, the Commissioners determined to proceed with the surveys, the examinations contemplated and with the gathering of data. The Commissioners' report to the Governor was lengthy and went into the details of the project minutely.


After describing the area which Lake Tulare drained and estimating its capacity, the Commissioners declared, in their opinion, that there was water flowing into Tulare Lake each year to amply supply the district with water for irrigation. It would be necessary, however, to construct works for the purpose of preventing the escape of the surplus amounts of water from these water sheds, due to the melting snows, and to turn them into Tulare Lake in order to maintain its assured determined level each year. To accomplish this result the building of a dyke across the Fresno swamp at some point below King's river with an overflow dam, was recommended.


The headworks of the canal were to be located at Tulare Lake while the outlet was placed at Fuller's Point about a quarter of a mile east of Antioch, thus placing this town outside of the district. The canal's width at the point of beginning was to be one hundred feet narrowing as it proceeded to the north, with a slope of one foot on two feet and a bottom width at this point of thirty-two feet with a depth of nine and one-half feet. In the northern section this depth was to be only five and one-half feet. It was designed to make a flowing stream of this main canal with a velocity of one to one and one-half miles per hour. The grade was to be not more than one-half and not less than three inches per mile, dependent upon the nature of the soil which the canal traversed.


The capacity of this great canal was estimated at 1800 cubic feet per second, sufficient to irrigate 340,000 acres of land, that being the estimated area of land in the district after excluding non-irrigable lands and those used for houses, farm buildings, roads and cities. The canal's length from Tulare Lake to tidewater at Antioch was approximately a distance of 187 1/2 miles while the distance

from Antioch to the source of supply was about 190 miles.


pg. 37


The act permitted the taking of 1000 cubic feet per second from Tulare Lake and 50 cubic feet per second from the San Joaquin river. The Commissioners tabulated the whole project as follows:

Gross area within the district, 503,717 acres.

Non irrigable lands estimated at 12,800 acres.

Irrigable land in the district, 490,917 acres.

Total cost of the main canal exclusive of the primary ditches, $4,305,786.


In addition to supplying the West Side with water for irrigation the main canal and all the primary ditches were designed to be useful for water transportation.


At the time of the contemplated organization of the West Side Irrigation District, the King's River Canal Company possessed forty miles of irrigating canals within the confines of the proposed district in use from the junction of the San Joaquin river and Fresno Slough, commanding the water supply of both, to the crossing of the Los Banos. This company was then preparing an extension of its canal to a point near Moore's Landing on the San Joaquin river, having made its surveys, locations, and claims. This canal bisected the proposed West Side Irrigation District, and was intended to irrigate 120,000 acres of land within the District. The Commissioners recommended the condemnation of this property to their successors in office.


With an ample corps of engineers the Commissioners went over the entire proposed district, determined the boundaries, made maps of the excluded lands and filed topographic maps of all points with necessary data with the Governor. The project was most ambitious. It was designed to water the entire west side of the San Joaquin river. The engineer's report contained a very interesting discussion of the question of the amount of water necessary to furnish lands within the district with water per acre. It was determined that a canal which would deliver 12 inches of water in depth over the land within the district for one hundred and twenty consecutive days, during the months of November, December, January and February, would be amply sufficient. The contemplated works were projected on this basis.


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In accordance with the provisions of the two statutes the Commissioners, having filed their report as required by these laws, issued the call for an election in the district on the first Tuesday in May, 1877. At this election J. Christensen, C. J. Needham, J. R. McDonald, C. L. Crittenden and J. Myers were elected commissioners of the newly formed West Side Irrigation District. The tax was overwhelmingly voted in the affirmative. By the vote of the residents of the area contained within the boundaries established by the Commissioners the district became an existing fact for only a short space of time. The people of the great West Side were elated at the result and assumed that an era of progress and prosperity was about to begin for them. The long fight for water had ended and the dream of an irrigated West Side empire in which the soil assured of bountiful moisture would produce prolifically was soon to be realized.


On Tuesday following the ratification of the organization of the District the people of the West Side celebrated the advent of the new scheme of organized communal irrigation at the town of Grayson. The festivities continued throughout the entire day. J. R. McDonald was the president of the day. At the meeting held in the afternoon, the speakers were Governor Irwin, State Senator J. M. Montgomery, Congressman Romuldo Pacheco, J. L. Crittenden, Commissioner, and Hon. J. D. Spencer, editor of the Stanislaus County News. It was the greatest event ever held in Grayson.


On the same day on which this celebration occurred and during the festivities, a writ of prohibition issued by Judge S. B. McKee of the District Court of the Third Judicial District of California in and for the City and County of San Francisco was served on the newly elected Commissioners forbidding them from exercising any of the functions of office. The writ was based on the affidavit of Charles McLaughlin, a resident and property owner of the District, who alleged the unconstitutionality of the law, the invalidity of all the proceedings, and of the contemplated action of the Commissioners in seeking to acquire the property and the rights of the King's River and Fresno Canal Irrigation Company. The writ was made returnable on the third Monday in August, 1877. Because of the


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unconstitutionality of the law, the writ was made permanent, and the West Side Irrigation District ceased to exist.


The effort to organize this district was another futile step in the history of the irrigation movement in the county. Its failure was not due, as were the previous efforts, to the apathy of the people. The citizens of the West Side, where the necessity for irrigation was most urgent because of the peculiar economic conditions, were almost a unit on the proposition. The proper and the legal scheme had not yet been evolved for the solution to this problem. But this law pointed the way to the next attempt, which was successful. It laid the foundation for the development of the Wright Law, which ten years later brought the waters of the mountains and the rivers to the plains of Paradise Valley.





Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.

Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County.  Modesto, CA. 1924.

© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.



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