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June 3, 2014 > Alameda County Water District story is a David-and-Goliath tale

Alameda County Water District story is a David-and-Goliath tale

As ACWD celebrates our centennial this year, ÒReflections on WaterÓ will feature vignettes of the DistrictÕs history. Our story is one of challenges, opportunities and determined people who shaped the DistrictÕs founding, growth and resource planning.

Our Òorigin storyÓ illustrates the power that resides in local American communities to conduct their own affairs and to protect their interests. This story is distinctly AmericanÑin which the Òlittle guyÓ ultimately triumphs over more powerful vested interests by grit, determination and political savvy.

To almost every resident in the Tri-Cities, there has always been a water district. Yet until 1914, private companies controlled the water throughout the Bay Area and took an enormous amount of water out of Southern Alameda County. But letÕs start at the beginning.

The Fremont, Newark and Union City area was formed in the mid-1800s as Washington Township. Its eight villages benefitted from abundant water from many free-flowing streams. Groundwater was so close to the surface that even shallow wells would bring in water. It was an ideal place to settle.

Local farmers planted potatoes and beans, berries and peas, and they made a good living selling produce to miners in the Mother Lode country during the Gold Rush. But just two decades later, Northern California had changed enormously and the gold-seekers had either moved on or made new livelihoods from CaliforniaÕs fertile soils.

As demand changed, area farmers planted wheat, barley and oats. Some residents turned to cattle ranching and dairy farming, and others planted apricot, cherry, pear and plum orchards. By the end of the century, vineyards and wineries became part of the mix. Although the population had increased, the shifts in agriculture had the greatest impact on water use in the area.

But during those years of agricultural growth, other interests cast their eyes on Southern Alameda County water. San FranciscoÕs leaders worried about their future water supplies and sent engineers out to find the best potential source to supplement their water. Spring Valley Water Works surveyors liked Calaveras Creek and bought land for a reservoir.

Spring Valley Water Works also bought up rights along the banks of Alameda Creek. The farmers who held these rights begrudgingly sold them relatively cheaply rather than engage in lengthy and expensive court battles with the company. In the late 1880s, Spring Valley laid pipes under the bay and pumped Alameda Creek water all the way to Belmont, where it joined water from Crystal Springs Reservoir headed to San Francisco.

Then PeopleÕs Water Company, another private firm, began pumping water from artesian wells in the Alvarado area (Union City) to their customers in Oakland, which now was home to many refugees who fled the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires.

Water exports increased. San Francisco rebuilt and grew quickly after the earthquake. This drew an enormous amount of water from Washington Township. By 1911, 22 million gallons a day were going to San Francisco and Oakland.

Local farmers needed to irrigate their fields. But since the water was taken without any effort to replace it or protect the aquifer, residentsÕ wells went dry. Fruit and nut trees werenÕt getting groundwater, and there wasnÕt enough water to irrigate fields.

A local school principal, Christian Runckel, began urging the citizens to regain control of their water. Runckel had a promising career ahead of him because of connections in the county political machine. Yet to him the water situation was intolerable, and he chose to put his time, energy and finally his money into the battle with the giant water companies.

Seeing the private firms gaining more and more control, Runckel decided Òto fight for the agricultural redemption of the fertile farming section.Ó His weapon in this battle was the Washington Press. Runckel was its editor.

Runckel published several scathing editorials against Spring Valley. He called upon residents to support the Hetch Hetchy Dam project. If San Francisco got Hetch Hetchy, Runckel reasoned, it wouldnÕt need the water from Alameda Creek.

A third private water firm suddenly appeared on the scene. Bay City Water Company acquired 2,200 acres in the Newark area and was sinking a well.

That was the turning point. Residents held a mass meeting and created the Washington Township Water Committee in May 1912. But there was only so much a committee could do. By the end of that year the city of Oakland was talking about creating its own water district, one that would include the water wells in Alvarado.

Despite more meetings, editorials and activism, the stark truth was that Washington Township could not have its own water district because only incorporated cities had the right to form a public water agency.

Washington TownshipÕs Water Committee then lobbied state legislators to revive and pass a bill to establish water districts in unincorporated areas of counties. Finally, in June 1913, the legislature passed the County Water District Act.

Washington Township wasted no time. It presented a petition to organize a water district to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in September. The water committee worked out objections with local companies and presented the water district proposal to Washington Township voters on Dec. 30, 1913.

That day, 883 residents voted in favor of forming a water district. Only 18 voted against it.

ACWD became the very first county water district in California. The water committeeÕs efforts opened the way for other counties to protect and preserve their water as well. Today there are several hundred county water districts in California because of the leadership, foresight and determination to protect local water shown by the residents of Washington Township.

In next monthÕs column weÕll take a look at how ACWD fought continuous legal battles to protect the areaÕs water rights. Said one resident in 1915: ÒWell, it is too late now, weÕre stung all right. All I want to know is how much we are going to have to pay when the suits begin.Ó

The DistrictÕs full history will be recounted in the history book, A Water District of Our Own, which will be available later in our Centennial Year.

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