Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Development of water facilities in the Santa Ana River Basin, California, 1810-1968: a compilation of historical notes derived from many sources describing ditch and canal companies, diversions, and water rights

January 1, 1977

This report traces by text, maps, and photographs, the development of the water supply in the Santa Ana River basin from its beginning in 1810 or 1811 to 1968. The value of the report lies in the fact that interpretation of the hydrologic systems in the basin requires knowledge of the concurrent state of development of the water supply, because that development has progressively altered the local regimen of both surface water and ground water.

Most of the information for the earlier years was extracted and condensed from an investigation made by W. H. Hall, California State Engineer during the years 1878-87. Hall's study described irrigation development in southern California from its beginning through 1888. Information for the years following 1888 was obtained from the archives of the numerous water companies and water agencies in the Santa Ana River basin and from the various depositories of courthouse, county, and municipal records.

The history of water-resources development in the Santa Ana River basin begins with the introduction of irrigation in the area by the Spanish, who settled in southern California in the latter part, of the 18th century. The first irrigation diversion from the Santa Ana River was made in 1810 or 1811 by Jose Antonio Yorba and Juan Pablo Peralta. Irrigation remained a localized practice during the Mexican-Californian, or rancho, period following the separation of Mexico from Spain in 1821. Rancho grantees principally raised cattle, horses, and sheep and irrigated only small· plots of feed grain for their livestock and fruit crops for household use. The breakup of the ranchos through sales to Americans, who were migrating to California in ever-increasing numbers following the acquisition of California by the United States in 1848, marked the beginning of a rapid increase in water use and the beginning of widespread irrigation.

Many water companies and water agencies were organized to divert the surface flow of the Santa Ana River and its tributaries for irrigation. The Santa Ana River had been a perennial stream, except in years of extreme drought, from its source in the mountains nearly to the Pacific Ocean. With the great increase in population and the accompanying use of water for irrigation, the river was no longer a perennial stream, and it was necessary to supplement the surface-water supply with ground water. Many wells were dug or drilled in the artesian areas of the upper basin; of those wells many originally flowed, but as ground-water pressures and levels declined, an increasing amount of pumping was required.

Conservation measures were taken to store some of the surplus winter runoff for use during low runoff years and during summer periods of heavy demand. Conservation facilities included surface-storage reservoirs and water-spreading grounds or percolation basins for utilization of underground storage.

The competition for water in the Santa Ana River basin has been accompanied by frequent litigation over water tights, and over the years these water rights have generally been established by court decree.

Although the demand for water still increases, the water demand for agricultural use has declined since the mid-1940's in response to the rapid urbanization of agricultural areas. Since that date the continued expansion of communities has encroached significantly into the agricultural areas causing a decrease in water use for agriculture, a more than compensating increase in water use for municipal purposes, and a rapid change in the ownership of water rights.

The urbanization of flood plains made floods potentially more damaging than they previously had been when the flood plains were used for agriculture. In recognition of this increased hazard, flood-control facilities such as reservoirs, debris basins, flood-conveyance channels, and levees have been constructed to reduce potential damage. Most of the construction has occurred since the devastating flood of March 1938.

By the mid-1940's it was apparent that the local water supply--both surface and ground water--would be insufficient to meet the increasing demand in the basin. To augment the local supply, Colorado River water was purchased from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and released to the Santa Ana River beginning in August 1949. Additional supplemental water became available in the early 1970's from northern California through the conveyance facilities of the California Water Project.

Publication Year 1977
Title Development of water facilities in the Santa Ana River Basin, California, 1810-1968: a compilation of historical notes derived from many sources describing ditch and canal companies, diversions, and water rights
DOI 10.3133/ofr77398
Authors M.B. Scott
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 77-398
Index ID ofr77398
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse