Water development on the west side, starting in the 1870’s, was essential to the creation of the agriculture industry in the Central Valley. It was the beginning of what has come to be the most important agricultural region in the United States.

Increasingly, though, the state and local water supplies are threatened because of drought conditions, regulatory action and other interests that are greatly impacting the sustainability of the west side.

So how did we get here? Through a series of articles we will highlight some of the concerns and water issues our farmers, refuges and cities on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are currently experiencing and how we can address them together.

In 1862 a party of the California State Geological Survey led by William H. Brewer set out to explore this valley along the eastern slope of the Coast Ranges from the base of Mount Diablo south to Pacheco Pass. Even though the previous winter’s flood is still remembered as the greatest in California’s history, by early summer, the once lush prairie grasses had already dried, and cattle had retreated to the still-swollen river.

Near Del Puerto Canyon, Brewer reported that, “We take our way across the trackless plain, sometimes sandy, at others hard, gravelly soil where we can trot a little, but oftener a clay soil, now dry and cracked by the heat, so that the mules must pick their way slowly.”

 A few days later at Orestimba Creek “the air grew day by day hotter and drier,” Brewer added. “All the herbage on the hills was dry enough to burn, and the plain brown and dry as hay.”

What a different picture we see in the west side of the Central Valley today! Diverse agriculture and wildlife areas are integral to our local communities. Water agencies surrounding the communities of Firebaugh, Dos Palos, Los Banos and Santa Nella are carrying on the legacy of those early visionaries who developed water supplies on the west side.

 Water, where there was little before, now supports diverse agriculture. It supplies the surface or groundwater supplies of Mendota, Firebaugh, Dos Palos, Los Banos, Santa Nella, Gustine, and Newman, and some of the most important private, state and federal wildlife areas in California. 

How did this come to be? In the 1870’s, the San Joaquin and Kings River Canal Company and Miller and Lux constructed canals to divert water from the San Joaquin River and the Kings River to allow for irrigation in the western portion of Fresno, Madera, Merced, and Stanislaus counties.

Decades later, in the 1950’s and 60’s, another vision intersected with that earlier vision of Miller and Lux when other water agencies, such as the San Luis Water District, signed agreements with the federal government forming the Central Valley Project. These agreements also added to the water supply of our west side which boosted more support in our communities.

Today, the Exchange Contractors members—Central California Irrigation District, San Luis Canal Company, Firebaugh Canal Water District, and Columbia Canal Company—together with the Grasslands Water District, share not only a historical bond but a desire to see our region thrive for years to come.

For years the Exchange Contractors have been proactive in working with our local disadvantaged communities in coordinating efforts to manage groundwater sustainably into the future.

What you need to know is that the water that was brought into the west side made the economy of west side agriculture, wildlife, and our communities possible and is as important today as it was over 100 years ago.

In order for that to continue into the future, we need the help of informed citizens to advocate for our region. In future editions of The Westside Express we’ll explore these issues further and let you know how you can get involved.

Editor’s note:  “What You Need to Know about Water” will be a regular feature of The Westside Express.

Chris White

Executive director. San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority