Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape

Passage of the Wright Irrigation District Act, March 7, 1887

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Passage of the Wright Irrigation District Act, March 7, 1887

Artificial irrigation has been the mainstay of economic prosperity in California. However, until the passage of the Wright Act (Assembly Bill 12) on March 7, 1887, few farmers had the legal or practical means to obtain stream water for irrigation. The legislative passage of the Wright Act not only overcame this barrier, but also paved the way for the rapid expansion of irrigated agriculture in California.

During the first decades of statehood, the right to exploit stream water was influenced by English common law, Spanish practices and gold rush innovation. Under the former, the doctrine of “riparian rights” prevailed in England and the eastern United States. This principle held that only those people living on a stream bank could lay claim to it. California officially adopted this common law in 1850, but gold seekers found it unsuitable for hydraulic mining. They adopted the custom known as “appropriation.” Resembling Hispanic water law, the appropriation

doctrine dictated that many people could divert stream water for beneficial uses with priority going to the first comer. In 1851, California also endorsed appropriation in the gold country and ultimately incorporated both doctrines into statewide law in 1872. The legislative willingness to accommodate these contrary doctrines caused considerable confusion and litigation especially concerning crop irrigation (Hundley 1992, 67-85). The jurisdictional uncertainties, anger over land monopolists, and the inability of small landholders to afford to construct and manage irrigation projects, in turn, resulted in the passage of the Wright Irrigation District Act in 1887.

The Wright Act authorized residents in an area to organize irrigation districts, purchase land and water rights, and distribute water. Importantly, the districts could condemn all individual water rights, including riparian, and purchase them in the name of the district. Once the obstacle of riparian priority was removed, dozens of public districts rapidly formed in California and large-scale irrigation commenced. A surge of landless immigrants and small landholders rushed to take advantage of these new opportunities, and by 1889 California led the nation in irrigated acreage (Kahrl 1978, 26-27; Hundley 1992, 99-100). In the 1890s many districts fell on hard times owing to drought, poor management, and insufficient resources for comprehensive interbasin projects (Worster 1985, 110). Nonetheless, the Wright Act had established the legal precedent for future rural and urban developments, and water districts were in the forefront of the massive expansion of irrigation that blossomed in the twentieth century (Kahrl 1978, 63; Pisani 1992, 104; Littleworth and Garner 1995, 17).

With the Wright Act and associated amendments us the legal and distributional framework, the federal and state governments provided the money, centralized planning, and advanced engineering necessary for ambitious interbasin water transfers (Stene 1994; Duvall and Duvall 1997, 202). California benefited greatly from the passage of the federal Reclamation Act of 1902, which provides federal money to finance water projects in the West. Water made available under the auspices of the Reclamation Act was distributed according to the water laws of the states (Robinson 1979, 332). The Wright Act had sanctioned the formation of water districts and they in turn provided the framework for effective and widespread distribution of federal irrigation water. In short order, the Bureau of Reclamation undertook massive water projects in regions such the Salton Basin and the Great Central Valley. For example, the Bureau’s Central Valley Project, built between 1937 and 1951, supplies water to local rural and urban water districts, which manage and distribute it. Subsequently, the California State Water Project further augmented the surface water available for irrigation. Similarly, approximately sixty-five


percent of the water transported by the California Aqueduct is destined for agricultural water districts in the San Joaquin Valley (Littleworth and Garner 1995, 25). The landscape consequences of these projects, and agricultural irrigation in general, cannot be overstated. The visual signatures are ubiquitous and revealed in the water facilities, irrigated lands, farm related industries, and in their environmental consequences.

The irrigation infrastructure in California is visible over major portions of the state and especially within agricultural regions such as the Imperial, Salinas, and Central Valleys. The Central Valley and State Water Projects together include forty-two major dams and reservoirs, 1,200 miles of aqueducts, twenty power plants, and dozens of pumping plants (California Department of Water Resources 1998) (Figure 14). As impressive as these projects are, they represent only a portion of the storage, power, and conveyance facilities that contribute to irrigation in California. A remarkable number of additional Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, and private projects account for most of the 1,300 reservoirs and associated facilities in the state. Furthermore, some urban water systems are designed for the storage and distribution of irrigation water as well. The Hetch Hetchy project and the Colorado Aqueduct are notable examples of systems associated with irrigation. Many of these reservoirs are equipped with hydroelectric facilities that distribute power to urban and rural landscapes across California.

Artificial irrigation provides not only the backbone of agriculture in California, but also is important for recreation. Approximately, sixty percent of the recreation in California involves water bodies, and artificial reservoirs comprise a substantial portion of them (Kahrl 1978, 92-93; Selby 2000, 209). Shasta, San Antonio, Pine Flat, and Lake Havasu reservoirs, as well as the Salton Sea, are wholly or partially products of irrigated agriculture and serve as important recreation destinations. They have generated a host of business, service, and administrative landscapes at the water bodies, along access routes, and in gateway communities. Like their urban counterparts, the watersheds, reservoirs, and conveyance right-of-ways have constrained other forms of commercial and residential development. This is especially true around some reservoirs, such as Shasta and Trinity lakes, which are encompassed completely or partially by national recreation areas or state and county parks (Benchmark Maps 1998, 10-33).

The spatial extent of irrigation in California is unsurpassed. By 1995, over nine million acres in California were artificially irrigated by surface and well water (California Department of Water Resources 1998, ES4-8). One-sixth of all the irrigated land in the United States is concentrated


Figure . The California Aqueduct and the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant in the San Joaquin Valley.

Photograph provided by California Deportment of Water Resources.


in California’s Central Valley alone (Duvall and Duvall 1997, 201-202). In total, nearly one-tenth of the state’s surface is under irrigation. Depending on the season and plant variety, environments that were once desert, grass, shrub, marsh, woodland, or meandering sloughs have been transformed into lush geometries of color and texture. These fields, orchards, and vineyards are further laced with settlements, utility lines, sprinkler systems, wells, pumps, canals, pipelines, equipment yards, service roads and, in some locations, the technology to combat frost.

Irrigation is responsible for the larger portion of the nearly $30 billion in annual revenues derived from agriculture in California, and its economic impact has transformed landscapes beyond the farm and ranch. In 1997, for example, nearly one-third of all jobs in the Central Valley came from farming or farm related industries (Brickson 1998, 12). When employment and profit reinvestment is considered, irrigation provides significant and varying economic underpinnings for urban and rural landscapes across the state. Ironically, irrigated agricultural landscapes are being supplanted by suburbs in many areas of California due largely to their own economic success (California Department of Water Resources 1998, ES1-2).

The irrigated agriculture promoted by the Wright Act has also spawned unintended consequences that are themselves expanding components of California’s visual landscapes. The Salton Sea is a major example. Early endeavors to provide irrigation water to the dry Salton basin unwittingly resulted in its flooding by the Colorado River. Wastewater from the irrigated lands of the Coachella and Imperial Valleys continues to sustain the sea as a completely human-made water body. Soil damage is a growing problem in areas such as Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Central Valley. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been rendered useless or less productive by saltwater intrusion, waterlogging, salinization, and erosion (Hundley 1992, 364-380). Moreover, various methods of agricultural wastewater disposal are increasingly important as landscape agents and features. Owing in part to wastewater, numerous stream, bay, and delta environments have lost their fisheries and the cultural manifestations they once supported. Some environments, like Kesterson Reservoir, the San Luis Drain, and thousands of acres of evaporation ponds in the San Joaquin Valley, were constructed to specifically address agricultural pollution (Department of Water Resources 1990). Although not as perceptible as reservoirs and canals, land subsidence due to ground water withdrawal is widespread and significant. This process has lowered ten percent of the land in the Central Valley (Lofgren and Klausing 1969). Irrigation, regrettably, is directly responsible for these changes and its visual impacts are growing.


Irrigation is one of the most important landscape agencies in California. The experiences of colonial peoples and gold miners assisted its development. In addition, technological innovations, new energy sources, and government assistance were factors in the growth and success of irrigated agriculture. However, ultimate success depended on the ability to transport stream water to non-riparian lands and then effectively distribute it to farms. The Wright Act of 1887 and its amendments made this possible.

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