Got a time machine? Go back to Santa Rosa in the months before the 1906 earthquake and tell the City Council to put a moratorium on new brick building construction. And while you're there, let them know it would be a swell idea to have a reliable water system should something really bad happen -- such as half the downtown burning to the ground after a major earthquake.

Fire destroyed much of downtown Santa Rosa after the 1906 quake, even though the town had both private and public water systems with separate pipes running down all the main streets. But the city lines already leaked badly, and presumably some of these mains burst in the jolt or were blown apart as the adjacent gas lines exploded; for whatever reason, pressure in hydrants was too low and the desperate firemen resorted to tapping what water they could from Santa Rosa Creek.

The water pipes for the private system belonged to the old Santa Rosa Water Works, better known as the McDonald Water Company, which had been operating since the mid-1870s. The old system had few enthusiasts; besides its wimpy water pressure that made fire hydrants ineffective, an 1891 report confirmed suspicions that its reservoir, Lake Ralphine, was contaminated with hog and human waste. The municipal system came along in 1896 and was also plagued with problems from the start. For a town built smack in the middle of a 250 square mile watershed, Santa Rosa has had remarkable troubles delivering a reliable flow of clean water to town faucets.

We wade into the water wars via the entertaining account of a 1906 City Council meeting transcribed below. Note that no actual point is debated; the meeting is a free-for-all public hand-wringing. The lowlight was the appearance of prominent attorney Thomas J. Geary, here rather obviously acting as a lobbyist for McDonald, urging the city to stop drilling new wells and instead buy water from McDonald's company. Along the way, Geary also told the Council that the rich were entitled to more water than Average Joe because they paid more taxes.

The most interesting comment at the Council meeting came from "pump man" Mr. Fish (!) who "urged a plan which he had suggested for this city many years ago--that instead of pumping water into the reservoir outside the city, it be sent into a mammoth tank in the heart of the city eighty feet high." Had Santa Rosa such a water tower in place before the earthquake, the downtown might have been spared the fire damage. The pumping station, which pushed the well water up to the city's hilltop reservoir above Rincon Valley, never failed during the quake, and water levels in the four city wells even began going up immediately after the tremors and kept rising for weeks.

What irony; the only time city wells were overflowing in that era was when it was unavailable for delivery. Instead of McDonald's contamination problems, simple lack of water was the bane of the municipal system. As soon it began operating in 1896, it was clear that the pumps weren't producing as much water as needed, and yet another well was ordered drilled. The city also enacted conservation measures that became increasingly draconian over the next several years. A city inspector was hired to examine toilets, faucets, and other fixtures for leaks, and had powers to issue a $2.50 fine for each violation; police were ordered to spy for water running overnight, and wake up offenders to shut off the spigot; the city was split into east/west irrigation districts, with one side of town allowed to water lawns from 6 to 8 in the morning and the other from 6 to 8 in the evening, the starting and ending times strictly announced by the blowing of the town's steam whistle. And when the fire alarms went off, all water use had to be stopped immediately.

Even with the addition of a 1903 well that nearly doubled capacity, the town water system was barely able to keep up with demand, and a report the next year explained why: Almost a quarter of the water that left the reservoir was lost somewhere in the city's plumbing -- 270,000 gallons just dribbled away every day.

The city finally began installing meters in 1905, with the promise that a family of five or less still could have 350 gallons of free water a day. But old habits die hard, and the town kept the Water Police around to assess extra charges for nearly everything; watering you lawn cost 1/2 cent per square yard per year, irrigating strawberries and vegetables, 3¢ per square yard. And it'll be 25¢ per month for the pleasure of that bathtub in your house, plus another two bits for the potty, please.

Additional sources: Chapter 10 in the 19th century history by LeBaron, et. al, Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings,
The California earthquake of April 18, 1906
by Andrew C. Lawson

First Shipment of Water Meters are Now Due Here

City Clerk Clawson has received the bill for fifty of the water meters which were recently ordered by the City Council. The order was for one thousand meters and these will be installed in the near future. Now that the first shipment is about to arrive, it is reasonable to believe that the remainder will follow rapidly. When the meters have been placed the officials in charge of the pumping station feel confident that they will be able to supply all the water needed by the citizens of the City of Roses, because the meters will stop the alleged leakages in the system.

- Santa Rosa Republican, September 23, 1905

Result of Pumping Test in Known
Visit Paid to the Pumping Station to Receive Engineer Yandle's Report

Mayor J. P. Overton and Councilmen W. D. Reynolds, Fred King and G. S. Brown visited the pumping station...Engineer Yandle informed the Mayor and Councilmen on Thursday that the test showed that 1,087,000 gallons of water was pumped each day...

- Press Democrat, December 28, 1905

From Mass of Eigures [sic] and Suggestions Given at Meeting Council Will Evolve Solution of Problem

After listening to much fervid oratory from citizens of Santa Rosa, and pondering over the momentous question of permitting the installation of electric pumping machinery and electric generating machinery at the local pumping station, the Council adjourned without being any nearer a solution of the problem than when the session began...

...[The City Council] had to wait until the citizens had finished offering suggestions, and then returned to their homes confused in mind as to the best course to pursue, and their rest was troubled with nightmares of machinery, long volumes of figures and well-rounded sentences of oratory.

There was not the interest taken in the matter by the citizens that its importance demanded. Hardly a dozen men had congregated to assist the Council in unravelling one of the knottiest problems that has confronted the city government. There is apparently a disposition to let the council act on the matter as it seems best to them, and then those who are not satisfied with the action taken will be able to spend their time on the street corners and "kick" because the action taken did not suit them.

[Danville Decker, "the suave local manager of the Santa Rosa Lighting Company," told the Council that his company drilled two unproductive wells about 80 feet deep. John L. Jordan, "who takes a lively interest in the city's water system," told the Council that he could produce more water than the city needed if they would give him $600 to bore three 50-foot wells. Citizen John H. Fowler admitted no special knowledge on the matter, but urged the city to embrace progress and switch over to electric pumps, giving a little presentation on the history of machines.]

Attorney Thomas J. Geary made an excellent speech on "water" which provoked much merriment during its delivery. He declared he did know a great deal about water, and personally did not care a great deal for it. It looked to the speaker like the city had had ten years of municipal ownership which had proved a failure. Attorney Geary said that municipal ownership seemed to be on trial throughout the country, and while theoretically it should be an advantage, because it eliminated the profit of private corporations, and should be able to furnish commodities such as water at less than private corporations, it did not result favorably in practice. Whether the city could not conduct the water works as economically as private corporations, or what was the matter, he did not pretend to say. He declared that Santa Rosa's experience of ten years was one of the worst cases of failure known, and said the municipality was paying more for the water it obtained than any other municipality. Property owners, he declared, had been deluded by the notion of obtaining "free water, which is a very catchy phrase, and said it was folly to delude the people into believing they were getting something for nothing, when they were not doing so.

The attorney declared that it had cost this city, with the interest being paid on its bonded indebtedness, $21,000 to pump and deliver the small amount of water given last year, about 800,000 gallons per day. In comparison with the water rates of San Francisco Mr. Geary said the same amount of water pumped here in 1905 at a cost of $21,000, could have been secured at a cost of $2009 in San Francisco, according to the report of that city for 1901. He stated that an individual could purchase one million gallons of water a day in San Francisco at a meter rate of $167 per month, while the City of Santa Rosa was pumping only about 800,000 gallons, and paying an expense bill of $909, many times greater in San Francisco.

Getting down to what he thought should be done with the pumping station, Attorney Geary said the city should rapidly install the meters purchased, allow a minimum quantity of water to each family at so many gallons per capita, and then give water to the citizens in accordance with the amount of taxes paid. He argued that the man who paid taxes on a ten thousand dollar home was entitled to more water than one paying one thousand dollars. He suggested conserving the water, and declared that with proper restrictions there was an abundance of water being pumped at present to supply Santa Rosa for the next three years at least. It looked to the speaker like the sensible thing to do with the present works was not to waste any more money on attempting to develop wells, and he declared the present water system was a bad legacy handed down to the present Council by previous boards, who while having done their best to make the works a success, had only resulted in failure. In accepting the proposal of the men to install the pumping machinery, Mr. Geary declared the city would cut down the expense of delivering water to this city, could save five thousand dollars a year, and within the next three years when it became necessary to have a greater supply of water the City Council could look around and obtain other supplies. He advocated the adoption of any plan which would cut down the expense of delivering the water into the city's mains, and said that under no circumstances should it cost the city $11,000 per year to pump 800,000 gallons daily.

Another remedy he offered was that the Council could fix a rate on the McDonald system for the delivery of one million gallons per day to the city, and as long as this rate was a reasonable one, the city could compel the McDonald system to sell and deliver it. This figure, he declared, would be much more inexpensive than the present rate being paid for pumping the water by the city's system. "Out of the economy you effect," he declared, "you can buy water from the McDonald system to supply the city. Another matter that you can do, is to take the water that flows away from the McDonald system back into Santa Rosa Creek, and by using that water you might find you had an abundant supply for years to come."

John Robinson of the Eagle Hotel made a short address, full of stirring words. He turned his batteries on Geary, and said he failed to comprehend the object of the legal gentleman who had addressed the Council. He declared Geary was guilty of "jumbling with figures and his statements were calculated to be misleading." In comparing the cost of water of this city with San Francisco, he asked why Geary had not made a comparison with the deserts of Nevada. He believed Geary's statement was misleading throughout, and said that experts were of the opinion that there was an abundance of water at the city's pumping station, and said that on any question Geary handled, he "fixed it up with a polish that sways the minds of men." Mr. Robinson declared the city had the well on its hands, and should go ahead and develop more water, in order that the deplorable condition of scarcity of that commodity experienced in past summer seasons should not be repeated during the coming summer. He felt that the council should persevere and satisfy themselves absolutely that there was not enough water at their pumping station for the city before abandoning it.

Attorney Geary replied to Mr. Robinson, and showed where these gentlemen were in harmony in all their statements to the Council. He showed that he had not spoken of abandoning the wells, but had urged conservation of water and maintaining the present system, but wanted the expense reduced materially.

Mr. Fish, a pump man, who was present, and spoke briefly to the Council, later answering many questions put to him by various people. He declared there were many ways of handling water cheaper than the city was doing at present. He urged a plan which he had suggested for this city many years ago--that instead of pumping water into the reservoir outside the city, it be sent into a mammoth tank in the heart of the city eighty feet high. This, in his opinion, would give a far better service than could be obtained with the reservoir...

...Chief Engineer Yandle spoke on the subject, saying the figures given by Geary included the salaries of Chief of the Fire Department L. Adams, and other expenses. He had previously advised the Council, and reiterated the statement, that with first class pumps the cost bill could be materially reduced. The engineer stated that the recent test of water being pumped at the station showed a million gallons strong being pumped from the wells.

Manager Danville Decker declared that the first impressions were the most lasting, and he had heard the Councilmen and other speakers talk of two million gallons of water so much he believed they had that figure indelibly impressed on their minds. No one, he declared, has ever said there was more than one million gallons of water at the station. At times when the city had bored a well and struck a magnificent flow of water the Councilmen had become enthused, and he admitted he had also become enthused over the splendid prospects of obtaining an unlimited supply of water. When this flow from the wells ceased, all were mutually depressed. He advised using the meters, and going to look for water elsewhere if it could not be found at the pumping station. The speaker believed there was no reason for expending money where there was a possibility no water could be developed, and said the city was not encouraged to do anything at the pumping station. Manager Decker has had much experience with meters in his business, and declared the meters were the best safeguard of the city's interests, and said the questions was perfectly clear that no more money should be spent at the pumping station for developing water. The water should be pumped cheaply, or something was wrong, he declared, and reiterated the statement made to the Council some years ago, that his company was ready at any time to supply current for pumping water from the city's wells.

Mayor Overton said the city was looking ahead in making its estimates for pumping two million gallons of water, and that it would be folly for a growing city like Santa Rosa to consider installing machinery at this time which would simply handle the supply at present developed. His honor declared he believed the city's water system needed overhauling badly, and if the city was going to continue to do the pumping, they should have some one do considerable overhauling of the plant. He said if it was the sense of the Council to develop more water at the pumping station that it should be acted on at once. The Mayor wishes to do something at once to relieve the anticipated condition of next summer.

"We have a million gallons of water now, and cannot afford to abandon the plant. We should take action at once to decrease the cost of pumping, either by ourselves or by contract with some one else. We should do at once what is for the best interests of the city."

Chief Engineer Yandle declared the million gallons of water at the pumping station would supply seventy gallons per capita to all the residents of Santa Rosa, which would make a total of 700,000 gallons, and allowing 150,000 gallons for street sprinklers, would leave a comfortable balance for the city...

- Santa Rosa Republican, January 10, 1906

First Step Toward Setting of Cost of City Water Used in Excess

In accordance with the provisions of the new city charter which will go into effect in April, an ordinance has been introduced fixing the amount of water that shall be allowed to each family for domestic purposes free of charge and the rates that shall be charged upon the meter readings for all amounts exceeding the allowance.

The new ordinance provided for 350 gallons of water for each family where there are five or less residing, for every twenty-four hours, and for each additional person residing in the house, 25 gallons per day. The ordinance provides that the term "domestic use," as employed in the ordinance shall not be construed to mean "irrigation" or for the use of business houses or business purposes.

For all water that is to be used above the specified 350 gallons a day, the Council will determine the rate at their next meeting.

Where there is no meter the rates suggested are the same as have been charged heretofore by the Santa Rosa Water Company. These rates include $1 a month for a family of five or less and 10 cents for each additional person; 25 cents for each bath tub and closet; for irrigating flower gardens and lawns, per square yard per year, ¼ cent or ½ cent for six consecutive months; for irrigating strawberries and vegetables, per square yard, 3 cents; for one horse and vehicle, 20 cents; each additional horse or cow, 10 cents. For public uses the prices suggested are $3.50 to $15 for hotels, per month; saloons, $2; stores, 75¢; butcher shops, $1; offices, 50¢; dentists, $1; photographers, $2; restaurants, $2.50; bakeries $2; confectioneries. $1.50; steam laundries, $10; for motors, $3 to $25; building purposes, bricks per thousand, 15¢; plastering per square yard, 60¢; cement, 10¢ per barrel; lawns, gardens, flowers and not used for other purposes by six months, per month, 50¢.

- Santa Rosa Republican, February 7, 1906

Report to City Council Made by Street Commissioner Decker at Tuesday Night's Meeting

...Mr. Decker reported that 290 water consumers used less than 250 gallons per day for the month of July; 230 used less than 500 gallons per day; 75 used less than 1,000 gallons per day; and 33 used over 1,000 gallons gallons per day. The average, he said, for those using less than 500 gallons per day being 260 gallons.

- Press Democrat, September 13, 1906


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