Busted! The city phoned last week to inform us we were violating Santa Rosa's mandatory water-use restrictions - we were spotted using sprinklers during the day. After hanging up, I searched out the city's drought web page. Sure enough, the new rules are "outdoor irrigation must occur between 8pm and 6am." We did not know that and have adjusted watering accordingly.

The unsettling part of this incident was concern a neighbor might have snitched instead of speaking with us directly, but the water dept. staffer who called - and who undoubtedly has the only civic job more thankless than parking enforcement -  said the report came from someone "with the city." Looking at the drought web page again, I found "water watch patrols, performed by city staff, are actively looking for water wasting behaviors." Good Lord, it's the return of the Water Police of yesteryear –  one of the most peculiar episodes in Santa Rosa's history a century ago. Before getting into that topic, however, let's look at some of the things said about our current situation.

* AVERAGE RAINFALL  Santa Rosa gets an average of about 30 inches of rain per season – give or take an inch or so, depending on where you are. Bennett Valley is different from downtown is different from Fountaingrove. While this makes "average rainfall" a bit of a fuzzy target, you can add up all the numbers claiming to represent "Santa Rosa" going back a century and come up with 30.36 inches. (Inexplicably, a search of Press Democrat articles over the last few years finds the paper variously claiming the average is between 31 and 40 inches, consistently skewed to the high side.) Historical data shows a standard deviation of 9.15, so a year with 21 inches of rain would be considered low-normal. 

* ANNUAL VS. SEASON   Not so vague is the definition of our rainy season; like most of the state, our "water year" is July through June. It makes no sense at all to discuss rainfall in terms of a calendar year, yet many resources – including Santa Rosa's current Wikipedia page – can be found using calendar year totals. On the city web page linked above, it's claimed "In 2013, Santa Rosa received less than 6 inches of rainfall." That's an alarmist statement and badly misleading; in the 2013-2014 water year, the total was nearly three times that. 

* MISSING HISTORY  Any discussion of "average" rainfall should come with the caveat that there are serious gaps in the historical record. In the Santa Rosa rain data between 1903-2010 (LINK) there are months incomplete or missing, and much of the data between 1916 and 1925 appear untrustworthy; move back to the 19th century and there are entire years either blank or have just overall county summaries. There's a (surprisingly interesting) paper on the history of Sonoma County weather stations that discusses the various old records. The Press Democrat occasionally printed the readings going back to 1889, as seen in the illustration below. Recent measurements can be found from UC Extension and many places elsewhere.

* DROUGHT  Is Santa Rosa currently in a drought? Yes, absolutely – a drought is two or more consecutive dry water years, and this is the fourth we have floated near the bottom of the low-normal range, with 2013-2014 way down at an abnormal 17.91 inches. The situation's not good, but not nearly as dire as many other parts of the state. Through the end of May our 2014-2015 year stands at borderline-abnormal 20.65 inches. This is probably Santa Rosa's third worst drought since statehood (see above, re: missing history). Over the two water years of 1862-1864 there was only 29 inches combined, and about the same during the 1975-1977 pair.

Santa Rosa's water situation was far worse at the turn of the last century, but not because of drought. I've written up various parts of that story in posts that can be found in the archives, and am shamelessly plagiarizing myself herewith. Links back to the original pieces appear at the end.

(RIGHT: Santa Rosa rainfall 1889-1912)

Although Santa Rosa was surrounded on all sides by fresh water (river, laguna, aquifer, even large creeks running through the center of town), the stuff that came out of the faucet more than a century ago was always somewhat foul and sometimes scarce. Part of the problem stemmed from the town having both privately owned and public water utilities with separate pipes running down all the main streets.

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. Water from the McDonald system was "soft" and considered good tasting, even though an 1891 report confirmed suspicions that its reservoir, Lake Ralphine, was contaminated with hog and human waste (maybe it was E.coli that gave the water its je ne sais quoi).

The municipal system came along in 1896 and was also plagued with problems from the start. City water was unmetered and free, but "hard" and tasted of sulphur. Still, they couldn't keep up with demand because there weren't enough wells and the steam engine pumps were underpowered. Even with the addition of a 1903 well that nearly doubled capacity, the city's pipes were always at risk of running dry and a report the next year explained why: Almost a quarter of the water leaving the reservoir was lost somewhere in broken plumbing - 270,000 gallons just dribbled away every day.

(RIGHT: The 1909 rates for the hated Santa Rosa municipal water system. CLICK or TAP to enlarge)

Caught in the middle between these two "just good enough" companies was the public, stuck with choosing between bad and worse. The McDonald system had no incentive to upgrade its service while the city water works had trouble raising bond money for improvements as long as there was a competitor in the private sector. And it surely did not help that at a 1906 City Council meeting Thomas J. Geary was wobbling between jobs as city attorney and lawyer for the McDonald water system, where he argued that the city water works should be shut down. Along the way, Geary also told the Council the rich were entitled to more water than Average Joe because they paid more taxes.

Santa Rosa's water system was such a mess the town enacted severe conservation measures. Policemen, firemen and city inspectors became the Water Police, empowered to wake you in the middle of the night if someone heard water running. A city inspector was hired to examine toilets, faucets, and other fixtures for leaks, and had powers to issue a $2.50 fine  - equal to a few days' pay for the average worker - for each violation. There was also a monthly fee for every water fixture in your home; it'll be 25¢ per month for the pleasure of that bathtub in your house and having an indoor toilet cost another quarter (and worth every penny). Water Police assessed extra charges for nearly everything; watering your lawn cost 1/2 cent per square yard per year, irrigating strawberries and vegetables, 3¢ per square yard.

And then there was the nutty Pavlovian alert system. Lawns and gardens could be watered only at certain times and/or certain days depending whether you lived east or west of Mendocino Avenue; in the scheme used following the earthquake, the east side could use a garden hose between 4 and 8 o'clock, while westerners had the hours between 5 and 9. Starting and stopping times were announced by the Grace Brothers Brewery steam whistle which also sounded to announce lunch time and quitting time. If you're keeping track, all that meant the brewery whistle was sounding at 12, 4, 5, 8, and 9. When that whistle blew I imagine people often just stood still for a moment with their heads cocked, like puzzled dogs, trying to figure out if they were supposed to eat, start, turn off or go home.

Santa Rosa introduced water 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 at least through 1907, when the reservoir was finally patched and covered, a new well drilled, and high powered electric pumps replaced the antique steam engines. Street repairs after the earthquake also fixed many of those leaky pipes.

But water woes continued, now because the town screwed up installation of the new meters. In one outrageous SNAFU, it was revealed that five businesses - including a bakery and one of Santa Rosa's largest saloons - were connected through a water meter for a private residence. The homeowner understandably refused to pay the excess-use water bill so the city shut off the meter, and thus the water supply to the home and businesses alike. Two of the businesses agreed to pay the flat business rate, but the others balked, leaving the water turned off. "Without the necessary water, sinks and toilets go without flushing and the neighbors are wondering 'how about the sanitary condition' of the block," commented a letter to the editor.

By 1909, downtown businessmen were flatly refusing to pay their water bills, viewing the rates as capricious - a liquor store owed $2 a month but a dentist paid only a dollar above the base rate and physicians paid nothing. When others heard their neighboring businesses were getting away without paying, they began ignoring their bills as well. Thus on a fine spring morning in 1909, Street Commissioner W. A. Nichols marched up and down the downtown streets and shut off the scofflaw's water. A standoff began, and soon the Press Democrat reported, "For the last few days block after block on Fourth street has been without water."

After a week without toilets or tap water, about a dozen delinquent businesses paid their bills. At least one major property owner thumbed his nose at the city system and signed with McDonald. But Santa Rosa's intractable policies placed still other companies in a Catch-22. Most buildings had only a single water hookup, yet there could be more than one business at that address. Under city rules, all water was shut off to the building if any of the businesses there were past due. One company caught in the middle was the main downtown grocery store: Erwin Brothers, at 703-705 Fourth street. They went to city hall to pay every cent in arrears and make a deposit toward future payments but the city refused to accept their money - there was another tenant in the building who still didn't want to pay. After nine dry days, the Erwins illegally turned the water on themselves and filed an injunction against the city to keep it on.

What happened next probably had the town buzzing. According to comments from the Erwins published in the Republican, the mayor personally asked them to drop the lawsuit, suggesting, "Why don't you connect with the McDonald system and save all this trouble," foolishly placing Santa Rosa in legal peril, given they were litigants against the city over this very issue. The mayor claimed none of that was true and he hadn't even spoken with them; the Erwins countered with details of the visit, including the mayor had left his kid waiting in the buggy.

The suit was dismissed a couple of weeks later and the business hookup rules fixed, bringing to an end over a decade of various skirmishes in the Santa Rosa Water Wars. For years the city still had two water systems – the McDonald Water Company continued to operate through the Roaring Twenties. The city eventually simplified rates so residents were no longer paying different prices to water their watermelons and flowers. But city water still was hard and sulphurous, so on warm summer afternoons the sprinklers danced wild over Santa Rosa lawns with a golden spray and a faint stench of eggs gone rotten.



For further reading: Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings


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