The History of El Dorado County’s Water Wars
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Natoma Ditch, photo by Josh Morgan.
“Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting over,” a quote attributed to Mark Twain in the late 1800s, is still applicable today, especially as the drought drags on. Water, or the lack thereof, has impacted the development of the Sierra Nevada since the days of the Gold Rush.
Success in the gold fields was dependent upon water to wash the gold from the surrounding dirt. Near the larger rivers, such as the American, water was abundant, but as mining operations moved into the foothills, ravines and gulches, miners relied on the winter rains to supply the water they needed. The rains, however, were unpredictable—some years were very wet, some were very dry. The winter of 1850 was a dry year, and miners found it increasingly difficult to make a living with limited water. Needless to say, a more reliable source of water was in high demand.
In 1850, enterprising individuals looked to the year-round flow of the American and Cosumnes Rivers as well as Weber Creek to fill this need. By constructing ditches and flumes—some carrying water six, eight, 10 miles and more—they could supply water to outlying mining operations, vineyards and farms. Perhaps the first ditch in the county was the Union Flume, a three-mile trench that conveyed water from the South Fork of the American River near Coloma to the Lotus area.
Remnants of these ditches can be found throughout the county, and many are still used by local farmers and water purveyors, including the Georgetown Divide and El Dorado Irrigation District (EID).
During the Gold Rush, those who constructed a ditch or flume owned the ditch and the water running through it; they then sold the water to the miners, who oftentimes were required to return the water to the ditch so it could be resold downstream.
Water was measured and sold by the miner’s inch, which is “the quantity of water that will escape from a hole one inch square through a two-inch thick plank, with a steady flow of water standing six inches above the top of the hole, in a 24-hour period.” This amounts to approximately 10 gallons of water per minute.
Disputes over water rights were common and often led to bloodshed. In 1860, Dr. White of Indian Diggings dammed a portion of Cedar Creek for his own purposes. Miners below the dam were enraged and commenced breaking up the dam. White, defending his property, shot and killed two of the three miners, and spent the next year hiding from the law before returning to the East Coast.
In 1856, John Kirk, an engineering consultant from Pennsylvania, claimed the rights to the water of the South Fork of the American River as well as storage claims on Silver, Willow, Twin, Audrain, Echo, Medley and Glacier Lakes. In 1873, he and a partner created the El Dorado Water and Deep Gravel Mining Company. The water storage and conveyance system engineered by that company is now part of EID’s Project 184, which includes Lake Aloha, Echo, Silver and Caples Lakes, 22.3 miles of flumes and canals, Forebay Reservoir, and a powerhouse.