If any good came from the 1906 earthquake, it was that Santa Rosa finally fixed its dysfunctional water system. Although the town 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 was always somewhat foul, and sometimes scarce.

(RIGHT: Postcard of Santa Rosa Creek in the early 20th century, probably the railroad bridge between Third St. and Sebastopol Ave.)

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. City water was 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. There was also the problem that about one-fourth of the water disappeared somewhere in the pipes, either from leaks or illegal hookups, so the supply was perpetually rationed. Water from the old McDonald system was “soft,” and considered good tasting, even though water pressure was much lower. This water came from Lake Ralphine, which was found to be contaminated with hog and human waste (maybe it was E.coli that gave the water its je ne sais quoi). 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 – and indeed, continued to operate through the Roaring Twenties – 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 in the early 20th century that 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. For more on the background on Santa Rosa’s water wars, see this earlier essay or read John Cummings’ paper, “Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926” (PDF).

A 1905 bond raised enough for basic improvements in the city-owned water works, and the benefits appeared in 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.

In the 1907 items below, Santa Rosans are reminded that the 19th century lawn and garden watering rules are still in effect: if you lived west of Mendocino Avenue you could hose the garden only after 5PM, while neighbors on the east side could water their watermelons between 4 and 8PM. But the 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.


Until after the completion of the repairs being made to the reservoir, which will not be longer than twenty or thirty days, the hours for irrigating in this city will be strictly enforced.

All members of that section east of Mendocino avenue and Main street will irrigate in the evening between 4 and 8 o’clock. All residents of that portion of the city lying west of Mendocino avenue and Main street will irrigate between 5 and 9 o’clock on the forenoons. The police department will see that the rules regarding irrigation are rigidly enforced.
Street Superintendent.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 9, 1907
Electric Pumps Will Be Used All Day Saturday

Manager Ralph L. Van der Naillen, of the Santa Rosa Lighting Company, will use his big electric pumps on Saturday and give the people of the city a service from them and the reservoir for that day to show what these massive pumps will do when they begin operations in the near future. The city’s pumps, which have seen service for many years will be out of commission on Saturday. They will be used again, however, on Monday, and be kept in use until such time as the city repairs its main leading from the pumps to the city’s reservoir.

At the present time there are three leaks in this main line, and one is a serious one. It permits almost as much water to go to waste as is pumped in to the reservoir. Despite this big waste Manager Van der Naillen declares his pumps will be able to fill the reservoir Saturday. The people will be given a demonstration on that day of what the water system will be like when these pumps of the electric company are finally placed in commission to run permanently.

The electric pumps are giving perfect satisfaction, and if the supply of water at the pumping station will hold out it is believed that the troubles of the city with furnishing sufficient water will be at an end.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 14, 1907

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