Santa Rosa’s water wars ended in 1907, when post-earthquake upgrades allowed it to provide a reliable (albeit foul-tasting) water supply. But water woes continued because the town screwed up installation of the new water meters.

Santa Rosa introduced water meters in 1905 after years of fumbled efforts to enforce conservation. Policemen, firemen and city inspectors were turned into water cops, empowered to write hefty $2.50 citations for leaky faucets. Lawns could be watered only at certain times of the day announced by a steam whistle, and there were additional monthly fees for every water fixture (having an indoor toilet cost 25ยข and was worth every penny). Once meters were installed, each home was supposed to be billed only for water use over 10,000 gallons/month. In theory.

As it turns out, the city inspectors should have been keeping a close watch on the guys installing the expensive new meters. In one case mentioned below, two homes shared the same meter – an arrangement the owners asked the city council for permission to continue, as it would be expensive and bothersome to install separate water lines for each house (the request was denied).

In a far more 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 other two 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 the letter’s author.


Editor Republican:

Like Banquo’s ghost, Santa Rosa’s free water spook will not down, but comes up to flap its dry cerements around the town. The domestic 10,000 gallons frequently fail to flow, or will flow in a flood, the meters fail to meet the matter and the claims for the excess liquid fall of liquidation. A property owner who is paying his water bond tax had his water shut off and is carrying the question into a court of law. Two citizens appeared before the city council Tuesday night asking that the single meter which marks the gallons of water running into their two separate residences, and into no other, be permitted to do double duty for the present. The petitioners gave as a reason for the request that the change, the laying of extra pipes, the digging of trenches through lawns would cost them fully $30. The extra meter room cost the city about $8. Mr. Ross, one of the petitioners, thought that even if the city would not consider the matter of saving a property owner $30 [in] these rather hard times, by the simple exercise of a little discretion, it might in view of the fact that the public warrants are held up every month by reason of municipal poverty, hold on to that $8.

Notwithstanding the fact of that three practical councilmen were ready to grant the request, it was turned down because the water ordinance called for a meter at each and every residence, and the council proceeded to order $400 worth of meters. Mr. Ross will have a nice new meter in front of his home, which will be $8 off his $30 bill.

On the north side of Fourth Street are five business places–Ketterlin Bros. hardware store, Young Bros. store, Greek-American Candy Kitchen, Santa Rosa Bakery and the Germania saloon, which are all hooked on to the meter in front of the residence on Fifth street occupied by Mrs. Gore. There are no other meters in the bunch of six places. The July excess bill amounting to $14 was sent to Mrs. Gore and the August bill amounting to about $4 went to the same person. She declined to pay the bills on the ground of that she is away from her home all day employed in a restaurant, and her two roomers occupy the building only at night, also that five other places were included. Yesterday the water was turned off at the meter on Fifth street and the six places went dry. Young Brothers and the Germania proprietor finally paid their flat rate bills for the two months, but they are still without water because the other four parties have not settled. The inmates are without the necessary water, sinks and toilets go without flushing and the neighbors are wondering “how about the sanitary condition” of the block. One of the waterless storekeepers says he will stand pat even if the Board of Health takes a hand. So the ghost will not down, the meters will not meet and the free water will not be free.


– Letter to the Santa Rosa Republican, October 7, 1908

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In the winter of 1906, Santa Rosa Creek was so healthy that you could catch salmon with your bare hands – but just a year later, a Fish and Game Commissioner declared “it would be impossible to find anything more filthy” than the same creek bed. As a test of the water’s toxicity, trout and other fish were placed in an underwater cage downstream from the power company. “[I]n short order the fish were killed.”

But nothing was apparently done about the problem; there was no further mention in 1907 or 1908 newspapers. Why should anyone care, really? No laws of the time were broken; Deputy Fish and Game Commissioner Lea was only a Game Warden, empowered with issuing $25 tickets to out-of-season fishermen, not shutting down factories spewing toxic waste into the waterways. And not that Santa Rosa probably cared for the health of the Creek; the town was dumping 1906 earthquake debris on the banks to narrow the waterway for the new E street bridge. Besides, who would be stupid enough to fish downstream from the factories?

(RIGHT: Industry along Santa Rosa Creek. 1: Woolen Mill 2: Fruit Cannery 3: Tannery 4: Grace Brothers Brewery 5: Lighting Company)

It’s interesting that the man from Fish and Game “invited newspapermen to go with him and take a look at the Third street bridge,” which was apparently the place to view (smell?) the worst of it. This is where West Third passes over the creek, midway between highway 101 and Dutton Ave. Nothing much to see today, but the historical importance of this spot is as great as the Carrillo adobe. This was the location of Hukabetawi, the primary village for the Pomo in the Santa Rosa region. It was also on this spot that the Spanish began to construct a Mission in 1827, but the project was abandoned after “the Indians rose up and destroyed the incipient Mission buildings,” according to the county’s first historian.

Also note: When it came to spelling “deleterious,” the Santa Rosa Republican had a dictionary, and the Press Democrat had not.

Officer of State Fish Commission Here on Official Business–Proceedings May be Brought

Deputy Fish and Game Commissioner A. F. Lea was in this city on Tuesday and Wednesday under instructions from the State board of Fish and Game Commissioners for the purpose of inspecting Santa Rosa Creek as to whether dilaterious matter was being allowed to go into the waters from the lighting works, tanneries, cannery, factories, etc., along the banks of the creek. As a result of the inspection and the report that the officer will be compelled to make there may be “something doing.”

In discussing the matter, Mr. Lea stated Wednesday afternoon that it would be impossible to find anything more filthy than the creek bottom in the rear of the cannery and from there on to the tannery beyond. He said he should be compelled to take the matter up with the commissioners. He was surprised to find conditions as they existed, he said, and that something should be done at once to remedy matters.

Mr. Lea found other sections of the creek in an unsatisfactory condition where foreign matter was being allowed to run into it. It will be remembered that sometime ago complaints were made regarding the matter now in hand. In the worst place complained of other beside Mr. Lea agree that the point he makes in calling attention to the filth is well taken. Wednesday afternoon he invited newspapermen to go with him and take a look at the Third street bridge.

– Press Democrat, November 7, 1907

The case against the Santa Rosa Lighting Company, charged with having polluted the waters of Santa Rosa creek with matters deleterious to fish life, was begun before Justice A. J. Atchinson Friday morning….

Professor Price, an expert on water, testified that his analysis showed the water submitted to him from the stream was deleterious from a chemical standpoint. He had no experience with fish.

Deputy Game Commissioner A. F. Lea exhibited jars of dead fish which he alleged were killed by the waters. He referred to placing a number of fish in a large wire screen twenty to thirty feet below the place where the deleterious water is said to have flowed into the stream and in short order the fish were killed. A trout was the first to succumb. Mr. Lea will bring some data with him from Cloverdale for the hearing next Saturday.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 20, 1907

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Early 20th century Santa Rosa had plenty of rules and regs on water use, and gave city workers broad powers to enforce them. As noted earlier, a policeman who heard water running overnight could wake up homeowners and require them to shut off the faucet; a city inspector could come into your home and write a $2.50 citation for every leaky fixture, and as shown below, firemen could enforce a city ordinance requiring all lawn and garden watering to cease when the fire bell rang. The “irrigation hours” mentioned here was another water regulation holdover from the last century; depending upon your address, homeowners could only water at certain hours in either the afternoon or evening, the starting and ending times announced by the tooting of the town’s steam whistle, not to be confused with the fire bell, which signaled that all water should be shut off . It wasn’t the Edwardian Era in America – it was the Pavlovian Era.

Ordinance Will Be Strictly Enforced–Meeting of the Fire Commissioners Last Night

There is a city ordinance that provided when a fire alarm is sounded persons who are irrigating their lawns shall immediately shut off the water.

At a meeting of the Fire Commissioners last night, Fire Chief Muther in ____ [illegible microfilm] to have his his men keep a sharp lookout to see that the ordinance is strictly obeyed.

There were four alarms of fire during the month. The most serious conflagration being at the old Ladies’ College building on McDonald avenue. The Chief called attention to the lack of water to combat this fire, explaining that the hydrant is on a “dead end” and the fire occurring during “irrigation hours” sufficient water could only be obtained for one stream.

– Press Democrat, May 22, 1907

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