1905santarosacreek

THE GODAWFUL STINK OF SANTA ROSA CREEK

If you ever come across a time machine, avoid Santa Rosa in July, 1913. That month had the all-time hottest temperature (113 in the shade) as enormous wildfires blazed in Marin and Napa; it was also the second year of severe drought, causing the town’s reservoir to draw dangerously low. More about all that can be found in an earlier item, “THE AWFUL SUMMER OF 1913” but there was also something else: A terrible stench drifted up from Santa Rosa Creek.

The Press Democrat first reported PG&E was suspected as the culprit, as they operated the coal gas plant on the south side of the creek. A story in the PD the following day said the company investigated and it wasn’t them, instead suggesting it was probably “vegetation that has decayed,” causing the paper to skeptically snort, “at least that is their contention.” After weeks of complaints, Dr. Jackson Temple, the town’s Health Officer, and a reporter for the Santa Rosa Republican set off in a voyage of disgusting discovery to solve the mystery.

Ca. 1905 photo of Santa Rosa Creek, with the old Main Street bridge in the distance. Note the discharge pipe seen to the left. Photo Credit: “Santa Rosa, California in Vintage Postcards” by Bob and Kay Voliva

Dr. Temple and the reporter started behind the Levin tannery (the current location of 101 Brookwood Avenue). The tannery had a long history of polluting the creek with lime and highly toxic agents such as cyanide used in the manufacture of leather. Citizens had petitioned the City Council to get tough on the tannery and the Dept. of Fish and Game had sued over the poisoning of fish. But on the day of the creek survey, no problems were found – although cynics might wonder if the tannery had been tipped off about the creek investigation, given the business was Santa Rosa’s largest employer.

More distressing was what they found nearby: “Several piles of rotting vegetables and garbage were found at this spot and were evidently from private houses. There was plenty of evidence that many persons had used the creek for a considerable distance as an open air toilet.”

As their wagon continued bumping down the dry creek bed (drought, remember) they came to the PG&E gas plant, another source of frequent complaints about foul smells. And again, no problems were found that day, except for “a considerable deposit of lamp black” on the bottom of the creek. Dr. Temple proclaimed it harmless, but he was wrong; lampblack carbon residue was considered as toxic as petroleum tar even back then; in 1906 the Army Corps of Engineers specifically sued the Portland gas company for dumping it into the river and by 1913 PG&E had installed scrubbers at their plants in San Francisco and elsewhere to keep it out of the waterways.

So far, so good (mostly) – but as the Republican commented, “a short distance further on, however, came the worst conditions imaginable.”

This area was just south of the Davis street bridge, which was named in the earlier odor complaints. Today this section of Santa Rosa is gone, wiped out by the highway, but it was just where the southbound onramp from West Third street merges onto 101.

The main offenders were two major businesses, side-by-side: The Grace Brothers brewery (today the location of the Hyatt) and the Santa Rosa Tanning Company directly to its south. “The stench arising from this was indescribable,” the article said. “It filled the nostrils like blue smoke, filtered down into the lungs, and burned its way to the stomach, where it worked until it gave one the feeling of a bad morning after a worse night. The top of the water was covered solid with a green-black streaked scum, and the water beneath was as black as night.”

And that wasn’t all: “[A]nother sight was met which added greatly to the stench in the neighborhood. A toilet had been built of rough boards in the Mead Clark Lumber Company’s yards. The rear of the toilet was open and hung over the creek bank and its contents covered the bank for a distance of many feet.”

The next – and thankfully, last – horror was the cannery, where “two large streams of water were found pouring into the creek. The water was a wine purple in color and carried with it an orange colored scum, which was added to that from the brewery. Combined, the smell was almost overpowering” Just beyond that was a “great pile of refuse which was rotten and putrid, and which also gave off a most offensive odor.” Even though there was no further dumping downstream, the Republican said the stench from the water carried as far as where the creek passes under modern-day Dutton ave.

Gentle Reader is probably wondering why these companies were stinking up the town instead of discharging their waste down the sewers. As it turns out, that always might not have been an option.

Santa Rosa indeed had a sewer farm at the corner of West College and Stony Point (think Finley Community Park and the the city bus transit center) and by 1913 there were multiple septic tanks and several in-line evaporating/seepage ponds before the residual water was dumped into Santa Rosa Creek. But the system was usually teetering on the brink of collapse, according to John Cummings’ survey, “The Sewage of Santa Rosa” (which is a really fun read if you enjoy municipal screwups). In the decade before our stinky 1913 tour, town officials made a string of remarkably bad decisions. Some lowlights:

* In 1905 the city wrote to the Cameron Septic Tank Company in Chicago requesting plans and costs for a new tank. Told by the company that their system was patented and they required a deposit before providing plans, Santa Rosa ripped off the design and had locals construct it anyway. Cameron Septic sued, and Santa Rosa ended up paying back royalties plus the cost of building the copycat tank. That wooden septic tank was big enough to handle a population of 10,000, although there were already almost that many people in the greater Santa Rosa region. By 1912 the sewer committee reported the “sewage problem is in deplorable condition” as the system was beyond capacity.

 

* The original 1886 layout of the sewers called for eight-inch pipe west of Main Street/Mendocino, but only six-inch lines east of there into the main residential neighborhoods. By the early Twentieth Century, these pipes could not handle demands; every winter the sewer mains down Second and Fifth streets backed up. In 1913 the city approved a high water volume, “Wet Wash” laundry at the corner of First and A streets and every time it discharged wastewater, the Second street main line overflowed. The town’s solution was to ask the laundry to build a private cesspool but according to the Republican article, they had been dumping it into the creek.

 

* Santa Rosa failed to make incremental improvements even when it had the opportunity. After the 1906 earthquake hundreds of connections were repaired and there were new extensions of the sewer mains, all using the inadequate six-inch diameter pipe. When the city added a new line to serve the booming communities south of the Creek in 1914 they used eight-inch mains, which predictably backed up just as they did on Second and Fifth streets. Santa Rosa’s solution was to spend more on maintenance – installing new manholes allowing workers to use a sewer cleaning machine that cost the equivalent of about $24,000 today.

(RIGHT: Santa Rosa Creek at flood stage in 1925, as seen from the newer Main Street steel bridge. Photo credit: Sonoma County Library)

Compounding the odor problems of 1913 was the drought, which meant no moving water in the creek so pollutants stayed more or less where they were discharged. All that was about to dramatically change.

The winter of 1913-1914 was an El Niño storm season, and Sonoma county was hit hard; in the December 30 storm, Santa Rosa had four inches in 26 hours while Cazadero had fourteen. Many “wagon bridges” over creeks around the county were destroyed and the Russian River passed flood stage. Railroad crews and volunteers in Santa Rosa worked through the night to protect the Santa Rosa Creek bridges as “trees and timber of all kinds, fencing and all sorts of trash were being whirled along in the angry, muddy, turbulent stream,” according to the Press Democrat. In the thrilling account transcribed below, men with axes and secured by ropes chopped for hours on a tree rammed against the side of the Davis street bridge.

The creek probably smelled pretty good after that big flush, at least for a while. But nothing fundamentally changed. According to the Cummings paper, “the city’s own sanitary inspector described the condition of the creek in the spring of 1916 as being ‘worse than a septic tank’ and commented that nothing could be done about it.”

AROMA ANNOYING ON THE DAVIS STREET BRIDGE

People who have to cross the Davis street bridge are lodging complaints concerning the aroma that comes up from the stream. The befouling of the water is said to come from gas water from the gas works. It is hoped by the complaints that something will be done to relieve the present unpleasantness.

– Press Democrat July 24, 1913
SAY SEWER GAS IN FILL IS CAUSE OF STENCH

Thursday morning’s Press Democrat mentioned the annoying stench coming from the creek, supposedly caused by gas water from the gas works. It at once recalled the suggestion made long ago that there should be a commercial sewer, into which the drainage from the gas works, tanneries, etc., could be turned in. Several years ago this matter was up for discussion before the city council, and Mayor Mercier and the present council are also interested in the matter. So is Health Officer Jackson Temple, M. D. The gas people state that they made an examination, thinking that there was a leak of gas somewhere, but claim that the stench is probably caused by vegetation that has decayed since the fill was made for the Davis street bridge. At least that is their contention.

– Press Democrat July 25, 1913
CITY HEALTH OFFICER INVESTIGATES CONDITION
Of Santa Rosa Creek With a Republican Representative

No one need go to an auto polo game, nor to seventy mile an hour races, nor on a scenic railway for thrills. The Alps, Mt. McKinley nor any other peak can have any terrors for the person who takes a light wagon or buggy and drives down the bed of Santa Rosa creek from city limits to city limits. Apprenticeship for a deep water sailor can be gone through with in less than regulation time by taking this trip.

It is not a pleasant trip in any sense of the word. So much has been said and so much written concerning the Santa Rosa Creek that the REPUBLICAN determined to find out the conditions of the creek from an expert’s point of view, and let the people of this city know that condition, its cause and what it’s effect will be. The blame for the conditions can be placed at once. When this article is read over and nearly every condition described is noted by the reader, let him say simply, “A commercial sewer will prevent this condition.”

Blame for the condition lies entirely in this. If the city is to blame for not having such a sewer, that is another matter. But the direct blame for the conditions lies in the lack of a proper commercial sewer, or any commercial sewer for that matter, for the city is without one. There are certain factories on the creek which are creating more waste water every day than their sewer tappings are capable of carrying away. There are factories creating more waste water than the main sewer with which they are connected is capable of carrying, with no other factor or residence connected with it.

What shall these factories do? Shut down or use the creek as an outlet?

Certain it is that no more factories can be encouraged to come here until proper sewerage is provided for those already here, an epidemic will sweep this city and the cost of the sewer in dollars will be insignificant compared with the cost of an epidemic in human lives.

Now for the conditions. Dr. Jackson Temple accompanied a representative of the REPUBLICAN on the inspection of the creek. Dr. Temple is city health officer. He made the trip at the invitation of the REPUBLICAN because of the importunings of citizens who live along the creek and who have been keeping his telephones busy for the last few weeks sending in complaints of the unsanitary conditions which they claimed to be prevalent along the creek throughout the city.

The descent into the creek bottom was made in back of the tannery at the foot of F street. Several piles of rotting vegetables and garbage were found at this spot and were evidently from private houses. There was plenty of evidence that many persons had used the creek for a considerable distance as an open air toilet. This, by the way, is distinctly against the law. No waste water from the tannery was in evidence, at least not in any large streams. Had there been, the green vegetable matter noticeable in all stagnant water would not have been in evidence, as it was, through the pools at this point.

Passing from here after much violent pitching and rolling of the wagon, the back of the gas works was reached. Two large streams of water were being turned into the creek at this point from the works. A gas works sends its waste water through a long process of filteration with lamp black before it is turned into the creek or sewer, as the case may be. The water as sent into the creek is tested and passed by the Fish and Game Commission and therefore is pure enough not to cause trouble in the creek. For quite a distance below the creek, however, a considerable deposit of lamp black is noticeable on the bottome of the creek. According to Dr. Temple, this will not do any harm, nor cause any stench, and none was noticeable at this point beyond that arising from any gas works, and which is impossible to prevent.

Passing to the Wet Wash Laundry, the waste pipe which was recently broken and the water allowed to flood into the creek, was found to have been fixed, and there was no overflow, and has not been for some time as the ground where the flow had been was completely dried.

Dr. Temple, however, pointed out a white deposit left where the overflow had been and stated that this was to a great extent alkali and that turned into the domestic sewer, it would nullify the work of the septic germs in the tanks at the sewer farm. Along the creek at this point, however, there were many piles of garbage, again evidently refuse from residences. Piles were in various stages of decomposition and the stench was very strong although not spread over a very wide area.

Conditions along the creek from this point on for some distance were the best of any found. There were piles of tin cans festooned along the banks, rendering them very unsightly, but this offended civic pride more than bodily senses. Around the Davis street bridge, that is in close proximity to the bridge, everything was fairly clean.

A short distance further on, however, came the worst conditions imaginable. From the tannery came a small stream of bluish-white water, the odor of which was most unpleasant. A short distance on there was a good sized stream from the brewery, and still further on another larger stream from the same place. The stench arising from this was indescribable. It filled the nostrils like blue smoke, filtered down into the lungs, and burned its way to the stomach, where it worked until it gave one the feeling of a bad morning after a worse night. The top of the water was covered solid with a green-black streaked scum, and the water beneath was as black as night. This scum came down with the water over the banks and was traced to the brewery.

Just before reaching this another sight was met which added greatly to the stench in the neighborhood. A toilet had been built of rough boards in the Mead Clark Lumber Company’s yards. The rear of the toilet was open and hung over the creek bank and its contents covered the bank for a distance of many feet. This also is in direct violation of the law and will be attended to at once by the health authorities.

Passing on from the back of the brewery as quickly as possible, the railroad bridge was left behind and the camping grounds near the cannery were encountered. The sanitary conditions here are very commendable. Nothing had been thrown on the banks except old papers and a few cans. This is due to the persistent efforts of Dr. Temple, who insisted that the rules of sanitation be lived up to as much as possible in the camp.

The scum on the water was deeper the further down the creek one went, and the stench correspondingly more unendurable. Reaching the back of the cannery, two large streams of water were found pouring into the creek. The water was a wine purple in color and carried with it an orange colored scum, which was added to that from the brewery. Combined, the smell was almost overpowering. Just below the cannery, on the bank was a great pile of refuse which was rotten and putrid, and which also gave off a most offensive odor. This pile was seen to be fresh on one side and badly rotted on the other.

From the cannery to the Seventh street bridge, there was nothing else added to the creek in the way of vegetable matter or waste water. But the stench from the water at the Seventh street bridge was just as strong as at the brewery.

In making a resume and comparing notes of the trip, Dr. Temple was asked what the result would be if these conditions were not attended to and speedily at that. “Sickness, much of it, and in bad forms,” was his instant reply. Therefore, while no attempt will be made to point a moral, a question is left which needs a speedy answer: “Will the citizens provide a commercial sewer, or will they invite the inevitable epidemic.”

– Santa Rosa Republican August 15, 1913
SANTA ROSA CREEK IN A WILD MAD RACE
Much Anxiety Felt for Hours for Bridges–Big Tree Lodges Against Davis Street Bridge–Care Could Not Cross Electric Railroad Trestle Last Night

For some time last night when the storm was at its height considerable anxiety was felt for the safety of the Island bridge, the Main street bridge, the Davis street bridge, the electric railroad bridge and that across the creek at West Third street, as well as the old bridge at Pierson and West Sixth street.

Scores of people braved the storm and visited the bridges and at 2 o’clock this morning when a Press Democrat representative made the rounds people were still watching the mighty torrent racing along carrying al kinds of debris with it.

About 10 o’clock last night a big willow tree swept down and lodged against the Davis street bridge. Word was at once sent to Mayor Mercier and Street Superintendent Beebe and in a short time they were on hand with men and many of the big branches were cut away. This was accomplished by men with axes who climbed down onto the tree and were held from slipping by ropes placed about their bodies. At 1 o’clock this morning the tree was anchored with stout ropes so as to prevent if possible, its going further down stream to collide with the electric bridge.

The high water washed away considerable of the fill on this side of the Davis street bridge, but so far as could be seen the retaining wall on the Ellis street side was not damaged. A portion of the fill on the Main street side where the turn is mde onto the Island bridge, was also washed away. At 2 o’clock this morning Mayor Mercier, Superintendent Beebe and George Plover went out to the old pumping station to look at the bridge across the creek there which also carried the big water main. The bridge was in good condition.

Cars Don’t Cross Bridge

The electric cars to this city stopped on the other sided of the trestle bridge across Santa Rosa creek as it was deemed dangerous, owing to the tremendous torrent to cross. A crew of men employed by the railroad were on hand endeavoring to dislodge any debris that rammed against the structure. This bridge seemed in great danger. The Northwestern Pacific railroad had crew of men watching its bridge across the creek. Santa Rosa creek was a boiling torrent and the roar of the stream could be heard for a long distance. At 2 o’clock the water had fallen considerable but it was raining and a high wind was blowing.

A portion of a bulkhead near the electric bridge was washed out. Horses were moved from stables on the bank of the creek. Many awnings and signs suffered from the force of the wind and storm. It was altogether a wild night and people living along the banks of the creeks in town and in the country adjoining were considerably worried..

…The amount of debris carried by the waters of the creek was wonderful. When the water was at its highest last night big pieces of wood and other material kept up an almost incessant banging against the Island and Main street bridges, at times somewhat alarming timorous people gathered there. Trees and timber of all kinds, fencing and all sorts of trash were being whirled along in the angry, muddy, turbulent stream.

Men employed by the city were kept patrolling the various bridges all night to give warning should occasion arise when additional help might be wanted.

– Press Democrat December 31, 1913

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1913tamalpais

HUGE WILDFIRES, DROUGHT, RECORD HEAT: THE AWFUL SUMMER OF 1913

Anyone who lived through that week probably never forgot it. Wildfires were driven by drought conditions and unbearable temperatures, with newspapers reporting some new calamity nearly every day. Thousands of acres burned in separate incidents around the Sonoma Valley and near Petaluma while a large block in downtown Napa was lost in a fast-moving blaze. And that was just the second week of July, 1913.

The most dramatic of the fires happened as that week began. “Shortly before midnight the fire on Mount Tamalpais gained great headway approaching Mill Valley,” reported the wire service story that appeared in the Press Democrat on July 9. “[T]he flames are within half a mile of the city boundary. If the wind veers, Mill Valley and Larkspur are doomed.” Evacuation orders were issued for Mill Valley, Larkspur, Corte Madera and the little community called Escalle.

The fire had started a day earlier and was not considered a serious threat; the cute little train that putted along the “Crookedest Railroad in the World” continued bringing guests to the hotel and the tavern near the peak of the mountain, one of the Bay Area’s top tourist attractions with panoramic views. There was little concern at first when visitors were told the train wouldn’t be running for a while because the flames were near the tracks but when the phone line went down and the fire could be seen from the porch, people began to panic. As the sun was about to set and guests were threatening to take their chances walking down the mountain, it was agreed they would try to get through on the train. With the passengers wrapped in wet sheets, the train slowly chugged down the rails with its many switchbacks, now less picturesque as trees burned on either side. The train car caught fire at least once. The engineer stopped and shouted he would no longer take responsibility for what happened and some passengers got off. “Windows cracked and broke,” according to a first-hand account that appeared in the San Francisco Call. “Sparks flew in through the broken windows and set fire to clothing. Slowly the train rolled through the banks of fire. Every minute seemed an hour.” Two women were unconscious when the train finally pulled into the Mill Valley station after dark.

All Bay Area National Guard companies were mobilized, including Santa Rosa’s Company E as shown in the Press Democrat front page to the right. They joined 8,000 soldiers, sailors and firemen from San Francisco along with volunteers. Thankfully the winds calmed, but it still took them three days to beat out the fire using only simple hand tools and wet sacks.

The Mt. Tamalpais fire wasn’t the only major disaster in the Bay Area that season. After it was well under control, Lt. Hilliard Comstock and some of the others from Company E were sent to Santa Cruz. They could well have spent weeks chasing regional fire threats. Nor was Tamalpais even the worst; in September about 80,000 acres burned in Napa County, cutting a swath from Lake Berryessa to the Delta – which at the time was the worst wildfire in California history, although now it doesn’t even rank in the top 20. It was also the summer that Jack London’s incredible Wolf House burned before he was able to sleep in it a single night.

A major cause of the high fire risk that year was California’s suffering through a second year of drought, which was particularly bad in the North Bay. The Sonoma County average rainfall – as measured in Santa Rosa – is about 30 inches per season. The 1911-1912 rain year was 18.44 inches, or about sixty percent of normal; in 1912-1913 it was a little over 24 inches, which was down in the low-normal range. (A thorough discussion of local historic rainfall can be found in an earlier item, “WATER CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS.”)

For Santa Rosans, the worst of the worst came on the afternoon of Friday, July 11. Everyone was probably breathing a sigh of relief because the morning Press Democrat reported the Tamalpais blaze was contained. Then at noon the fire bell sounded; two houses were aflame on lower Seventh street in the Italian neighborhood. The SRFD was able to save one house but the other was a complete loss. Afterwards, someone checked the city reservoir – and found that fighting those fires had drawn water levels dangerously low to just five feet.

The mayor contacted both the PD and Santa Rosa Republican, asking them to alert the public: No lawns or gardens should be watered through the weekend, and “be as sparing in the use for domestic purposes as possible.”

Nearly everyone in Santa Rosa ignored his plea.

“A trip along one of the principal resident streets of the city Friday evening showed that in fourteen blocks there were but three houses in front of which the lawn was not being sprinkled,” the Republican grumbled. Those inclined to conspiracy theories apparently thought the mayor was crying wolf because water wagons were still hosing down the streets – essential because many people still used horses – and both papers had to explain the wagons didn’t use city water, instead sprinkling what the McDonald Water Company supplied from (what’s now known as) Lake Ralphine.

But we shouldn’t judge the water wasters too harshly. July 11 was also remarkable for setting the all-time record for the hottest day in Santa Rosa history – 113 degrees at one o’clock, with 126 recorded in direct sun (see historical temperatures). It was hotter in Santa Rosa than Phoenix (110) or Fresno (108). Because of the scorching heat the Petaluma Argus reported hundreds of chickens died; any apples hanging on the south and west side of trees turned brown.

It was an age before refrigeration and air conditioning, of course, and aside from splashing on some water from the tap or garden hose, relief only came from the ice plant at the Grace Brothers’ brewery on Third street. The place was mobbed, with five men required to serve the long line of sweaty Santa Rosans. The PD noted, “Many came in autos and buggies carrying 50 to 100 pounds each, while others on bicycles and afoot took 5 to 25 pounds in sacks or wrapped in paper.”

The heat wave passed but by the end of the month Santa Rosa enacted emergency water measures, as seen in the notice shown here. It was a throwback to the water rationing prior to 1907 discussed in the link above, except then the borderlines were east/west of Mendocino avenue with watering allowed every day at different times. The new edict was north/south of Fourth street on alternating days which was ever so much better because. Everyone was allowed to go nuts with their hoses on Sunday nights and a few neighbors probably even had water fights, wasteful though they be.

MAYOR MERCIER SAYS USE WATER SPARINGLY
The Supply is Too Low to Trifle With and Irrigation Should Stop For Few days

“The city water supply is too low to permit irrigation of lawns and leave sufficient for fire protection and even scant domestic uses.”

This statement was made in the office of the REPUBLICAN today by Mayor J. L. Mercier, directly after his return from the noonday blaze on Seventh street. The situation became apparent when water was needed to fight the blaze to which the department had been summoned.

“The reservoir was practically empty at the close of the day yesterday and after the pumps had worked all night there was but 5 feet of depth in our 15 foot reservoir.

“The water is simply–not there. We may as well admit the fact before loss of property–perhaps life–by fire drives the information into our hearts–or pockets.”

The mayor wished the REPUBLICAN to inform the people of the facts and beg them in their own interests–for their own protection to USE NO WATER FOR IRRIGATION PURPOSES until Monday at the earliest and to be as sparing in the use for domestic purposes as possible until a full reservoir shall give the property of the citizens the protection of a supply for possible use at fires.

Santa Rosa is not the only city thus situated. Stringent rules have been proclaimed in many California cities and in others citizens have been warned and cautioned–are continued daily.

Your home may be lost if water is squandered in careless domestic use, and, more especially if it is wasted in trying to save a few lawns.

It is up to the citizens and theirs will be the responsibility if serious trouble results from a neglect of this warning.

RECORD FLIGHTS OF MERCURY
Hot Stunts of the Local Thermometers

The “oldest resident” with his record of long ago hot spells was not around today, or if he was visible nobody met him. Thursday, July 10th, was the “hottest day,” with a maximum of 105, but this day, the 11th, at 11 A. M. the small god with the winged heels flew up to 107 degrees above zero. This is the registration of the big mercury machine of Lawson & Rinner on Fourth street, and while the peculiar position of the recording instrument may add two degrees over the government reading, this is the correct heat record on Fourth street, Santa Rosa. Today is the fourth transit of the mercury across the 100 line in this locality this year…The official maximum reported for Friday by the weather observer was 111 1-2 in the shade. In the sun 126 1-2.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican,  July 11, 1913
WATER WARNING GOES UNHEEDED
Citizens Fail to Realize the Danger of Famine

Property owners of the city who use the city water were very slow to respond to the urgent warning given out Friday by Mayor Mercier concerning the sprinkling of lawns and the general wasting of water. People in general do not seem to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. There is more water available today (Saturday) than there has been for the past two days, but the danger line is not passed by any means, and the city may face a water scarcity that will be of a lasting nature unless the citizens are willing to co-operate with the authorities in the matter of conserving the supply.

The sprinkling of the streets has been carried on an usual, and this has led to an opinion expressed many times that the warning against the waste of water is a cry of “wolf, wolf.”

This is not the truth as the city is buying water used on the streets from the McDonald company and is spending money to keep the streets in fair condition and the dust partly laid, that the comfort of the people may not be lacking.

If, on the other hand the citizens will show as much consideration for themselves in refraining from the useless waste of water at a time when danger threatens, the famine will easily be avoided. A trip along one of the principal resident streets of the city Friday evening showed that in fourteen blocks there were but three houses in front of which the lawn was not being sprinkled. As Mayor Mercier tersely expressed it, “Rather your lawn burn than your house.” A few days of rest and the thirsty lawns may drink again and in the meantime the people may sleep more securely in the knowledge that the fire pressure will defend their homes.

– Santa Rosa Republican,  July 13, 1913
WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE ICEMAN?
He’s Kept Might Busy These Days–Several Ice Men on the Job

Grace Brothers ice plant at the brewery has been having a heavy run the past week. Business has been brisk at the brewery itself. Owing in the warm weather beginning the Fourth, there has been a steady increasing demand for ice from all parts of town and the ice man has been unable to keep up with the demand.

For several days past many people have been going to the ice plant personally and securing what ice they wanted and carrying it away. Yesterday the place was fairly thronged and several men were engaged in getting out the ice and waiting on customers.

At 1 o’clock there was a long string of people lined up waiting their turn and no less than five men waiting on them. Yet the line was constantly lengthening.

Many came in autos and buggies carrying 50 to 100 pounds each, while others on bicycles and afoot took 5 to 25 pounds in sacks or wrapped in paper.

– Press Democrat,  July 12, 1913

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WATER CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS

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.

SOURCES:

SANTA ROSA’S WATER SYSTEM WARS
WATCH OUT FOR THE WATER POLICE
PLENTIFUL WATER, BUT IT STILL TASTES AWFUL
HEAR THAT PAVLOVIAN WHISTLE BLOW
NOW IT’S THE WATER METER WARS
WHEN “BUSINESS FRIENDLY” SANTA ROSA NEARLY CLOSED DOWNTOWN

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

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