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1916: Record Rainfall Damages Dams, Causes Flooding

Despite the construction of magificent new dams, the San Diego region suffered from lack of water supplies due to a ten-year drought. Desperate for rain, the City of San Diego hired rainmaker Charles M. Hatfield in December 1915 for $10,000 with the promise he could fill the Morena Reservoir.

From January 15 – 20, 1916, it rained throughout San Diego County. The San Diego River rose six feet, creating a mile-wide flood in Mission Valley. Roads and bridges throughout the county were wiped out. But the Morena Reservoir wasn’t full. Citizens wanted the City Council to stop paying Hatfield to make rain, but it refused.

From January 25 – 30, it rained another 14 inches in the mountains. Flooding damaged the Sweetwater Dam, and destroyed the Lower Otay Dam. Bridges, railroads and highways were gone. Fourteen people died in the flooding.

Whether it was simply a coincidence, or whether Hatfield really did make it rain, no one will ever know for sure. San Diego County has never recorded a wetter two-week period in the 102 years since January 1916.


Early outreach project at the Del Mar Fair in summer 1965, promoting 'pure Northern California water.'

1965: Outreach Efforts at the Del Mar Fair

In the summer of 1965, the San Diego County Water Authority held one of its first outreach events at the Del Mar Fair – long before it was called the San Diego County Fair and before the Water Authority had a formal public relations department. For the Fair’s summer run, a 2,500-gallon stainless steel tank trunk was hired to deliver ‘pure Northern California water’ to 30,000 fairgoers from June 25 to July 5, 1965. The event was designed to showcase State Water Project supplies which would eventually be delivered through the California Aqueduct. A new brochure was also developed and distributed to 7,000 people.

People walk along the top of the newly opened El Capitan Dam in 1935. Photo: San Diego County Historical Society

1935: El Capitan Dam Dedication

In its quest to supply water to its growing population, the City of San Diego claimed water rights to the San Diego River, and filed for a dam. A Mission Gorge site was first proposed on land owned by business leader Ed Fletcher. Another prominant business leader, John D. Spreckels lobbied for a dam farther north at El Capitan. After a lengthy civic debate, the city chose Spreckels’ project in 1924.

The tug of war over the project fueled a years-long political and legal battle over Native American pueblo rights to water, which affected the construction of the El Capitan Dam. The state Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the City of San diego in 1930, allowing dam construction to proceed. The dam opened to great fanfare and public walking tours in 1935.

Pipelines from Lake Hodges to the Olivenhain Reservoir helps generate electricity and gives the San Diego County Water Authority the ability to store 20,000 acre feet of emergency water supplies at Lake Hodges when the entire project is finished. Photo: SDCWA

2012: Lake Hodges Projects

While looking for ways to optimize the San Diego region’s water supply, San Diego County Water Authority engineers realized the potential to link the new Olivenhain Reservoir with the existing Lake Hodges just to its east. Not only would connecting the lakes by a pipeline facilitate movemnt of Lake Hodges’ water through the regional distribution system, but the Water Authority could capitalize on a rare opportunity to generate electricity.

The resulting pipeline rises 770 feet from Lake Hodges to the Olivenhain Reservoir. Moving water uphill requires two 28,000-horsepower pumps sitting 10 stories underground. When water flows downhill through the same pipeline, it generates up to 40 megawatts of electricity, enough for 28,000 homes. The Water Authority generates power during the day when energy prices are highest. It pumps water back uphill at night when energy costs are lower, creating revenue in the process.

Completed in 2012, the Lake Hodges Projects facilities allow water stored in lake Hodges to be delivered to the Twin Oaks Valley Water Treatment Plant prior to distribution to a majority of the county. This also gives the Water Authority the ability to store 20,000 acre-feet of emergency water at Lake Hodges when the entire Emergency Storage Project is finished.

By order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the U.S. Navy built the San Diego Aqueduct to deliver Colorado River water to San Diego. It is now known as Pipeline 1. Photo: SDCWA

1947: Construction of the First San Diego Aqueduct

San Diego became a hub of Naval Activity after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II in 1941. The city’s population doubled in two years, and water use also doubled. It was clear the city and the Navy would soon need water from the Colorado River. An aqueduct for bringing that water to San Diego became a top priority.

The Navy was willing to help build the aqueduct, and let the City of San Diego pay it back. On November 28, 1947, the first Colorado River water finally flowed south from the Colorado River aqueduct’s western end in Riverside County for 71 miles into the City of San Diego’s San Vicente Reservoir near Lakeside via the San Vicente Aqueduct, now known as Pipeline 1 of the First San Diego Aqueduct. It ran over some of the county’s most rugged terrain and could deliver 65,000 acre-feet per year. At a time when all of San Diego County had less that three weeks’ water supply remaining, the completion of the project came just in time.

flow of water from the San Diego Aqueduct at the south portal of San Vicente Tunnel into the San Vicente Reservoir, November 26, 1947. Photo: SDCWA Archives

1947: First San Diego Aqueduct Averts Water Shortage

San Diego County was on the brink of a major water shortage in 1947, when reservoirs that stored local water were running dry and the region had less than three weeks of water supplies left. But on Nov. 26, 1947, the first Colorado River water flowed south from the Colorado River aqueduct’s western end in Riverside County for 71 miles into the City of San Diego’s San Vicente Reservoir near Lakeside via the San Vicente Aqueduct. The aqueduct, which was later renamed Pipeline 1 of the First San Diego Aqueduct, ran over some of the most rugged country ever crossed by a water line with a capacity of about 65,000 acre-feet per year.

2015: Carlsbad Desal Plant Taps the Pacific

More than 600 elected officials, community leaders and project partners attended a dedication ceremony for the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination on December 14, 2015. During the dedication event, the plant was named in honor of the late Carlsbad mayor, who was instrumental in making Carlsbad the host city for the plant. The event culminated with a “turning of the wheel” to symbolize the start of the water delivery. The Carlsbad plant is the nation’s largest seawater desalination project, producing approximately 50 million gallons of water per day, or about 10 percent of the region’s water supply.