The Mojave River
The story of the Mojave Water Agency is the story of the Mojave River and the people who lived and depended on the river’s water supply.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore the Mojave River, and quickly made claim to the vast desert area. Although the Spanish were in control in California, this did not stop soldiers of fortune like Kit Carson and Ewing Young who came to the area in 1820 in search of treasures from Southern California.
The name the river bears today was coined by U.S. government explorer John C. Fremont, who was guided through the desert by Carson in 1844. It was during that expedition that Fremont became aware of the waterway from the Mohave Indians who lived near Needles. Fremont decided to name the river after the Indians.
By the beginning of the 1860s close to 2,000 wagons were hauling freight across the Mojave Desert. One of the towns along the trail on the Mojave River was Huntington’s Crossing at what would someday become the city of Victorville.
One of the first proposed land developments in the Victor Valley was made by the Appleton Land and Water Company, which sought to develop a large tract of desert land from the Mojave River by irrigating land east of Hesperia and Victor (later in 1901 the name was changed to Victorville).
A State Division of Water Resources publication known as Bulletin 47 or “The Mojave River Investigation” reported that the Mojave River was a stream which received its principal water supply from 217 square miles of mountain headwaters from the northern slope of the San Bernardino Mountains.
The total area of influence within the Mojave River measures 333 square miles and the riverbed was dry six to eight months during the year, according to Bulletin 47. The publication reported that the basin’s water table along the stream was high enough to support salt grass, cottonwoods and tulles.
Early settlers to the Victor Valley like Judge Robert Widney realized that water played a crucial role to the development of the region. In 1885, Judge Widney purchased what would become a part of Hesperia. Months later the Hesperia Land and Water Company was formed as Widney filed an application for Mojave River water rights.
Growth and Overdraft
With the onset of the automobile and the accessibility it afforded investors to purchase land for development in the early 20th Century, the beginning of growth in the High Desert had begun. Underlying early development in the Victor Valley was a belief that the Mojave River provided an inexhaustible water supply. The valley was covered with a large number of fruit trees, primarily apple, planted by the early farmers. Throughout the Victor Valley, farms were producing large yields of pears, apricots, plums, grapes and alfalfa. With such aggressive agricultural use, by the beginning of the 1950’s the Mojave River had begun to experience a serious overdraft, a condition in which water is taken from the ground faster than it is naturally replenished. If the Victor Valley was to enter the next phase of growth and economic development, finding a way to address overdraft and conserve water was a necessity.
Growing population, industry and agriculture competed fiercely for available water. By 1960 a halt on growth and development in the Victor Valley had been ordered by California Real Estate Commissioner W.A.Savage. Though Savage’s building moratorium was later struck down by a court decision, the urgency of the growing overdraft was apparent. In 1957 the DWR released the California Water Plan, which recognized the water shortage in the Mojave Desert as a critical situation. “Unless corrective action is taken, and taken immediately…the consequences may be disastrous.” To make sure there would be plenty of water in Southern California, the state began developing the Feather River Project (FRP), later to be called the State Water Project. It would provide Southern California with much-needed supplemental water through a 444-mile conveyance system popularly known as the California Aqueduct.
To facilitate the State Water Project, the state legislature passed the Burns-Porter Act in 1959. This legislation authorized the state to issue $1.75 billion in general obligation bonds to construct the aqueduct from Sacramento to Perris Reservoir in northern Riverside county. Another piece of important legislation in 1959 was the Davis-Grunsky Act, which gave regions throughout the state an opportunity to form local water agencies. It provided the groundwork for the formation of the Mojave Water Agency and gave agencies like the MWA the responsibility to maintain the water quality and quantity in all of the sub-basins within the Mojave River Basin.
The Birth of Mojave Water Agency
The creation of the Mojave Water Agency was made possible through an enabling act prepared by attorney William J. Johnstone (who would later become the MWA’s first attorney) and the Mojave-Antelope Water Agency Committee. Introduced by State Senator Stanford C. Shaw, the bill gave the people of the High Desert the right to determine water policies for the Mojave River. On July 18, the bill was signed into law by Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown.
The members of the formation committee for the Mojave Water Agency included M. Penn Phillips, Hesperia; Newton T. Bass, Apple Valley; Robert J. Speth, Daggett; Harold V. Smith, Helendale; Henry W. Balsinger, Hinkley; Mayor George Oakes, Barstow; Edward A. Rodeman, secretary, Victorville; William J. Johnstone, legal adviser, Victorville; E.F. Dibble, engineering adviser, Redlands.
In June of 1960 the people voted overwhelmingly to form the Mojave Water Agency, casting 2,860 votes in favor, with only 606 votes in opposition.Because the economy of the high desert in 1960 was based primarily on farming and ranching, a majority of the MWA’s first board of directors were farmers and ranchers.
The passage of the Water Act authorized the state to issue nearly $2 billion in bonds. Property owners within the MWA service area were obligated to pay their fair share of the costs of constructing the California Aqueduct. To meet fiscal requirements from the 1960 state-wide bond, the MWA began assessing property owners a tax referred to as Debt One. In 1961 the Agency’s Board of Directors consisted of 11 members, seven elected and four appointed. As the board wrestled with the new problems arising from the fledgling agency, several key questions and issues emerged.
Early Adjudication Efforts
By 1964 the Agency realized that the Mojave River Basin, which had been in serious overdraft since the early 1950’s, was in serious trouble. To balance the need for water with the current supply in the Mojave River Basin, the Agency put forward the first water Adjudication effort, a water allocation system for the Mojave River Basin.
The need to determine water rights was a direct result of the higher cost of imported State water, which was due to reach the High Desert in 1972. The MWA’s 1964 annual report included a plan to cover the higher cost of imported water. To pay this expense it was reported that the largest share of the cost would be covered by the tax base, and new water users who did not have water rights would pay for most of the higher cost.
The determination of water rights was made possible through state legislation under the Water Recordation Act of 1955, requiring water purveyors to report annually what water they had pumped, and all extractions within San Bernardino County had to be reported annually to the State Water Rights Board. Those who pumped less than 25 acre-feet per year were exempt.
The determination of water production at this time was anything, but an exact science. Prior to the formation of the MWA the determination of water rights was made through the courts by way of a lawsuit. Agency directors realized that what water producers claimed was, at best, an estimate.
Understanding that a solution to the determination of water rights was needed to solve the serious overdraft, the MWA Board of Directors hired Special Water Counsel James H. Krieger on March 17, 1964. On May 18, 1964, Krieger made his initial presentation of recommended procedures for the determination of water rights. With the information from the report the Board decided to designate large water users as those who pumped more than 500 acre-feet of water per year.
Another key question that had to be answered to develop an adjudication plan for the Mojave River Basin was a determination of who had what water rights. Krieger explained that the Agency has certain limitations that make it difficult to determine water rights. “First the Agency has no water rights, no pumps, and no wells,” he said.
What the Agency did have, however, was an entitlement to water from the State Water Project and the responsibility of overseeing how water is used from the Mojave River Basin. That would keep MWA in the thick of adjudication efforts for years to come.
Annexing the Morongo Basin
In January 1965, the people of the Morongo Basin began the petition process to become a part of the MWA’s service area. A petition seeking the annexation and a voting date was filed with the Secretary of the Agency LeRoy E. Scott at the Agency’s headquarters at 16974 C Street in Victorville.
In March the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) approved annexation of the 35.5 square mile Morongo Basin area to the Agency. With the annexation of the Morongo Basin, the total service area of the Agency was increased to 4,800 square miles, an area larger than Los Angeles County (4,083.21 square miles).
In the 1970’s the decision by the Morongo Basin to become a part of the MWA paved the way for a 20 year effort to build a pipeline which would bring supplemental water to the region, which had experienced numerous building moratoriums due to a lack of water.
1965 also marked the year that the Federal Government expressed interest in the Mojave River. This interest was due to the fact that 55 percent of the land within the MWA’s jurisdiction was federally controlled land. This interest lead to a study by the United States Geological Survey in 1967 which determined how much water existed in the Mojave River Basin, and to what extent the basin was being over pumped by producers.
This study, which was releasd in August 1967 helped the High Desert develop water saving programs for the Mojave River, which provided direction for future growth and development. The West Forks dam site was discussed in the federal study. The plan called for a single purpose flood control dam which would be located below the confluence of the West Fork and Deep Creek tributaries of the Mojave River. The 650-foot, concrete tunnel joins the two tributaries. It is 19 feet wide and 17.75 feet high.
In 1973 the Agency, with its regional status, was asked by the Victor Valley communities to help develop the Victor Valley Wastewater Reclamation Authority (VVWRA). The MWA was asked to act as the responsible entity for obtaining grant funds and doing the engineering work for the wastewater treatment plant.
In September 1977 ground was broken for construction of the plant by Morley, Ziebarth & Alper. Three months later the VVWRA was created as a joint powers agency, and was given all authority and assets for the new plant.
Pipeline Project Enhance SWP Delivery
In the late 1960’s, recognizing worsening overdraft, Agency leaders first began to discuss a pipeline project to bring State Water Project water directly to the Mojave River Basin. Nearly 30 years later, design work began on the Mojave River Pipeline project, which would become a key element of the Agency’s Regional Water Management Plan.
The project is designed to replenish natural groundwater supplies in the Mojave River Basin that are threatened by ongoing overdraft with State Water Project Water. Once complete, the pipeline will run approximately 72 miles, and service the communities of Hodge, Lenwood, Barstow, Yermo, Dagget, Minneola and Newberry Springs.
Construction of the first section of the pipeline, the connection to the California Aqueduct at Adelanto, was begun in 1996. Once the final two segments (from Daggett/Yermo to the Daggett airport and then on to the Baja recharge basin site east of the Newberry/Calico Fault), are complete in 2005, the pipeline will carry up to 45,000 acre-feet of water each year to the Mojave River basin. That is enough water to provide for at least 100,000 homes.
Construction of the critical pipeline has been financed through more than $48 million in state and federal grants and an additional $5 million loan from the State Department of Water Resources.
Following the annexation of the Morongo Basin in 1965, Agency leaders immediately set out planning a project to deliver State Water Project to the area. The effort got crucial public support in 1990 when area residents overwhelmingly voted to approve $41 million in General Obligation Bonds to fund construction of the Morongo Basin Pipeline.
Construction began in December 1992 and water began to flow through its approximately 71-mile length pipeline in January of 1995. The pipeline has continued to serve nearly 60,000 people and 455 square miles of the High Desert, including the communities of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, Landers and Johnson Valley.
Adjudication Efforts Renewed
A second and ultimately more successful attempt to adjudicate the Mojave River Basin was initiated through a court action filed by the City of Barstow in 1990. Barstow contended that a major development project approved by the City of Hesperia would cause further erosion of the amount of water flowing from upstream users to downstream users. Barstow’s lawsuit sought a guaranteed amount of water from upstream users.
In 1991, the MWA filed suit to have all of the High Desert’s major water suppliers within the Mojave River Basin area included in the adjudication and subsequently joined other agricultural, industrial and municipal water users in the basin in strongly backing the proposed groundwater allocation system.
In 1993, the adjudication was challenged in court by the agriculture-based Cardozo Group, the City of Adelanto and developers of the Jess Ranch community in Apple Valley. Three years later, the adjudication was upheld in San Bernardino County Superior Court but that decision was appealed by Cardozo Group and Jess Ranch Development.
Subsequent California Appeals Court and California Supreme Court decisions upheld the adjudication but stipulated that it did not apply uniformly to the Cardozo Group.
Finally in July of 2002, California Appeals Court Justice James Ward facilitated a settlement agreement to the long-running legal battle that allowed full implementation of the adjudication.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Cardozo Group agreed to pay $500,000 in exchange for not making any future legal attempts to stop groundwater pumping by water providers who abide by the adjudication. The settlement also called for the retention of Riverside County Superior Court Judge E. Michael Kaiser as the presiding arbitrator for future adjudication issues.