El Dorado County’s Water System, From the Gold Rush to the 21st Century

Since Gold Rush days, water has driven daily life and the economy in El Dorado County.

PUBLISHED NOV 16, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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Water remains one of the most precious commodities in El Dorado County.

Water remains one of the most precious commodities in El Dorado County.   El Dorado County / Wikimedia Commons   Copyrighted but free use permitted license

In January of 1848, pioneer James Marshall was building a sawmill for the colorful Swiss immigrant and entrepreneur John Sutter at a site then known as “Cullumah” when he noticed a few metallic flakes in the waters of the American River. The flakes, he quickly realized, were gold. His accidental discovery, almost overnight, changed the course of California’s history, and America’s. From all over the young United States, thousands battled the elements to make their way out west, in search of the free and easy riches just sitting there for the taking at Sutter’s Mill and the surrounding Sierra Nevada.

The gold proved to be not as free and easy as it may have seemed, and not many would-be miners actually got rich. Soon, it became clear that there was an even more valuable commodity waiting to be claimed there.


In addition to being a basic need to stay alive, water quickly became necessary for both gold mining and agriculture. As one century turned into the next, water was also needed to keep the new technology of hydroelectric power in operation.

Irrigation District Takes County Water Into the 20th Century

As hard as the original prospectors had fought for their gold mining claims, the people of what became El Dorado County—founded in 1850 as one of California’s original 27 counties—now fought for water rights. In 1925, more than three-quarters of a century after Marshall’s discovery, voters in the county decided to organize the process of securing water rights, creating the El Dorado Irrigation District.

Nearly a full century later, the EID is still the dominant water district, serving about 130,000 of the county’s 193,000 residents, each of whom consumes 224 gallons of water each day, according to water use data compiled by the Pacific Institute.

The irrigation district’s boundaries cover more than 220 square miles in the most populous regions of the county, including the county seat of Placerville—though Placerville’s own Public Works Division services 2,700 customers in the city—extending from the Sacramento County line in the west to just east of Pollock Pines and Jenkinson Lake, which serves as the district’s main drinking water reservoir.

According to the EID’s own website, the district controls “more than 1,245 miles of pipeline, 50 miles of canals and ditches, 31 potable water storage tanks, seven potable membrane covered reservoirs, six raw water storage reservoirs, 42 pumping stations, and five water treatment facilities.” In addition to Jenkinson Lake, the EID stores water from four other reservoirs, each of which (like Jenkinson) also serves as a public recreation area managed by the district. The other reservoirs are Caples Lake, Silver Lake, Echo Lake and Forebay Reservoir.

Water Purveyors From the Gold Rush Onward

The EID was not the first water agency in El Dorado County, however. Hundreds of mining companies formed there in the decades following Marshall’s discovery, but one, the El Dorado Water and Deep Gravel Mining Company, had the foresight in 1910 to buy an interest in the El Dorado Canal Project, which quickly changed its purpose from basic water storage to powering a new hydroelectric plant on the South Fork of American River. Nine decades later, the El Dorado Irrigation District took over the canal, and still uses the water for hydroelectric power today. 

A group of farmers calling themselves the El Dorado Water Users Association formed in 1917 to advocate for diverting water away from the hydroelectric plant to irrigate agricultural land. They filed a lawsuit, and two years later reached an agreement—that still did not provide adequate water for their farms.

Two commercial water companies failed to fix the shortages, and residents took matters into their own hands, holding an election on the question of whether to create a new public water district. In 1925, the El Dorado Irrigation District was approved by voters. The district quickly began seeking out new sources of water, but it wasn’t until 1954 when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation completed and opened Jenkinson Lake.

With three dams and a capacity of 41,000 acre-feet of water (each acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons), the reservoir was taken over by the EID in 2003 and remains the district’s main reservoir today. The EID is apportioned into five “political divisions,” each electing its own representative to the district’s board of directors. The board members serve four-year terms and are elected by voters in each division, whether those voters are ratepayers or not.

Smaller Districts Bring Water to Remote Areas

El Dorado County dwellers also receive water services via a half-dozen much smaller districts. The El Dorado Hills County Water District was formed in 1960, and covers 60,000 acres and a population of more that 46,000 in the city of El Dorado Hills. Up in gold country, between the Middle Fork and South Fork of the American River, the Georgetown Divide Public Utilities District serves approximately 9,100 customers in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The district was founded in 1946 but traces its origins back to 1852, and a group of companies that were among the first water purveyors in the county: the El Dorado, Pilot and Rock Creek Canal companies.

Higher up in the Sierra Nevada, at about 3,000 feet, the Grizzly Flats Community Service District serves about 600 customers in that mountain town. Or at least it did until August of 2021, when the Caldor Fire swept through, destroying almost the entire community—and badly damaging the water distribution system. Even pipes buried two feet underground were charred by the blaze, though the GFCSD’s water treatment plant somehow came through mostly unscathed.

The South Lake Tahoe Public Utility District is a publicly owned utility that provides water and sewer services to more than 14,000 hookups in South Lake Tahoe. The district does not tap any reservoirs, serving its customers entirely with groundwater from 13 wells that fill 19 storage tanks. With 17,800 sewer connections, the district preserves all of the water that flows into its sewer system, treats it, and recycles it to use for irrigation in nearby Alpine County.

Finally, Tahoe City Public Utility District not only provides water and sewer, as well as parks and recreation services to that community, it is the oldest government agency in the Tahoe Basin, according to its website, founded in 1938. Covering 31 square miles, the district includes a slice of Placer County, as well as its territory in El Dorado County, extending to the Nevada County line.

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