Placer County Water Explained: From Early Corporate Control to Multiple Public Districts

Placer County was founded in the Gold Rush, but it was water that made the county run.

PUBLISHED OCT 19, 2021 11:56 A.M.
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Placer County’s water system was birthed in the throes of the Gold Rush.

Placer County’s water system was birthed in the throes of the Gold Rush.   Dale Kolke / California Department of Water Resources / Flickr   C.C. 2.0 Generic License

Like much in northern California, the Placer County water system began with gold. As many of you know, carpenter James Marshall noticed a few gold nuggets at the bottom of a ditch he had dug to divert water from the American River into the construction site of John Sutter’s mill. Again, as in the oft-told story, those few nuggets inspired the mass migration known famously as the Gold Rush. Within a few years, the rugged individualism of solo prospectors sifting through river-bed silt in search of their fortune gave way to a corporate, fully mechanized industry. The fuel of that early gold-mining industry? Water.

The classic image of an early Gold Rush pioneer would show a grizzled prospector panning for the precious treasure in the water of a rushing stream. But that stream was likely a man-made canal, dug by miners into a mountainside to guarantee a flow of what they hoped was gold-rich water, in a method known as “ground sluicing.” They also dug ditches to store water that could be used to irrigate summer-dry riverbeds.

Hydraulic Mining Turns Water into Gold

Then a French-Canadian immigrant named Anthony Chabot had what proved to be a revolutionary idea—to blast the mountainsides with water pumped at high pressure from a hose, to blow away the dirt and force water to flow downhill, where it could be strained for gold. The innovation earned Chabot the title “father of hydraulic mining” and made him rich. He earned about $1,000 per day—about $35,000 in today’s money—spraying water on mountains.

Soon another entrepreneur, Edward Mattison of Connecticut, attached a metal nozzle to the end of Chabot’s hose, allowing for increased water pressure. Later technological innovations, such as substituting metal water cannons for canvas hoses, jacked up the hydraulic mining power even higher. More water, more gold.

Water was what made the Gold Rush possible, but when the gold industry died out, the water industry only became more important. The incessant blasting of water cannons not only eroded the mountainsides, but sent floods of dirt and debris downhill, flooding farmland, forcing the Sacramento River to shut down steamboat traffic, and filling the San Francisco Bay with silt.

An anti-mining movement, understandably, sprung up to oppose the hydraulic mining industry, and in 1884, the California Supreme Court issued a decision in the case Woodruff v. the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company, stopping any further hydraulic mining activity due to the massive environmental damage the industry caused.

Placer County Water Agency Takes Over

The ruling was well ahead of its time, coming in an era when the United States had no environmental laws or protections. The decision was also the beginning of the end for gold mines, but not for the network of canals, 175 miles of them, that was created to serve the interests of gold. Soon, it was water that became the region’s most valuable commodity, channeling through those same trenches—but now used to irrigate farmland in Placer County. The region was awash in water, and the rest of the state took notice. Businesses began to devise ways to ship the local water to Sacramento, San Francisco and other locations for use in a variety of industries from hydroelectric power to real estate to lumber.

How to ensure, then, that enough water remained in Placer County for local residents to use for drinking, bathing and the many other daily activities that require it? In 1910, the Pacific Gas and Electric company bought the county’s main water system, using it mainly to power its hydroelectric plants. But the power utility also realized that it could make money selling water to farmers for irrigation, as well as to households and other retail consumers in cities such as Rocklin, Loomis, Penryn, and Auburn.

By 1957, under an act of the state legislature, Placer County created its own water agency, appropriately named the Placer County Water Agency, governed independently by an elected five-member board. The PCWA continues to serve as the county’s largest water purveyor today, supplying water to 41,000 customers in homes and businesses in Applegate, Auburn, Colfax and several other municipalities in the county. The agency also continues to provide water for irrigation through a 170-mile canal network, and operates its own hydroelectric facility, the Middle Fork American River Hydroelectric Project, or MFP, which generates enough electricity to supply 240,000 homes, making it the eighth-largest public power supplier in the state.

At the same time, PG&E was still in the water business, but wanted out. Water just wasn’t as profitable as power, so in 1967 PCWA voters authorized a $2 million bond issue to finance a buyout of PG&E’s water operation.

San Juan District Holds Oldest Water Rights

The PCWA also contracts to supply water on a wholesale basis to the region’s other large agency, the San Juan Water District. Founded in 1954, but holding the oldest water rights in the region extending back to 1854, San Juan Water District—named for Rancho del San Juan, a Spanish land grant that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries—sells retail and wholesale water to southern Placer and eastern Sacramento counties. Portions of Placer County’s largest city, Roseville, are served by San Juan retail water. The district also wholesales water to the Citrus Heights Water District, which serves parts of that city as well as several other cities in Sacramento County.

The San Juan district’s water rights were first acquired by the North Fork American River and Mining Company, which later changed its name to the North Fork Ditch Company. Shortly after its formation in 1954, San Juan Water District purchased the 100-year-old company, and its rights to have water from Folsom Lake flow into its newly constructed reservoir. That water began to flow three years later, supplying the San Juan district’s Hinkle Reservoir, located in the Placer County town of Granite Bay.

The city of Roseville also operates its own water service, which buys surface water from the PCWA as well as the San Juan District and the United States Bureau of Reclamation. The city also utilizes groundwater from municipally controlled wells, as well as recycled water. The city of Lincoln also operates a water purveyor for its residents—but most of the city’s water comes from the PCWA. 

In the mid-county region, in addition to the PCWA, seven smaller water districts cover the area, six of them public agencies. Those include the Christian Valley Park Community Services District, Foresthill Public Utility District, Heather Glen Community Services District, Meadow Vista County Water District, Midway Heights County Water District, and Suburban Pines Community Services District. Weimar Water Company is the lone private water purveyor in the mid-county area.

The eastern part of the county, around North Tahoe and the Martis Valley, has an even more diverse water picture, with no fewer than nine public districts, led by the Alpine Springs County Water District, and the McKinney Water District, which overlaps its services between Placer and El Dorado counties.

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