Irrigation History



Mission Aqueduct Systems

In 1773, the Padres at San Antonio de Padua in the Jolon Valley constructed a 150 foot-wide dam on the San Antonio Creek and a stone-lined, flume-like aqueduct carried water about a half-mile to a reservoir near the San Antonio mission. The water powered a grist-mill, provided water to a tannery, and to irrigated several hundred acres of crops. This was the first formal irrigation system in Alta California. It was responsible for the Mission’s agricultural wealth and prosperity. Irrigation was not limited to the San Antonio Mission, in fact, it was common with most missions. In Soledad, in 1791, an irrigation system was built by diverting water 15 miles from the Arroyo Seco River. In 1797, the Mission San Miguel tapped the Salinas River with a canal system (Anderson). 


  • Flood of 1862

In 1861, there was an ARK-storm (Atmospheric River 1000 year storm) which caused severe and unprecedented flooding throughout the state. The Traces of the Past area was not spared.   

  • The drought of 1861 — 1864

It is not uncommon for a drought to either precede or succeed a major flood year and my observation is that often, the severity of the floods and drought mirror each other.

Therefore, following the ARK-storm floods of 1861, there was a 3-year drought that devastated farming and ranching throughout the state. The Ranchos and dryland farmers  of the area were not spared. Need more information. 

Salinas River Surface Water Canals

  • In 1882, M. Brandenstein filed a claim for 50,000 miner’s inches (approximately 1,000 cubic feet per second) from the Salinas River. The San Bernardo and Salinas Valley Canal and Irrigating Company was built in 1884 on the San Bernardo Ranch between San Ardo and Bradley on the east side of the Salinas River (Sec. 10, T. 23 S., R 10 E., MDM ). The canal was 50 feet wide with a depth of 3 feet of water with a grade of 2 feet per mile. The main canal was about 6 miles long and from 8-10 miles of lateral ditches were also constructed. It was one of the first canals on the Salinas River. It began to deliver water in 1888 to irrigate alfalfa (Alfalfa). The “Brandenstein Ditch” was abandoned by 1904. 
  • The San Lorenzo Canal was constructed in 1896. Water was diverted from the San Lorenzo Creek, near today’s King City, by means of a temporary dam of gravel at the mouth of the canyon, one-half mile below the Mathews reservoir dam site. The Canal was 20 feet wide at the bottom and 30 feet wide at the top and was designed to carry 5 feet of water. The grade was 5 feet per mile and the total length of the canal was about 9 miles. The canal was designed for winter use only and took flood water and winter flows from the San Lorenzo Creek, which is practically a dry stream in the summer. The land irrigated is what is termed the San Lorenzo Creek Bottom and the number of acres irrigated each year varied, depending on rainfall. Perhaps, 800 acres might be have been serviced by this canal. 
  • 1896-1897 the Salinas Canal was constructed and water was temporarily diverted from the Salinas River near the north line of the San Benito Rancho, south of Kings City. The canal was 30 feet wide at the bottom and 40 feet wide at the top and was constructed to carry 5 feet of water the grade was 6 inches per mile and the total length of the canal was about 8.5 miles. This canal diverted water for winter and spring irrigation only and irrigated about 3,500 acres of sugar beets and barely near Kings City
  • The Gonzales Water Company’s canal was constructed in 1899 at a cost of $18,375 for construction and rights of way.  It diverted water from the Salinas River by a wing dam of sand and brush about 4 miles south of the town of Gonzales. The river at this point flowed throughout the year. The main canal was 7.5 miles long. It was 16 feet wide at the bottom and 32 feet wide at the top and had a grade of 1 foot per mile. About 2,700 acres of land were irrigated, principally grain land, but also about 500 acres of beets and beans. Good crops were obtained when all else around failed. “The Gonzales brothers subdivided their Rincon de La Punta del Monte land grant into multiple100-acre farms, and built a canal from [the] headgate on the Salinas River to deliver water to the parcels. The canal was designed to [irrigate] 2,700 acres but was finally abandoned in 1909 due to the [inconsistent] water supply” (Anderson). 
  • Arroyo Seco Canal No. 1 was constructed in 1987 to divert flood water from the Arroyo Seco River at the south line lot 1 of the Arroyo Seco Rancho (Insert map showing the Arroyo Seco Rancho). The canal was 25 feet wide on the bottom, 35 feet wide on top and was designed to carry 5 feet of water. The grade was 5 feet per mile and the length was about 4 miles. The canal irrigated about 300 acres on the north half of the Arroyo Seco Rancho.
  • Arroyo Seco Canal No. 2 was owned by the Arroyo Seco Improvement Company and built in 1898. Water was diverted by a temporary dam of gravel at the mouth of the canyon of the Arroyo Seco Ricer, at the south line of the Arroyo Seco Rancho. The canal was 17 feet wide at the bottom, 27 feet wide on the top, and was constructed to carry 5 feet of water. The grade was 1 foot per mile and the total length was about 4 miles. The Canal irrigates about 4,000 acres of land on the south half of the Arroyo Seco Rancho and on the Espinosa tract. It was still in use, to some extent in 2000. 
  • Arroyo Seco Canal No. 3 was constructed by the Spreckels Sugar Company in 1901 and 1902. Wager was diverted to this canal from the Arroyo Seco River by a temporary dam about 0.5 mil3 below the head of Canal No. 2. The canal was 20 feet wide on the bottom and 38 feet wide on the top and was constructed to carry 4 feet of water. The grade was 5 feet per mile and the length was 14 miles. It irrigated 2,000 acres of land on the Soledad Rancho. 

In general, the canals failed because of inconsistent and unreliable surface water supplies from year-to-year. 

  • One exception was Clark Colony, which was built in XXXX. It diverted water from XXX and delivered it to XXX. It is still in operation today and delivers water to about 1,500 acres near Greenfield. 

In 1897, Claus Spreckles, the Sugar King, tried to pump-lift surface water using steam-powered engines that were fueled with Chinese-sourced local willows and cottonwoods. But, the same issues of an unreliable water supply, limitations of delivery and the impact of periodic flooding to infrastructure restricted the use of surface water as a source of irrigation water. In total, there were 70 claims filed for riparian water in the Salinas Valley prior to 1901; but few were developed (Anderson). 

Comment about the Ft Romie Salvation Army Settlement? Where does this belong? Here or with Spreckles or with Sugar Beets? 


Need more information. This source of water is very important for the San Luis Obispo Area

Groundwater Wells 

The first well was begun in the Salinas Valley in 1872 by Sam Alsop for Eugene Sherwood. This was hand dug and was completed in 1875. It was 200 feet deep. In 1878, San Alsop drilled a 500 feet deep well using a steam-powered drilling rig. 

In 1897, Claus Spreckels, the Sugar King, wanted to supplement river irrigation water for sugar beets growing near the world’s largest sugar beet factory in Spreckels,  California. Therefore, he drilled six wells, which were 190 feet deep and four feet in diameter and were connected together and had a combined capacity of 5,500 (Anderson). 

Other farmers saw the success of using groundwater for irrigation purposes and drilled their own wells. And the rest is history. 

In 1889, John Lanini built one of the wells about a mile south of Gonzales to irrigate alfalfa. Other growers followed suit and a source of suitable hay forage contributed to the growth of a dairy industry in the Salinas Valley. 

Burton Anderson reports that in the late 1800s a 150-foot well, drilled on his family’s Hunter Lane ranch, cost $0.36 per foot. In 1928, a house well on the same ranch cost about $1.00 per foot. Today’s cost is XXXX? 

The role that Claus Spreckels and sugar beets played in the development of the Salinas Valley must be emphasized. In order to expand sugar beet supply for the Spreckels Sugar Factory, eleven ranches were leased or owned in three counties and all were irrigated with groundwater. By 1919, these had a combined capacity of 80,000 gallons per minute (Anderson). 

Census data provide an idea of approximately when cropping systems shift. Prior to 1889, only wheat, barley, and alfalfa were irrigated, and in 1899, sugar beets, beans and potatoes were added to the list of irrigated crops. Irrigated vegetables didn’t make the census list until 1919. (Anderson).

                                   Monterey County Irrigation Census Data from 1889 to 1929

Total Acres Irrigated                  
Number of Irrigated Farms       
Source: USDA, Dept. of Commerce, Census on Agriculture for Monterey County

Today, there are over 200,000 irrigated acres in Monterey County and over 40,000 acres of wine grapes irrigated in the Paso Robles Wine grape AVA. 

Census dates provide an idea of approximately when cropping systems shifted. Prior to 1889, only wheat, barley and alfalfa were irrigated, and in 1899, sugar beets, beans and potatoes were added to the list. Irrigated vegetables didn’t make the census list until 1919 (Anderson).

The first pumps used to life groundwater were centrifugal, powered by 25 power gas engines or sometimes thresher engines connected to eh pump by a belt. In order to lift the water some of the centrifugal pumps were placed at the bottom of pits, anywhere from 15-40 feet below ground. The pits compensated for the maximum lift of 28 vertical feet lift that was a severe limitation of the centrifugal pumps.

An important innovation, the turbine pump, was introduced to irrigation technology in 1924. This technology overcame limitations of the centrifugal pump and could lift water hundreds of feet. This technology happened to coincide with the inception of the lettuce industry: the two expanded concurrently. 

Seawater Intrusion

The result of expanding groundwater pumping was that the water table was dramatically lowered. Before irrigation began, artesian wells were used for irrigation purposes in the Castroville-Blanco area. Before irrigation, water in that area could be found as shallow as 1.5 feet below the surface. In general, in the Salinas River the water table was seldom below 15 to 20 feet. The static water table dropped to below 40 feet around 1924 and the turbine engines became necessary to tap deeper groundwater. In 1947, it wasn’t uncommon to drill to almost 500 feet deep and in 1997, wells were drilled as deep as 850 wells. In 50 years, the water table dropped roughly 100 feet (Anderson).

As early as 1930, there was concern of groundwater over-pumping and seawater intrusion, and in reaction, the Salinas Chamber of Commerce conservation committee requested the State Engineer of California to make an investigation. Concern continued unabated and nothing was done until after WWII. In 1947, the Monterey County Flood Control and Water Conservation District was formed. The major accompishment was the building of the Nacimiento Dam in 1956 and the San Antonio Dam in 1965. These dams serve the dual purpose of controlling flood waters and controlled releases for groundwater recharge. Unfortunately, seawater intrusion continues to expand and is excerbated by droughts in the 1970s, 1980s, and 2010s and development. 

Insert a seawater intrusion map

The Salinas Valley takes groundwater management seriously. In 1998, a sewage recycling plant and pipeline was built to recharge groundwater in the seawater intruded area. Insert more information about CSIP


Discuss Agriculture irrigation efficiencies and water conservation


1946: Sprinkler irrigation was first introduced.


Now What? 

Books and References

Anderson, Burton. The Salinas Valley, A History of America’s Salad Bowl. A Monterey County Historical Society Publication. 2000.

Guinn, J. M. The History of the State of California and Biographical Record of the San Joaquin Valley, California, A Historical Story of the State’s Marvelous Growth from Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. The Chapman Publishing Company. 1905.