1930s Water Wars in Solano and Contra Costa Counties

Water.  In an era of climate change and drought, just a mention of the word causes anxiety and panic.  In the North Bay, concern over water supplies dates back to the early 1900s, when the local population was growing like mad.  Growth required water, and plenty of it.

In 1923, the construction of the Milliken Dam allowed the city of Napa to offer water service.

This was Napa’s sole water source until the Lake Hennessey Dam in the 1940s.  So, imagine the fervor in 1929 when a hairbrained idea was hatched to tap into the Napa River and transport water – over one million gallons a day – to Crockett and the C&H Sugar Refinery!

Processing sugar requires ample high-quality water to dissolve, boil and spin out impurities. Early in its refining evolution and with water supplies limited, C&H  purchased water from Marin County, barging one million gallons a day across the San Francisco Bay.

This was slow and costly.

However, by the late ‘20s, a technological achievement provided C&H a new source of water, eliminating the need to barge water, and the opportunity came with the completion of the Carquinez Bridge.

On May 21, 1927, the Carquinez Bridge opened to much fanfare; it was the final segment of roadway on the Lincoln Highway, a transcontinental highway originating in New York City and terminating in San Francisco.  By late 1930, over 1.2 million cars would be crossing the bridge annually with tolls averaging $1 per vehicle ($17.75 in today’s dollars!).

Bridges can transport more than cars, and suspending pipe or cable can allow for movement of many commodities like natural gas, electrical power, and water.

On February 18, 1929, Vallejo Public Works official Frank Brew revealed plans for the City of Vallejo to deliver 1-1/2 million gallons of water daily to C&H Sugar via a newly constructed pipeline.  The water would come from the Napa River!

The water source was a dairy on the Napa River.  C&H purchased this parcel and disclosed plans to pump water via pipeline along a railroad right-of-way.  It would terminate in Vallejo near the new Carquinez Bridge in a 35-million-gallon reservoir.  From there, water would be transported across the bridge and into the refinery in two fifteen-inch water lines.

Controversial?!!! You bet!

Neighboring ranchers were furious!  So, who was the dairyman who “sold out” his land and water rights?

According to the History of Solano and Napa Counties, the dairy was a local institution created in 1907 when a Sonoma rancher purchased 795 acres along the Napa River.  It consisted of a dairy, orchards, and a vineyard, and was “three miles south of Napa… and was known as Pedrotti ranch.”

C&H factory and Pedrotti headline in Napa paper

The dairyman was James Pedrotti, an immigrant of Switzerland, and my great-uncle.

Growing up in Crockett and returning to run the hardware store, start a Chamber of Commerce, and promote the town, I have always been deeply involved in the community; this included promoting our icons – C&H Sugar and the Carquinez Bridge.  However, discovering this controversy ten years ago gave me chills – a Pedrotti was involved!

It turns out that it wasn’t James Pedrotti that sold out.

At age 63, six years after moving to Napa in 1913, James Pedrotti passed away. Rather, it was his wife.  Widowed and aging, Mary Pedrotti could no longer handle ranching, and selling made sense. On October 8, 1929, as the Lompoc Review noted, “Paying a reported $55,000, the company acquired the 483-acre ranch on which the three wells are located from Mrs. Mary Pedrotti and her two sons Sam and Merlin Pedrotti…”

CH Sugar Buys Pedrotti Ranch article 9-11-1929

Almost immediately, neighboring ranchers filed suits claiming that the river could not sustain the withdrawal of water.

In October, 1929, five suits were combined and on May 7, 1930, in a lengthy decision, Judge Jones of the San Francisco Superior Court ruled that C&H could proceed.  Shortly thereafter, a contract was awarded to build sixteen miles of pipeline and construct a holding bay – Rolph Reservoir – near the Carquinez Bridge.  Surrounding the reservoir would be a fence “to keep boys and men from swimming in the reservoir…”  From there, two fifteen-inch lines would carry water across the new Carquinez Bridge to the C&H plant.

Things did not go well.  A break in the line in 1931 caused major damages to the railroad and revealed serious design flaws so that by 1932, the entire pipeline had to be repaired at a cost of $100,000.  “A crew of between 150 and 200 men are employed on the project, installing new cement joints in the 20-inch cast iron pipe,” according to the Napa Valley Register (11-3-1932), and “is being rushed” due to “fast dwindling supply of water impounded in the sugar mill’s reservoir…”

Things got worse and while reporting is scant of detail, we do know that the wells were abandoned; well water eventually became brackish with salt and were shut down.  A reference to this is an obituary dated December 11, 1953; referring to William A. Forbes, who was involved in the water lawsuit, “The refinery won the suit but water in the wells later became salty and there were abandoned.” (Napa Valley Register, 12-11-1953.)

So, the wells dried up and were abandoned.

However, not so for the pipeline on the bridge.  Shortly after the Vallejo water treatment plant was re-built in the ‘80s, a plan was developed to send water across the span, but this time from Crockett to Vallejo, ensuring water to Mare Island Naval Base for military purposes.  Water would be sent from the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) which now supplied Crockett.   However, a test run proved fatal – “It leaked so bad we had the Carquinez Falls,” as Caltrans spokesperson Bart Ney shared, “the pipes leaked from one end of the bridge to the other.”  The 1927 span was disassembled following the erection of the Zampa Bridge in the early 2000s, and so with it, the pipeline.

What we won’t do for a little water…

Swanzy history - Danielle Bonham City Vjo Water Dept

Historical record provided by City of Vallejo Water Department