History Pages: 52 - Santa Cruz water system timeline

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For a table of contents, see History pages.


This page can't really be given a number in the chronological sequence because the water system timeline spans the entire history of Santa Cruz, but I'm choosing to put it here. The illustration at right is a map of the Santa Cruz Water Dept. system, as of 2021. The text in the illustration tells the most important fact about water in Santa Cruz - it's all local. One of the absolute necessities for creating a sustainable community (especially in California) is development of a safe and reliable water supply. The presence of water was a primary reason this area was chosen for one of the 21 Franciscan missions in Alta California. And one of the first things the Santa Cruz mission had to do in 1792 (after moving up from the river bottom) was to get some of that water to its flood-safe hilltop location.

So the history of engineered Santa Cruz water systems began with the mile-long mission zanja - a stone and/or tile-lined ditch that brought water east from the tres ojos springs (one of the springs now fills Westlake) to the growing mission complex. Today's High Street parallels the zanja's course. The modest ditch was not nearly as big an engineering project as the dam/aqueduct/reservoir system constructed at the Santa Barbara mission, but it delivered an adequate water supply for many years to the smaller Santa Cruz establishment.

My sporadic research on this subject got a big boost when local researcher Melanie Mayer gave a presentation on water system development to Researchers Anonymous on November 14, 2015. I thank her for sharing some of her research, which helped fill in this timeline.

1876-Trousset mission painting.png

Left: Leon Trousset's 1876 painting attempted to recreate, from verbal descriptions only, the nearly-vanished Santa Cruz mission as it might have looked fifty years earlier. The zanja aqueduct is shown, larger than life, crossing the vast (exaggerated) foreground plaza in front of a miniature vaquero. For a more accurate representation, see the detailed mission complex model in the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park.

Side note: The scaled-down mission chapel replica was designed to be similar to this painting. No one knows what the original chapel facade actually looked like. Trousset's original oil painting hangs either in the replica chapel nave or in the adjacent gift shop. A later (1899) copy of Trousset's work is even less accurate, showing the zanja as a natural creek.


  • 1792 - Sometime shortly (presumably) after mission construction began on the site (where Holy Cross Church remains today), the zanja was dug to bring flowing fresh water through the mission complex. Several branches supplied different buildings. Runoff went over the bluffs down to the San Lorenzo River bottomlands. (see note 1)
  • 1792+ - The mission complex grew to include a tannery, located near today's High/Highland street intersection (southwest corner). The nearby zanja supplied water. On the Arroyo de Santa Cruz (today's Laurel Creek), a grist (coarse flour) mill was built, powered by the creek flowing through a water wheel.
  • 1810 - The monjerio, a residential building for single women and girls, was built to the west of the chapel, and supplied with running water for washing and laundry by a branch off the zanja (see note 2). The rectory probably also had a branch.
  • 1844 - Following secularization of the missions in the 1830s, it became necessary to apportion water from the zanja to the various owners of now-private lands adjoining it (see note 3, p.16-17)
  • 1850-51 - The new US state of California enacted water rights laws as part of the new California Civil Code. Changes to the code and court decisions altered these laws in following years, and some of those changes affected water system development in Santa Cruz County. The subject is too complicated to condense into a timeline so, for a thorough discussion, you'll have to wait for Melanie Mayer's book.
  • 1856-59 - Elihu Anthony, whose bluff-top and river-bottom property contained the terminus of the zanja, began construction of a system of redwood pipes to deliver water from there to "downtown" Santa Cruz. (see note 3)
1866-05-04 SCWS Anthony res repairs.png

Anthony later partnered with F. A. Hihn and, by an act of the state legislature, were authorized to exercise "municipal" water rights to establish the "Santa Cruz Water Works", including a reservoir at the east end of Anthony's bluff-top (now the end of School Street).

  • 1867 - The Hihn-Anthony reservoir and water system were still in use, as a brief notice (at right) in the Santa Cruz Sentinel attested (see note 4).
  • 1870 - As part of a mission plaza beautification project, the zanja was undergrounded (at least the section crossing the plaza).
  • 1871 - Elihu Anthony sold his interest in the water system to F. A. Hihn.
  • 1875 - San Francisco investor Edgar Morgan bought up local water rights for an unknown number of properties. Water rights could, at that time, be sold separately from the property itself (I don't know if that's still true).

1892 Sanborn - Lower Logan hill reservoir.png

  • 1876 - Morgan sold the majority of those rights to a group of fellow S.F. investors, who formed the "Santa Cruz Water Company", with Morgan as first president. The company built two reservoirs on Logan Hill - now upper Highland Ave. Local stone mason M. O. Boyle was a contractor. In the detail at right from the 1892 Sanborn map, the larger lower reservoir is shown, and also an adjacent pipeline labeled "from Upper Reservoir". Water was pumped up from the San Lorenzo River to the reservoirs, then gravity fed into a distribution pipe system. Overflow ran back to the river (see "Box Ditch" on the map above). It's not clear (yet) when the Hihn-Anthony reservoir was retired.
  • 1877 - The S.C.W.Co. built a diversion dam on Branciforte Creek (near today's Happy Valley Road junction). The overflow was piped down to a tank at the north end of Branciforte Avenue (see note 5), and piped from there to a San Lorenzo River crossing at the covered bridge (built 1874, where the Soquel Ave. bridge is today).
  • 187? - Around the same time, the competing Hihn-Anthony water company built another diversion dam, reservoir and pipeline to bring water downtown from the west branch of Branciforte Creek (now Carbonera Creek). Both the "F. A. Hihn" and "S.C.W.CO." properties can be seen on the 1880 County map (digitized by UCSC). The reservoir is shown some distance uphill from the creek, right next to the road (approximately today's El Rancho Drive), so there was probably a diversion dam upstream to allow gravity flow to the reservoir. (see note 6)
  • 1881 - Wm. H. Duke became S.C.W.Co. manager, bought property on Majors Creek (now the north boundary of Wilder Ranch State Park), where another diversion dam was built, with a pipeline to town via High Street (see same 1892 Sanborn map detail above). For reasons unknown, the San Lorenzo River system was abandoned.
  • 1884 - S.C.W.Co. went bankrupt.
  • 1885 - Santa Cruz city council approved a bond measure to buy S.C.W.Co. assets. $80,000 in bonds were sold.
  • 1887 - A lawsuit challenged the bonds' legality. The court ruled the bonds invalid on a dating technicality.
  • 1888 - A new bond measure was approved. F.A. Hihn filed suit and blocked the bond sale, claiming riparian rights (per the recent Lux vs. Haggin court ruling) on Majors Creek and Branciforte Creek. It is disclosed that his water company had previously owned creekside land downstream from both of the S.C.W.Co. diversion dams (see note 7)
  • 1888 - The City developed a new water source up the coast on spring-fed Laguna Creek - still in use.
Liddell Spring water pipeline crosses above Back ranch Road at Hwy 1.png

The Laguna-Liddell pipeline runs parallel and next to Highway 1. The photo at right shows the pipeline crossing over Back Ranch Road.

  • 1889 - Henry Cowell sold a site on his ranch to the City for a new reservoir. An earth dam was built but the reservoir never filled completely - the underlying lime rock karst is too full of fissures. The dam and other parts of that reservoir system can still be seen today in the UCSC arboretum area.
  • 1894 - A fire destroyed a large area downtown while water was shut off because too-high water pressure damaged a critical pipeline valve.
  • 1904 - A distributing reservoir was built adjacent to High Street, just east of Spring Street, allowing lower water pressure downtown.
  • 1913 - The City developed another new water source at Liddell Spring - not far from Laguna Creek. F. A. Hihn died the same year, ending his reluctance to sell his private water system to the City.
  • 1916 - The City bought the Hihn water system from his estate, integrating the two systems. Sometime in these years (probably in conjunction with one of the City charter revisions) the current name of Santa Cruz Water Department was adopted (SCWD). Also, the city began to charge water system customers.
  • 1923 - SCWD built the Bay Street reservoir (now actually on Cardiff Place). The site is still in use, but the original in-ground reservoir has been replaced by above-ground tanks.
  • 1923-1938 - SCWD built a succession of wells and San Lorenzo River pumping plants, just upstream from the cemetery at the end of Crossing Street (in 1946 the street was renamed Tait Street, for Water Dept. head Robert Tait, but has since been returned to its original name). The wells are still called the Tait Wells.
  • 1960 - After a successful SCWD bond sale, Newell Creek Dam (forming Loch Lomond Reservoir) and the Graham Hill Water Treatment plant were constructed.
1961 Newell Ck dam.png

Just-finished Newell Creek Dam in 1961 (right)

  • 1971-74 - SCWD constructed the Felton Diversion Station (which pumps San Lorenzo River water up to Loch Lomond)
  • 1974 - SCWD roofed over the Bay Street reservoir.


  1. The Old Mission Santa Cruz Water Supply, by Dean A. Silvers. Santa Cruz County History Journal Number 2 (1995).
  2. Construction Chronology of the Site of Holy Cross Church: The Mission Era, by Edna E. Kimbro. Santa Cruz Public Library.
  3. Santa Cruz: The Early Years, by Leon Rowland (1980), pp.16-17. A document in the Hihn-Younger archive at UCSC gives the Santa Cruz Water Works start date as December 27, 1865. Rowland's date, drawn from a later city report, is 1859.
  4. Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, May 4, 1867, 2:1
  5. Map of Santa Cruz County, 1880-81: Sheet 36. Wright, Bennett, Healy. UCSC Digital Collections.
  6. Same Wright, Bennett, Healy map sheet as above
  7. Ross Eric Gibson, "The Star Chamber of the water wars", Santa Cruz Sentinel", September 20, 2021, 2:1 and 4:1. Gibson's column in the "Local History" series explores the Hihn vs. City of Santa Cruz water system tussle in detail.

See also

A pair of detailed Santa Cruz Sentinel articles on Santa Cruz water system development under the column title "In Search of Santa Cruz", with the byline "R. E. Burton":

Next: History Pages: 52 - Santa Cruz electric system timeline