San Diego Water Timeline

Obtaining sufficient water has always been a basic requirement for San Diego and its expanding population. The padres were the first to build dams and aqueducts to supply their mission along the San Diego River. Old Town relied mostly on wells dug in Mission Valley, the floodplain of the San Diego River. The transfer of the civic center of San Diego from Old Town to its present harborside location followed the growth of shipping commerce using the newly dredged harbor. Delivering water from the San Diego River to the growing population in New Town required pumping it out of old-mission-damthe valley and over the San Diego Mesa. Reservoirs were located in Balboa Park, University Heights, Bankers Hill and Mission Hills.

1813 ~ Hoping to improve agriculture yields, the Franciscan missionaries organize construction of the first water engineering project on the west coast of the United States. The first dam to cross the San Diego River is located in present day Mission Trails Regional Park. (photo at right)

1853 ~ San Diego River is diverted from San Diego Harbor into False Bay (Mission Bay) under the harbor improvement plan of Lt. George Derby.  The “Derby Dike” failed after two years and the river returned to depositing sediment into San Diego Bay until another levee was constructed in 1876.

1860s ~ Mission Dam falls into disrepair. San Diego’s population is clustered around wells at the mouth of Mission Valley.

1861 ~ Storms dump 30 inches of rain on San Diego. Statewide the storms destroy 25% of California’s taxable property.

1864 ~ Successive years of light rains bring severe drought to San Diego.

1871 ~ The first wells are sunk in downtown (new town) San Diego.

1873 ~ H.M. Covert and Jacob Gruendike initiate the first major waterworks since mission days forming the city’s first water company (San Diego Water Company) on January 20. Wells drilled in Pound Canyon near the site of the present Cabrillo Bridge provide the first reliable water supply for the city. Two reservoirs are constructed on mesas bordering the canyon with a total capacity of 170,000 gallons.

1875 ~ Increasing demands for water lead San Diego Water Company to tap water from Mission Valley. The first pumps raise water to a reservoir in University Heights. Construction soon begins on a more energy efficient route across a lower portion of San Diego Mesa. The new pipeline runs from wells near the mouth of Mission Valley through tunnels driven in the hills below the present site of the UCSD Medical Center. Pumps lift water to the crest of the mesa near the core of present-day Hillcrest. From there an aqueduct carries the water downhill to a reservoir at Fifth and Hawthorn.

1877 ~ Severe drought. A dike across the San Diego River is completed allowing some of the run-off of the river to be diverted into the city’s water system.

1887 ~ San Diego Reservoir is constructed in what is now Presidio Park. Water pumped from Mission Valley supplies the reservoir which has a four million gallon capacity. It remains in use until 1912, and in 1927 it’s filled forming the “Picnic Bowl”  bounded by Cosoy Way.

1888 ~ Sweetwater Reservoir is completed.

1889 ~ The 35.6-mile San Diego Flume is completed at a cost of about one million dollars. The flume, a series of five tunnels and 315 redwood trestles, carries water from Cuyamaca Mountain to the University Heights reservoir.

City covers over the abandoned Pound Canyon well citing danger of the deep well.

1895 ~ La Mesa Dam is completed. In 1918 it is superceded by a larger dam which forms Lake Murray.

map_sd_reservoirs<< Map of San Diego County Reservoirs
(from San Diego, An Introduction to the Region, edited by P.R. Pryde, 1976)





1900 ~ George Chaffey begins irrigation of the Colorado Desert.

1901 ~ The first water runs into Imperial Valley canals. San Diego purchases all water systems within the city limits.

1905 ~ Floods on the Colorado River bring disaster to Imperial Valley farmers creating the Salton Sea.

1906 ~ Pumping plant in Mission Valley closes, and the city enters into a contract with Southern California Mountain Water Company to buy water (4 cents per 1000 gallons) from mountain reservoirs.

1912 ~ After 17 years of construction Morena Reservoir on cottonwood creek, a tributary of the Tijuana River, is completed.

1913 ~ Southern California Mountain Water Company is purchased by city.

Hatfield1915 ~ After four dry years in a row, former sewing machine salesman and fabled rainmaker Charles M. Hatfield offers to aid the city. San Diego City Council accepts his offer, and Hatfield erects a tower containing a secret chemical concoction near Morena Reservoir.

1916 ~ The worst floods in county history.

  • January 14 — Heavy rains start falling in the county — we know now this was a strong El Nino year. A total of 7.56 inches falls before the end of the month. (A normal January rainfall is 2.2 inches.)
  • January 17 —Flooding washes away the bridges along San Diego River.
  • January 26 — Fearing a break due to rising waters behind the old Switzer Canyon reservoir (in southeast Balboa Park) the city dynamites the dam creating a flood down 16th Street to the bay.
  • January 27 — The dam at Sweetwater Reservoir fails releasing 13 billion gallons of water.
  • February 4 — Charles Hatfield bills city $10,000 for filling Morena Reservoir.
  • December 16 — The city offers to settle tab if Hatfield accepts responsibility for $3,500,000 of damages caused by the flooding. Hatfield forgoes payment from San Diego, but continues to ply his rainmaking abilities in California and Central America for many years.

1918 ~ Hodges Reservoir is completed across the San Dieguito River. The first dams were completed on Alvarado water-towerCreek to form the Lake Murray.

1920s ~ University Heights water tower (right) built just south of El Cajon Boulevard (on Howard at Idaho) is over 120 feet tall, and the steel tank can hold approximately 1.2 million gallons of water.

1924 ~ Wohlford Dam is constructed on top of the 1895 dike on Escondido Creek. Combined capacity of the all counties reservoirs nears half a million acre-feet.

1935 ~ El Capitan Reservoir is completed across the headwaters of the San Diego River. Hoover Dam is completed bringing control to the Colorado River.

1938 ~ Parker Dam is completed across the Colorado River forming Lake Havasu. Three years later, the Colorado River Aqueduct is completed. The aqueduct conveys Colorado river water from Lake Havasu to Lake Matthews in Riverside County.

1943 ~ In anticipation of receiving Colorado River water, San Vicente Reservoir is built to significantly increasing storage capacity in San Diego County.

1947 ~ First pipeline of the San Diego Aqueduct is completed. The aqueduct taps into the Colorado River Aqueduct and delivers water from the Colorado to San Diego for the first time. In seven years another pipeline is added parallel to the original aqueduct. The combined capacity of the San Diego Aqueduct is 196 cubic feet per second (about 140,000 acre feet a year).

1960 ~ A second San Diego Aqueduct to carry more water into San Diego from the north. The pipeline follows a more coastal route than the first aqueduct, delivering water to Miramar and Lower Otay reservoirs.

2013 ~ University Heights water tower (now in North Park) receives historic designation. The State Historical Resources Commission approved listing the iconic North Park water tower and all related building to the California Register of Historical Resources.