Spreading Grounds Receive Surplus Matilija Water

The following article first appeared in the Thursday, January 24, 1952 edition of “THE OJAI” on the front page. “THE OJAI” is now the “OJAI VALLEY NEWS”. The article is reprinted here with their permission. The author is unknown.

Spreading Grounds Receive Surplus Matilija Water

Water from Matilija dam was again being dumped into Ojai Valley spreading grounds this week as county officials gave their go-ahead to the opening of the conduit leading from the dam to land near the junction of Carne and Thacher roads.

Supervisor R. E. (Sam) Barrett said Tuesday that the water is surplus flood water which has been flowing over the spillway of the dam at an estimated rate of 900 million gallons per day. The cascade over the dam has somewhat lessened in the days since last week’s storm, but Barrett stated that the conduit would remain open until there is no longer surplus water in the dam. He added that the supervisors hope to continue to send water to the spreading grounds for several months.

Some doubt was expressed earlier in the week as to whether or not the water would be free enough from debris and siltation to allow its passage through the pipeline to the east end of the Valley. An inspection of the spreading grounds Wednesday noon revealed a good flow of water, only slightly discolored.

The conduit was first opened early in May last year when the county dumped some 300 acre feet of water on the spreading grounds. It was reported that some well levels in the area rose during the period the water was released.

WATER OVER THE SPILLWAY OF MATILIJA DAM, filled last week for the first time since its construction in 1947, has drawn crowds of eager sightseers to the structure following last week’s deluge. Surplus flood waters are now being released from the dam through a conduit to spreading grounds in the east end of the Ojai Valley. —Photo by Ron Reich


This story is in Walter W. Bristol’s 1946 book, “THE STORY OF THE OJAI VALLEY.”  It is assumed that Bristol is the author.

By Walter W. Bristol

The Gridley

One of the first, if not the first, efforts to get gravity water for domestic purposes was started in 1912 when O. W. Robertson, C. M. Pratt, E. D. Libbey, William Ladd, F. H. Osgood, H. T. Sinclair and John Burke bought the Gridley ranch in order to secure its water rights.

The water source is a tunnel in a canyon about 1,000 feet higher than the ranch house. The water is piped from there about three miles and supplied the homes of all the original shareholders. Later, Mr. Libbey turned in his interest, which was bought by the remaining owners.

This old waterline ran three miles from the Gridley Ranch to several homes on Foothill Road. It was built and operated by the Gridley Mutal Water Company which was formed in 1931.
This old waterline ran three miles from the Gridley Ranch to several homes on Foothill Road. It was built and operated by the Gridley Mutal Water Company which was formed in 1931.

The company was incorporated in 1931 as the Gridley Mutual Water Company. The water is charged to the stockholders each year on an estimated budget for the coming year, according to the amount of water each stockholder has used the previous year.

Richard Phillips was the superintendent for many years. Howard Bald is acting in that capacity now. Helen Robertson is president and William Simonds is secretary-treasurer.

The company eventually sold the ranch house and a few acres to Dr. Ida Stambach, who came to the valley many years ago with her nephew and niece, Henry and Alice Nixon. Both of the Nixons have been, and are, prominent citizens of the valley. Henry is a director of the Ventura County Chamber of Commerce, trustee of the Presbyterian Church and member of the Lions Club.

The Thacher Project

In the 1920’s, due to increased pumping and short rainfalls the water table throughout the valley reached a level which was alarming. The average rainfall, William Bowie informs the writer, from 1920 to 1929, inclusive, was 17.88 inches. This means that in some of these years the rainfall was far below normal.

In April or May of 1925, S. D. Thacher called a meeting at the school of prominent citizens to discuss the subject of an increased water supply for the valley, both upper and lower. The subject before the meeting was primarily the way to do it and the means with which to get it done.

It was decided to raise money enough to engage the engineering firm of J. P. Lippincott to present a plan which provided for the damming of the Sespe river at Cold Springs and piping the overflow water through the mountain to the valley. This would cover a drainage area of 66 square miles and impound 50,000 acre feet of water, which would be enough to irrigate a minimum of 15,000 acres.

The estimated cost was $3,262,000. He estimated that the generation of electric power would bring to the district $105,000 annually. At this time he also made a survey of the Matilija for dam sites, but concluded that the cost per acre just for Ojai alone would be prohibitive.

The matter hung fire for some time. The depression of 1929 put a stop to the matter and it never came to a vote by the people.

About this time A. E. McAndrew, at his own considerable expense, had check dams built on the side of the mountain near the Senior Canyon area. A heavy storm a year or two later swept all these away.

Senior Canyon Mutual Water Company

In May, 1929 work was begun on the project of drilling a tunnel to develop water in the Senior Canyon. It met with surprising success.

The initial drilling of 1,550 feet brought out 50 inches of water. Since that time the tunnel has been lengthened to about 2650 feet. Owing to sedimentation, however, the output has considerably decreased.

This water is a godsend to water users, both domestic and commercial, in the district from San Antonio School to and including the Topa Topa ranch.

The first officers of the company were Philip Pierpont, president, Denham Lord, vice-president, Hal Gorham, secretary-treasurer, A. L. Dodge and J. Myrick, Jr.

There are about fifty stockholders. Water is distributed by meter control and amount of water is allocated in accordance with the amount of stock held.

The 1929 Project

On August 2, 1929 another project for the development of water was launched. The object of this endeavor was to develop a water supply mainly for irrigation purposes, although provision was made for city participation if desired. The territory included a wide area in the vicinity of Ojai and Ventura.

The immediate plan was to call an election in this area to form a district with power to levy a tax on the property involved for the purpose of an extensive survey. The election, set for January 14, 1930, failed to carry.

The prime mover of the project in this section was Gird Percy. Mr. Percy was a splendid type of citizen and very popular. He served a term as president of the Lions Club.

The 1938 Project

On the evening of November 22, 1938, a meeting of the citizens of Ojai was called under the auspices of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce. The meeting took place in the high school auditorium and was called to order by Dr. Charles T. Butler, president pro-tem of the Chamber of Commerce.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss feasibility of taking advantage of Federal aid under certain congressional enactments concerning the establishment of districts for the purpose of water conservation by check dams, spreading or otherwise, and also pertaining to drainage development. There was considerable discussion after John Dron explained the details of the act.

The following persons were selected to arrange the preliminaries: R. S. Dennison, H. W. Gerry, John Barnard, Charles T. Butler and Clarence Mattson. This committee elected Dr. Butler its chairman.

In the good old American way an opposition group developed, led by Alfred Reimer. All through the year 1939 the controversy pro and con went on, occupying a great deal of newspaper space and creating a certain amount of bitterness. In December of 1939 the matter was argued before the supervisors to determine whether or not they would approve the calling of an election to settle the case. The supervisors turned it down and that was that.

The 1945 Project

The latest effort for water development was made in the summer of 1945 when it was proposed to put to the vote of the people the formation of the Ventura County Flood Control District. Ventura and Ojai were put in Zone 1 of the district.

The plan was to build two dams in the Matilija Canyon to control the flood waters for the use of Ventura and Ojai. Meetings were held to explain the matter and on October 16, 1945, an election took place in Ventura and Ojai calling for a bond issue of $3,400,000. The vote was in the affirmative by the narrow margin of 85.

Murky Water

Note: This article was written by Emily Thacher Ayala and first appeared in Edible Ojai, No. 22, Fall 2007. It has been slightly modified and contains additional photographs.

Murky Water

Until the desert knows
That Water grows
His sand suffice
But let him once suspect
That Caspian fact
Sahara dies.

Emily Dickenson, No. 1291

Emily & George Thacher, 1975
Emily & George Thacher, 1975

We do live in a desert—ok, that’s a bit of exaggeration used by many writers about Southern California–but when my great-grandfathers arrived here, one from England and the other from New England, they found a far different place in the Ojai Valley than what they had left behind. The sage and sumac embedded in dry rocky ground, the oak woodlands with their grasses and burr clover that had literally saved the Hispanic bovine bacon for more than a century. There was no water from the sky for most of the year and all too briefly there could be too much. My great-grandfather, Sherman Thacher, in his first year upon arrival and working at his older brother’s fledgling orange orchard on the east end Grand Avenue wrote to his mother in New Haven, Connecticut that, “Edward planted and God refused to water.” Irrigation water had to be hauled by barrel to the thirsty trees before dams, ditches, flumes and furrows were constructed over the next few decades. Indeed, irrigation was by far the most time-consuming and constant portion of the early farmers’ labors. From the other side of my Ojai roots, my grandfather, Elmer Friend, always said about his spring, summer and fall efforts of constructing and maintaining the thirsty furrows that he had “moved every rock in the Ojai Valley at least twice,” a bit of hyperbole I never heard any of his contemporaries deny him. Look at those massive stone walls in the East End and you also may begin to believe. And, of course, thanks to their efforts our valley is now a far different place that they have left as a legacy to us to labor in and enjoy ourselves.

Elmer and Henry Friend hand digging well on Reeves Road ranch, ca. 1925.
Elmer and Henry Friend hand digging well on Reeves Road ranch, ca. 1925.

But the subject of water seems to be at the forefront again… or perhaps the lack thereof and the price we must pay for it. Growing up I was acutely aware of water. Sometimes there was too much, with mud and boulders growling in the river below our orchard, but most times too little to maintain our special swimming hole in the Ventura River. I remember having to share bathwater with my brother, even with my parents. It was rather murky water–the water coming from the spring above our house, gravity fed directly into the pipes with whatever fine plant life and dirt the spring and pipes contained, then into the tub to be mixed with the daily grime of two grubby farm kids. It’s no wonder I’m not squeamish about the cleanliness of my fingernails. I remember times when water would not reach the upstairs bathroom during the summer; there just wasn’t enough pressure in the pipes for it to get there, teasing me from my upstairs bedroom by hovering in its tubular home in the wall between me and the ground. During our last sustained drought there wasn’t much water in the spring which might trickle only at night when the willows and other canyon plants demands were at their diurnal low.

Our spring-fed house would also do without water when a flood or fire came along damaging the system. Sometimes the pipes simply came apart from wildlife or our dogs mucking about in the spring. Someone (usually my dad) would go up the canyon amid the willows and poison oak and fix the pipe and clean the screen filter. Then in the 90’s we had a well drilled, and a tank put in, which has solved lots of our domestic water issues. When the pump is on, the tank is filled, and even if the spring runs low we have enough water to take showers; most of the time. Like any power outage, being our own ‘water company’ is a good reminder to be thankful for the utilities that others work long and hard to provide us with.

Attached to our water system for the house is the water system for the orchard. This system starts with a whole slew of larger pipes; one from the spring, from the well, the water tank and from the river. The orchard is divided into blocks each with a main valve connected to the various sources of water. Blocks are further divided into rows with a line of hose and their own riser and valve from the pipe below. Irrigating the orchard is tricky, determining which source of water to be used in each block, balancing the water to flow where it needs to go, ensuring that the sprinklers have enough pressure on the sloping ground. You turn on the water for a block and make sure the pressure gauge stays between 25 and 35 psi. If the pressure isn’t high enough, then turn off rows of sprinklers until the pressure is sufficient. When water is plentiful it takes 3 days to irrigate the whole 20 acres, 2 blocks each day. On a dry year when the spring is trickling and the well not pumping at full capacity it takes 5 days or more, and during some of those days you won’t take a shower upstairs. It’s tricky business, one must take into account the slope of the land—make sure the top of the slope is getting sufficient water. You don’t want to shortchange the trees at the end of the line. And of course make sure some water still flows to the house; don’t leave Mom with soap in her hair. And remember not to close too many valves or you may blow up a pipe—.

We all made mistakes—I’ve blown up a few water lines in my ignorance of where the pipes lie underground and what valve to open or close and in what order. I’ve also turned the well on to fill the tank and forgotten to close the valve after filling the tank; sending water gushing out onto the ground. We do have a one-way valve installed coming from the spring, so you can’t pump water back into the spring, which would certainly surprise the other critters using the spring. Yet this back flow of water might loosen the murk in the pipeline!

Joni (Florence), Anne, Elmer and Aleta Friend with the test pumping new well during the drought, 1951.
Joni (Florence), Anne, Elmer and Aleta Friend with the test pumping new well during the drought, 1951.

This may seem like a convoluted system for providing water to a mere 20 acres and one home, but I can assure you it isn’t much different on other local farms that balance water storage and use from various sources. Nor is it different from the larger daunting task that our local water companies undertake daily. Our Ojai Valley water comes from wells, Lake Casitas (CMWD), springs and then flows to storage tanks, balancing reservoirs, and directly to users. Getting that water around to each home and orchard involves an enormous number of valves, pumps, pressure gauges, miles of pipeline and lots of human vigilance! The water companies have a lot of people to answer to if the water stops or the pressure isn’t sufficient to reach someone’s upstairs. Water companies can’t get away with only allowing us to have water several days a week while they repair something or scratch their collective heads about a problem as we can with our orchard. Just to add to the task, water companies must have their water squeaky clean–minimal murk is not allowed under state drinking water standards. Add to the tasks for our water companies that much of the infrastructure they are using was put in place many years ago and virtually all of it is underground. It’s not surprising that they need to raise their rates to maintain the systems and have budgetary concerns during wet years and times of drought conservation. Farms may use more water, and we are willing to pay the cost of the water delivered, but the infrastructure and administrative costs should be shared equally among all customers who are able to access the system. This should include meters that only use water when their other sources become unavailable. This seems only reasonable to us.

Well drilling in 1990 on the same ranch on Reeves Road shown above.
Well drilling in 1990 on the same ranch on Reeves Road shown above.

Farmers are much more in tune with our water history, the delivery systems, and how they function, than the average residential customer. We are not opposed to paying for water as it sustains our industry. We are opposed to unfair and drastic rate changes that could potentially put us out of business. I suspect that with this recent rate change some folks that have small farms (5 to 10 acres around their home) may simply shut off the water and call it quits after they receive their water bills this fall and make the comparison to their income from growing oranges. As orchards go dry and are removed the feel of our valley will change. If you are curious to know what a fallow orchard looks like, check out the corner on Fordyce road where an orchard was removed several years ago. Or the empty field on the north side of Grand avenue between Carne and Fordyce. I live on Fordyce and can attest to the fact that the only benefit of these fallow lands is an influx of ground squirrels, some lizards, a few birds and lots of dust. If the valley reverts to sagebrush and the dust increases, our Ojai will become a less desirable place to live. Water keeps our valley green and pretty, provides jobs and food, and a buffer from wildfires. We should keep the orchards green for those reasons alone.

I’m not sure where we are headed with costly water rates. As the price rises we use less, the water companies sell less and then need to increase rates to make up for the lost income. We need to start acting as if we have a finite amount of water from all the sources available and price it out to all users in an equitable manner. Conserve, conserve—turn off the water when brushing your teeth, only flush for when necessary, don’t over water your yards, etc. Heck, you can even share bath water with someone— let’s ensure there’s enough to go around. Lastly, please do rain dances or say a special prayer in hopes that the heavens open to give us ample rainfall this winter!

When the well’s dry
We know the worth of water.

Benjamin Franklin,
Poor Richard’s Almanac




Ojai Issues in 1900, from The Ojai Newspaper

In Ojai, Issues and Causes Didn’t Change by David Mason

‘The Ojai’ is for sale. When I came to the Ojai I had but $68. In four years I have accumulated more property than most men can show for a lifetime of labor; I can still show more than $1,000 a year profit from the paper. It will therefore be seen that ‘The Ojai’ is perhaps as well-paying a business as any in this town, and that it will be a good investment for whomsoever shall purchase it.

Editor and Proprietor Randolph R. Freeman The Ojai, 1900

1900’s horse and buggy stage making its daily stop at the livery stable, now the Ojai Village Pharmacy, corner of Ojai Avenue and Signal Street.

The changing of the dates from the 1800s to the 1900s was hardly celebrated by the people of the small western town of Nordhoff, now Ojai. The editor of the local newspaper, The Ojai, chose this time to make a decision to leave this “wild west” town. Not quite being “run out of town,” but close, the editor said, “Within four years, assaults with intent to kill me have been three in number, all unprovoked, and I have had some lovely fist-fights. I have never said anything in the paper concerning them – because my adversaries have themselves had no paper of their own, and it would hardly be fair; and perhaps but few of my readers know even by hearsay of these little affairs. However, the blow which I received on the head this week has shattered my nerves to the extent of incapacitating me for work. Nor have I yet recovered the strength which I lost by my recent siege of typhoid fever; I fear it shall be a long time before I am returned to my wanted health on account of this combination of causes. Therefore, I must quit the newspaper business for a time at least.”

The beginning of the year 1900 would bring the all-important farm report to the front page of the local paper. “The farmer of the past century has been of the pioneer order. His work in the main was to clear new lands, get new homes in shape and begin the work of farming scientifically.” Predictions for the coming years included: “The ideal American farmer of 1900 will have an entirely different mission to fill. It will be necessary for him to be more energetic than the old times for he will have much stronger competition to meet. His stock will be pure-bred and of high quality, and it will be fed systematically, with a mind well-cultivated and everything carried on in a business way, he will move along subjugating nature, and by invention, machinery and fertilizers will double the products of his land and thus be ready to reap a full share of benefits arising from the advance of American civilization and American commerce.”

From the music industry and the Choir Musical Journal for 1900, the main subject was the insane craze for

Nordhoff Post Office at the turn of the century in downtown Nordhoff, now Ojai

“ragtime” music. “The counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which, in the form of a malicious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicions of their sanity. The pools of slush through which the composers of some of these songs have dragged their questionable rimes are rank enough to stifle the nostrils of decency, and yet young men and ladies of the best standing daily roll around their tongues in gluttonous delight of the most nauseating twaddle about ‘hot town’ and ‘warm babies’ – some of them set to double-jointed, jumping-jack air that fairly twists the ears of an educated musician from their anchorage. Some of these songs are so maudlin in sentiment and rhythm as to make the themes they express fairly stagger in the drunkenness of their exaggerations. They are a plague to both music and musicians, and a stench to refinement.” With the new year dawning, the sports world would also make the news, the Ojai Tennis Tournament Committee began work on building the new tennis courts in the back of the Ojai Inn, now Libbey Park. “The ground has been plowed and leveled. One-third of the backstop posts have also been erected. The work of sifting the surface earth will begin next week.” The tournament for 1900 was held on Friday and Saturday, April 6 and 7.

The game of golf was also popular in 1900. Statistics for the year found that there were 200,000 golf players in the United States, using 3,200,000 clubs, the cost of which, including breakages and repairs, bring the total spent up to $8,000,000. It would have taken 1,000 freight cars loaded to capacity to have carried them. The balls used added up to 2,400,000-dozen per year, a mere trifling expenditure of $8,400,000 annually. Dues paid on the various golf clubs amounted to $6,000,000. With so much spent on the game, The Ojai newspaper felt that it should really be considered “the national game.”

The “homeless” were also a big news item. The Ojai Valley was working to deal with the problem of tramps. “The whole country is still confronted with the tramp problem. It costs California scores of thousands of dollars each year to pay officers’ costs for arresting, jailing and feeding for a few days these roving men.” The paper reported that had the governor signed the “Tramp Bill,” these men would have been at work, either on the highways or the county farm. The people felt that the whole problem would have been solved, the state would have saved an immense expense, the roads would have been greatly improved and the people would not have to put up with the annoyance of the tramps begging for money.

The Ojai editor wrote: “The tramp is a human being; he is our brother no matter how ragged, degraded or demoralized he may be. He may lack energy; he may have bad habits; he may be badly balanced; he may himself be to blame for his destitute condition, but he is human and must be so treated. Don’t curse the poor tramp. Some men are born financiers, others are not. When a man’s last dollar is gone and he has no bed in which to sleep; no money with which to buy food, and his toes are out of his shoes; his clothes are ragged and dirty, he loses his confidence, he easily becomes demoralized and discouraged, and life is shorn of its charms. Let the state take hold of this problem, and solve it; it can be done. Safety to the community requires it. Religions demands it.” In the entertainment news, the local paper reported that: “A band of Italian gypsies in wagons and rags passed through Nordhoff on Thursday. The head man of the outfit had a trick bear which danced and wrestled $2.60 worth, to the great delight of the population, while his Indian wife with a papoose led a little monkey around by a string and caused it to dance and do tricks whenever 10 cents was proffered. The whole gang begged food and clothes to the tune of several barley-sacks full and went on their way rejoicing.” The editor couldn’t help but add some advice to travelers with, “If the gang were but half so dirty they could easily dispense with one-half the horses now required to haul them about.”

The turn of the century brought about major water issues, too. The Santa Barbara News said: “What’s the matter with having a few watering troughs in the city? The water company have disconnected the ones on Canon Perdido and Haley streets. What’s the matter with the city reconnecting them?” The Los Angeles Express, commented by using the town of Nordhoff as an example: “Whatever difficulty exists between the water company and the city of Santa Barbara is non-essential to the point in hand. The plan of providing watering troughs is one which should be immediately put into execution, and these should be placed at frequent intervals along the highways. If Santa Barbara officials are in doubt to the good effects of this scheme, let them drive over the mountains to the little village of Nordhoff, in the Ojai Valley. There on the principal street, and heavily shaded by one of those grand old live oak trees which have made the Ojai famous, is a big, generous trough brimful of the most delicious mountain water. Such public improvements are an index to a town’s character, and will be jotted down by the visitor seeking for a place to locate.”

For a segment on travel and leisure, the trees in the valley were being written about in the Honolulu-Bulletin. In regards to the trees growing in their streets, the editor wrote: “If a precedent for the tree’s occupancy of part of the thoroughfare is required, allow me to refer to the village of Nordhoff, in Ventura County, California. Nordhoff has a very warm summer climate, which has naturally caused the people to prize their fine oak shade trees. The village is built under the trees, which are allowed to stand wherever they chanced to grow. If they are in the street, the people drive around them, saying the trees were there first and shall not be molested. How grateful the shade of those trees is to man and beast can be understood when the love of the people for the trees is known. In California the protects the trees in the roads or streets; and, in Ventura County in particular, woe to the man who lays his ax to any tree upon a public road. There the trees as well as the people are protected, and if an overhanging limb gets too familiar with passersby, an order from the supervisor of the district must be obtained before the offending part of the tree can be removed.”

The new year’s news, from the local Presbyterian Church was very exciting; a special offering was taken on Sunday amounting to $58.30, which was more than double any previous basket collection. In the building category, “A number of enterprising citizens are engaged today in a fence-building bee. They are enclosing the Presbyterian Church lot. Cows shall hereafter keep off the grass, the posies and the plants.” “The trustees and patrons of the George Thacher Memorial Library (now Ojai Library) extended the ladies and gentlemen of the Ojai Valley their sincere thanks for the praiseworthy efforts in the dramatic line which brought into the treasury of the library, eighty dollars to be expended for books.” A very successful library fund-raising event for the beginning of the 1900s. A lot of changes took place in the Ojai Valley during the last 100 years, but did we really change that much? A very happy and successful new year to each and everyone of you.

“Now get up a little rally
And come to the Ojai Valley,
You dear friends back there,
With snow and ice in your hair,
Come enjoy winters fair.
Orchards loaded with golden fruit,
Which is sure to suit,
And it’s plain to be seen,
That nothing grows lean,
With hills and dells all green.
Our schools are the best
To be found in the west;
Teachers and scholars all
Both great and small,
Can answer the call.
Our several preachers
Are all good teachers;
They tell us that we must,
In God put our trust,
Then the devil we can bust.
In this valley so fair
Is the home of many a millionaire,
But now please remind,
That they are the generous kind,
Which you seldom find.
Now hurry with your rally,
On high, to this beautiful valley,
For it’s sure some treat,
And it can’t be beat.”

O.I. Bill, 1900