Providing Clean Water 

The Beginning

In 1797, Mission San Jose was established by the Franciscan Priests who lived peaceably with the Ohlone Indians, the original inhabitants of the area. After 1821, other settlers came to the area, forming an agricultural community that remained for almost 100 years. One of the first American settlers was John Horner. Horner was a farmer by trade and after realizing that the gold in California was not in the great hills to the east but in the pockets of the men that worked there. Crops grown in this area were sold to the miners in the Sierra. Later basic staple crops gave way to the luscious fruit orchards. Each spring the area was filled with the beautiful blossoms of the fruit orchards that flourished because of the beautiful climate and abundant water supply.

The farmers were able to obtain locally, enough water to supply their needs. Alameda Creek was one of the many free flowing creeks that supplied farmers. The many naturally occurring wells came from the Niles Cone ground water basin. This basin is filled with layers of clay and gravel intermittent with water was caused by the many previous floods and torrential rains. These wells supplied many of the local farmers for both irrigation and drinking water. Unfortunately, increasing populations in surrounding areas caused the diversion of the abundant water supply.

The Water and Where it Went:

However, by 1910, growth in the Bay Area caused a water shortage to develop. Spring Valley Water Company was piping water from the Niles Cone Groundwater Basin for thirsty San Franciscans, and the People's Water Company was diverting water to Oakland. These two companies in 1911, took a combined total of 22 million gallons of water per day from the various streams, wells, and creeks in the area. Today that amount is used in one half of the entire service area of Alameda County Water District (ACWD) in one day.

At this point, Christian Runckel, a local resident, took on the battle to return local water rights to the people of this area. Accomplishing this was not an easy task to tackle. Numerous rallies of support were needed as well as the congressional approval of the Hetch Hetchy Dam. When a serious water shortage began to affect the farmers in the area, it was decided that the formation of a water district in Washington Township was an absolute must. The continuing overuse of the groundwater by the Bay Area water districts had caused the water table to drop to its lowest level in history, with water levels falling an inch a day. In 1912 a committee was formed to help the growing populous with their water problem. The committee members were William D. Patterson, George Lowrie, G.S. Calderia, J.C. Shinn, and W.H. Ford. The committee was named the Washington Township Water Committee.

Sacramento legislation was passed in 1913 allowing water companies to form outside of city limits. The committee jumped at the chance, and with the county supervisor’s approval the election was set. On December 30, 1913, the people of Washington Township went to the polls and voted in favor of a water district by the overwhelming majority of 883 to 18. Alameda County Water District became the first water district founded in the State of California under the Caminetti Bill (County Water District Act of 1913). The first Board of Directors, elected in 1914, included Joseph C. Shinn, E.H. Stevenson, William Trenouth, Emanuel George, and William D. Patterson. Total assets of the new company were found to be just less than six million dollars.

The first board of directors was chosen by public consensus. Their first order of business was to apply a form of property tax to help pay for the population’s water supply. Their main goals were to prevent the San Francisco-based water company from taking all of Alameda Creek’s water, recharge the Niles Cone aquifers, and prevent Oakland’s water company from increasing extracted water volume as well as decreasing the amount taken.

Many battles took place between 1916 and 1930, the basis of most were water rights. To determine the amount of water necessary to the area, an engineer, by the name of John Bailey, was hired to produce a formula. Also the U. S. Geological Survey was also hired to collect data and determine the amount to be released. Their findings resulted in a positive test of salt in the wells and later there was a noted increase in salinity in other wells. The bay had come to reclaim what it thought it owned. Also increased aquifer absorption with the use of percolation was on the rise. The water district gained another processing plant at the cost of $290,000 a large amount of money to prevent the loss of water.

The first twenty years of the District's history were stormy, filled with legal battles that wrenched the water supply from other water districts. The Oakland "Tribune" reflected on the temper of the time when it wrote on May 27, 1930, that "..seventeen years of work by landowners in the southern areas of the county...have been crowned with success in the acquisition of the Alameda Creek water rights and Alvarado Pumping Station from the East Bay Municipal Utilities District."


In 1938 the era of growth began with the acquisition of the Irvington water system. This trend continued until the entire area of what would be called Fremont was serviced by ACWD. In the post war era more houses began to sprout and the policies that came from that was that the cost of these tracts would be very high in terms of receiving water. The costs to ACWD were mains, service lines, and taking the mains to the tracts. These negotiations went so far as to have a developer threaten to open his own water company. Thus the current policy of charging developers by front footage and also by acreage was formed.

The Alvarado Pumping Plant was upgraded during the '30's, and an agreement with San Francisco Water Department for the rights to purchase water from their Hetch Hetchy system was arranged. The District had a small staff in those days as evidenced by the duties of the General Manager which included "collector, meter reader, and general manager."

The area experienced a building boom after World War II, requiring the District to create policies regarding charges to developers and the need to develop flood control facilities . The flow of Alameda Creek was erratic, flooding in the spring, and drying up in the fall. While there was natural percolation into the groundwater basin, the District realized the need to control this process in order to ensure a more reliable supply to its customers. In two of the worst flood years 1950 and 1951, a cry for adequate storm drains was shouted. By 1955 a bond was passed to begin reconstruction of Alameda Creek. The plan was to widen and straighten the creek’s bed so that the water would be readily able to filter down into the earth and return to the natural aquifers below the surface. By 1972, the Army Corps of Engineers completed the task of widening and straightening Alameda Creek, allowing for a larger percolation area for the groundwater supply and providing a channel to the Bay for heavy storm water outflow.

The growing number of people created the need to look for other sources of water. When the State Water Project completed the South Bay Aqueduct in 1962, ACWD was the first State Water Contractor to receive its water. This new supply was diverted into Alameda Creek to be used in recharging the groundwater supply through percolation. Two years later a contract was signed with San Francisco to divert from the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct as it passed through Fremont and Newark. With the purchase of Citizens' Utilities Company in 1976, the service area of ACWD expanded to include all of Fremont, and Union City completing the service area as we know it today.

The seventies brought about numerous changes to the chemical components and quality of our water. To reduce the hardness of the groundwater supply, the Manuel J. Bernardo Softening Plant on Peralta Boulevard was commissioned in 1971. When it opened, it was the world's largest fixed ion exchange softening plant. A more natural method of softening was achieved in 1992 when ACWD began blending groundwater with water purchased from San Francisco. The ion-exchange units were then decommissioned. In 1971 with the approval of fluoride we had an additive to save our teeth. With the installation in 1972 of Rubber Dam Number One across Alameda Creek, the flow of water into ACWD's percolation ponds was controlled in a more efficient manner. At the time of its construction, this rubber dam was the largest in the world, and one of the first to be used in the United States. Later, two other inflatable dams were added to the creek, insuring the maximum percolation of water into the groundwater basin.

Surface water treatment of the State Project Water began in 1976 with the completion of the Mission San Jose Treatment Plant. With a capacity of nine million gallons a day, this plant supplies water to a portion of the ACWD service area that does not receive groundwater. In 1993, a new treatment facility on Mission Boulevard was dedicated. This new facility has a capacity of 21 to 28 million gallons a day, and uses ozone as a primary disinfectant. This state-of-the-art plant creates hydropower from the very water it treats.

The eighties brought improvements in the protection from intrusive saline. An extensive row of wells were drilled and filled to keep salt water away from drinking water. Another reservoir was built, new laboratory and maintenance facility was built and more school aged children campaigns toward saving water were implemented.

In addition to its concern to provide its customers with a reliable water supply, ACWD has been equally vigilant in ensuring the quality of that supply. In 1976, ACWD added a new laboratory to provide expanded testing capability. A state-of-the-art water quality monitoring station on Alameda Creek performs constant surveillance of this water source, and water quality stations are being installed throughout the distribution system to insure that water flowing to customers is of the highest quality. Water is also taken from customers' homes for testing. Today’s testing program includes more than 55,000 tests which are completed annually in our laboratory to assure that the quality of the water customers receive is in compliance with all federal and state regulations.

Over the years, the District expanded its storage facilities. At present, six reservoirs and five tanks store up to 86 million gallons of water for customers to use. The majority of these are designed to be unobtrusive, buried beneath the ground to blend in with the natural environment and covered to protect the water quality, and provide an important emergency reserve. Today we have reliable and drinkable water provided by the company that began out of conflict.

reprinted from ACWD with permission