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A Lot of Water and History Are Behind Bear Valley Dam


When Escondido became a city in 1888, one of the first big arguments in town was over water.

The Escondido Land & Town Co., which platted and promoted the new municipality, promised prospective residents a plentiful supply of "liquid gold" from deep wells, which it advertised as delivering "pure, cold, artesian water."

But, as the population grew from a few families to a few hundred families, it became apparent that the wells were not enough to supply both the people and the crops that supported the agricultural valley.

Within a year of Escondido's incorporation, local farmers formed the Escondido Irrigation District to deal with the shortage. The district decided to bring in water from the San Luis Rey River through a 15-mile-long canal and flume to a reservoir to be built in Bear Valley, northeast of the city.

The Bear Valley Dam and the canal were an engineering marvel and one of the most far-sighted projects of its time in Southern California, according to early-day newspaper accounts of the undertaking.

While other North County communities dug more wells, Escondido leaders approved $350,000 in bonds for the dam and canal. By 1894, 7 miles of tunnels, plus the network of redwood-lined flume, were finished, and water began trickling into the reservoir formed by the Bear Valley Dam.

The dam was an earth-filled construction, lined on the water side by redwood timbers and on the downstream side by huge boulders wrenched out by hand or blasted out of the nearby hillsides to form a barricade that remains today.

Over the years, the redwood lining in the canal has been replaced by concrete, and the dam has been strengthened and heightened to 100 feet. Today it is capable of holding back nearly 7,000 acre-feet of water, a small but key part of Escondido's supply.

George (Smokey) Lohnes, the city's utilities manager, speaks with awe of the engineering feat that created what is now a modest canal and reservoir, in the days when picks and mules and dynamite did the work that now is accomplished with powerful drills and machinery.

"And that's all local water in there. Not a drop of imported (Northern California) water," he said, adding that it is deposited in the lake--now renamed Lake Wohlford in honor of one of the founders of the Escondido Mutual Water Co.--without a bit of electricity. Gravity does it all, thanks to the work of early-day engineers.

"It's only about 10% to 15% of our water supply," Lohnes said, "but it's our reserve, our ace in the hole, our water savings account" for the dry days of summer.

Don Lincoln, who for more than a decade handled the city's longstanding legal battle with several Mission Indian bands that claim rights to the water in the canal running through their land, remembers hearing of an earlier tiff that nearly came to bloodshed.

It was one of those dry summers near the turn of the century, and the city wells were going dry, he said. But the Escondido Irrigation District wasn't willing to let go of any water in the slowly filling reservoir behind the dam.

"As I heard it, the city councilmen and a bunch of others from town saddled up their horses and rode out to the dam and threatened the dam keeper with bodily injury if he didn't release some water," Lincoln said.

The keeper evidently was a prudent man, "and reason prevailed," Lincoln said. Escondido received some much-needed water.

The history books don't dwell on the territorial spats between the Escondido Mutual Water District, which took over the bankrupt Escondido Irrigation District in 1905, and the city fathers. But there was continuing friction between the two factions, and it continued until the city's recent takeover of the water company, informally in the 1960s and formally in 1989.

When the Indian bands went to court in the 1960s to press their claims for canal water rights, a legal battle began that is not over yet.

Lincoln recalls that, when the suit was filed, city leaders asked engineers whether the canal could be rerouted around the Indian lands to settle the dispute.

"Those engineers just looked at us and laughed," he said. "They said there was no way to duplicate the feat that was accomplished way back in the 19th Century. There was no other route.

"I went up there and looked at the canal," Lincoln said. "Of course, the redwood has been replaced and the dam rebuilt. But that was a remarkable job they did back then."

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