Why LB Has Its Own Water Department

Gerrie Schipske

Water is by far the most precious commodity a community can own. From its earliest days, fresh water was critical for the area known today as Long Beach to prosper and to grow.

The Tongva who came here first, realized the importance of water and settled by streams and the rivers which flowed into the ocean.

William Willmore (who founded the American Colony that became Long Beach) and several others formed the American Colony Land and Water and Town Association, setting out to sell land at $50 an acre with $10 of it to be placed in to a fund for providing water and planting trees.

Willmore served as secretary of the Association. Ample sources of fresh water were needed for the new colony and farming areas. A spring ran through the ranchos, and underneath the ground were numerous artesian wells that provided water for the area.

In 1881, Jotham Bixby drilled for three artesian wells, which produced water described in early publications as having a “yellowish tinges and slight flavor” that was “delightfully soft for washing.”

When the railroads advertised to lure people west, the abundance of fresh water was always included. Veterans of the Civil War trekked to Long Beach with promises that the soil was fertile, the water abundant and the weather just right to grow oranges and other fruits.

Former General Edward Bouton purchased property and dug for wells which he found just north of Signal Hill in what is now Lakewood. When tapped, the water was sent in clay pipes to the homes near the beach and to the farms just north of them. There was so much water that it created a lake and a creek, which still bears Bouton’s name.

In 1907, 360 voters served the city with a petition requesting the formation of a City Water Department. The City Trustees formed a committee and appointed Harry Barndollar, a local banker and R.V. Foster a water expert. They asked Los Angeles resident, William Mullholland to appoint a third member to study the issue.

It took until 1911, when the City of Long Beach purchased the Long Beach and Alamitos Water companies for $1.2 million. For years, the city had feuded in the courts with the private water companies over the rates charged to provide water to the city and to irrigate its parks. Residents had continuously complained about the water rates and the lack of quality in the delivery system.

The voters intended that the city own and operate a water plant and delivery system so that they would not be at the mercy of private companies. They wanted a reliable source of water at reasonable rates. These intentions were included in the City’s Charter that gives power to the city to have a water department and a board of water commissioners.

Over the years, much of the land that is now used as parks, was purchased by the City Water Department because it contained a great deal of water. For instance, it was the idea of Water Commissioner, Charles Heartwell to place water pumps in the shotgun strip along Carson Avenue. The acreage was later turned into “Heartwell Park.”

It was never intended that the water department would become a “cash cow” for the general fund of the city. Any funds taken in due to the sale of water were to remain in the water department for improvement of the water supply and replacement of water pipes. Water rates were to be kept reasonable for the residents of the city.

Money was never to be transferred to the city. That was the case until 2005 when the city discovered that it could assess the water department for the pipelines and sewers that are buried in the ground. That assessment, however, is not allowed by law to exceed the costs to the city for letting the water department have pipelines and sewers underground.

When the pipeline fees became excessive -- in the millions -- and actually took 26 percent of the sewer budget -- I worked with another attorney to get the city to stop this raid on ratepayers’ money.



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