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Environment & Science

Drought History: The man who oversaw LA's 'mother ditch' was the mother of all bureaucrats

The Zanja Madre, or
The Zanja Madre, or "Mother Ditch," was the lifeblood of early Los Angeles. It brought water for domestic, agricultural, and industrial use from the L.A. River to El Pueblo until 1913, when William Mulholland opened the L.A. Aqueduct. The path of the Zanja Madre is marked on Olvera Street with bricks, and part of it was recently unearthed near the Gold Line.
Photo by The City Project via Flickr Creative Commons

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Michael Holland is the L.A. city archivest, and he digs into the files to show us what life was like in years past. Today, he looks at L.A.'s main water source, the Zanja Madre, or "Mother Ditch," and the water overseer, the zanjero.

The recent discovery in Chinatown of a length of a pipe made from bricks got me thinking about how a typical Angeleno in, let’s say 1872, would have thought about their water and how it was delivered.

The section of pipe uncovered near Capitol Milling belonged to the Zanja Madre or “Mother Ditch,” the main canal that supplied L.A. with water. It really was a ditch back in 1781. They bricked it over about 90 years later.  

(C. 1860: A water wheel built in the late 1850s to raise water from the L.A. River into the Zanja Madre or "Mother Ditch." The wheel was destroyed in a flood. Image: L.A. Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection)

In charge of the zanja was the zanjero, sometimes known as the Water Overseer in the charter, and he was the mother of all bureaucrats. Had to be, in a city without much water of its own.

Chapter 7 of the 1872 city charter lays out the zanjero’s job. The typical water user would apply to the zanjero for a permit, in advance. You had to apply on the 24th and 25th of each month to buy water for the following month.

The 26th and 27th were days set aside to return to the office, buy your permit, and take it with you. The permit gave you access to water during certain times of specific days. Stop and think about that, as you turn on the tap for a drink.

(Payment for water use, 1878. Image: L.A. City Archive)

Charter section 76 lays it out: “A day’s water shall be from sunrise to sunset and a half-day’s water shall be from sunrise to 12 [noon] and from 12 [noon] to sunset."  If you missed the days to pay for and pick up your permit, you were out of luck for that month.

RELATED: What the Natural History Museum can teach us about the drought

This was 1872 — and if you’re thinking these were restrictive measures, in 1855, the zanjero would need to know what was being irrigated, how many acres and the valuation of what you were growing. Irrigation for crops started no later than May 15 and ended after the month of September.

Fast forward to the 21st century — could you go from October to May without watering your lawn? Oh, I forgot to mention that you could irrigate once a week and no more, and that in the 1870s, a privately-owned decorative fountain was socially unacceptable.

(March 29, 1930: Charles Meyers Jenkins, a former zanjero, is at the far left. The others, L-R, are members of the Historical Society: Emanuel A. Speegle (a pioneer character); Sgt. Juan de la Guerra; J. E. Pleasants; and James H. Dodson.  Image: L.A. Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection)

The canals crossed many properties and the City Council would approve a new or expanded canal in exchange for increased access to the water in that canal by the landholder. Several days a month were set aside for maintenance of the canals to keep them clean and in good repair.

Property owners had to build fences to keep livestock out of the canal, and if they failed to follow all of the rules, they’d lose access to the water. Stealing water by diverting it from the zanja was a quick way to land in jail for up to 10 days and get a $30 fine.

How important was water to L.A.? The water overseer — still called the zanjero in the 1872 charter – collected $1,200 a year. That's $200 more than the mayor and city marshal.

(A payment to the zanjero in 1877. Image: L.A. City Archive)

But the zanjero’s deputy did the dirty work; it was his job to clear weeds, dead animals and other debris out of the ditch.

The Canal and Reservoir Company was started in L.A. in 1868, and through a series of lease agreements and favorable bond measures, it held onto water rights until the city bought them back in 1902, to be overseen by the Los Angeles Board of Water Commissioners — what we'd now call the LADWP.

(C. 1905:  The Board of Water Commissioners. L-R: John J. Fay, J. M. Elliott, Moses H. Sherman, William Mead and Fred L. Baker. Image: L.A. Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection)

The water commissioners then hired the Canal and Reservoir Company’s superintendent, a man who’d started as a deputy zanjero in 1877 and worked his way up to the top of his field by the turn of the 20th century. But William Mulholland was only getting started...

Michael Holland's commentary appeared in longer form in the city employee newspaper, “Alive!”