TID Short Stories is a mini-series by the TID Water & Power Podcast. Every episode you’ll hear a short, unique – and often lesser known – story from TID’s rich 135-year history. Join us on the first and third Friday of the month for new episodes and stories!
On today’s episode, TID Water Operations Manager, Seth Aldrich, tells the story of what could have been a monumental occasion for the District that turned into a devastating summer for growers.
Find out more about TID at https://www.TID.org/podcast.
Find out more about TID at https://www.TID.org/podcast.
This is TID short stories at TID Water and Power podcast miniseries. Every episode you'll hear a short, unique and often lesser known story from TID's rich history, and you'll hear these stories that helped build the district's 135 year history told by the people who operate the district today. On today's episode, TID water operations manager Seth Aldrich tells the story of what could have been a monumental occasion for the district that turned into a devastating summer for growers. Floods and droughts. Hills and valleys. Elation and devastation. There have been many ups and downs since Turlock Irrigation District was formed in 1887, but nothing compared to the chaos that ensued in the spring of 1914, when TID's newly constructed storage reservoir suffered a wall break and 40,000 acre feet of water all but emptied over three days into the Tuolumne River. Today, as we are in the midst of a third consecutive year of drought, it's easy to imagine the hardship caused by this loss of irrigation supply. But as if that was not enough to bear. Three weeks after that, in a massive business continuity nightmare, three TID board members on the way to investigate the catastrophe. We're involved in a tragic car wreck, leaving no board quorum to conduct business until months later. As irrigation arrived in the early 1900s, a common issue quickly arose the need to store water with no storage at the time. The irrigation season would end after the snowmelt past, which was typically July. As such, the district explored options to build a reservoir to extend the irrigation season. The district conducted land surveys above La Grange surveys that would ultimately benefit the district. That's a story for another time, but ultimately decided to build a reservoir along the main canal. The reservoir, the least expensive option for the district at the time, would store 40,000 acre feet and would be crucial to the irrigation supply of our region. This was the first filling of the new reservoir, the time during which if a new facility will have problems, they typically will happen. Most say it all began at 3 a.m. on Saturday, June 27th, 1914. We'll get to the timing of when others say the break began in a bit. In those wee hours of the spring morning during irrigation season, a section of concrete fill south of the just completed then called Davis Reservoir outlet gate broke away. The fact that the break came 50 feet from the outlet gate didn't matter. The wing wall was a major part of the dam that was holding back some 40,000 acre feet of irrigation water. Initially, the surge from the break came down the main canal, prompting the night watchman two miles downstream at the Nels Johnson residence to call the La Grange Dam operator when he saw the main canal overtopping and flooding. By then, the flow into the reservoir was cut off, but the deluge of water in the reservoir simply had to go somewhere. And the canal's structural integrity was weakening rapidly, about 6/10 of a mile downstream of the outlet gate. It was this location where the canal made a 20 degree bend westward and such turn was not designed to withstand such a massive force of water. The canal broke at that location and carved a massive gully for water to meander back into the Tuolumne River near Roberts Ferry. Much of the gully that ripped through the earth can still be seen today along Lake Road, near the reservoir. Others say our story begins in the events leading up to the break, namely the events prior to and during the construction of the dam in 1913. A few weeks before the dam break, a small section of canal lining broke in early June and was repaired, but the irrigation system was down for ten days. We'll talk more about that in a bit. The Hickman Board of Trade, who was no fan of the TID Board at this time because it was still reeling from the 1913 Raker Act, which gave the city and the county of San Francisco the right to build a dam in Yosemite, claimed in its December 1913 report. The fill on either side of the outlet gates of the Davis Reservoir is not heavy enough and the concrete work is very defective and part of it is broken and only sustained by the reinforcing. These claims, as well as an ongoing December 1913 state engineer's report prompted a January 1914 spectacle to illustrate the dam's integrity to the public. A 50 person tour was held by the district consisting of local officials and journalists who would see district officials hammering holes and four inch thick concrete to illustrate there were no cavities in the dam or canal. However, some work was done in March to reinforce one side of the outlet gates. And as fate would have it, it was that section of the dam that would remain standing after the break. A quick side note here. The public outrage at this time of history was not isolated to the Hickman Board of Trade. A majority of locals were angry with the TID Board for its failure to vigorously fight the Raker Act, which led to efforts to recall TID directors TA Owen and NJ Whitmer. Efforts against Whitmer fizzled due to technicalities. But to Owen holds the unique distinction of being the first and only TID director. Subject to recall, Owen ultimately prevailed by a vote of 449 to 345. In the March 1914 election and remained in office. Though if he could foresee the dam break and the later events of July 21st, 1914, he no doubt would have preferred to be recalled. 24 days after the dam break, Owen got behind the wheel of a TID Ford Model T with fellow directors Edward Kiernan and Whitmer to visit the site of the break. With Director S.A. Holtmann, vacationing in Sweden for the spring and director EP McCabe recovering from a stroke. The board was operating with only Owen, Kiernan and Witmer. The three men left Turlock for the foothills. On July 21st, around 9 a.m. to check out the progress of repairs. At about 15 miles per hour, somewhere in Denair, Owen tried to pass a wagon, but the Model T lost traction in the sandy road and Owen overcorrected, causing the car to lose control and flip over. Seatbelts. Not yet a standard feature in cars. Whitmer was thrown clear from the ensuing wreckage, breaking a rib and a shoulder. Owen's head and Kiernan's chest were trapped underneath the 1500 pound vehicle after Whitmer and the wagon driver lifted the car just enough. Owen was taken unconscious to a sanatorium with a fractured skull, and Kiernan suffered what would appear to be moderate injuries. Now, not only were Whitmer and Kiernan bruised and banged, but they lacked a third director to hold a quorum to conduct TID business. Holtmann could not return from Europe due to the outbreak of World War One since his departure. McCabe was deteriorating from his stroke and resigned, and Kiernan died on the table during hernia surgery. The injury existed before the crash, but was no doubt aggravated during the incident. Keep in mind there was still major board business that could not be done and overseen administration of the repairs to the damaged canal system. Owen was still recovering when John Sisk and Claus Johnson joined Whitmer on the board following informal advisory elections and business was able to be had. Whitmer and Owen resigned in October, leaving three active board members, and Kiernan died on the table during hernia surgery. And one could only assume Owen, who over a period of six months had survived a recall attempt and recovered from a fractured skull was simply done with public service, though there would later be a silver lining for him. John Chance and John Orr replaced Whitmer and Owen and Holtmann returned to Turlock in November as the ranking board member to four new directors. Now back to the dam break and restoration efforts. A bypass canal was finished in August, but far too late to make the irrigation season anything but disastrous for farmers. Almost all alfalfa had dried up by summer, and only a few hundred acres could be irrigated a day because the Tuolumne River's flow was minimal. After winter, snowmelt had run its course down the river by June. During August and September, only 21,000 acre feet had been diverted from the river, which would not even irrigate a quarter of today's customer needs at the time. New outlet gates at Davis Reservoir were designed by Chief Engineer Roy Meikle to be stronger. Interesting enough, in the wake of the break, there were calls to fire Meikle, who took over in early 1914 as the district's lead engineer for the maligned Burton Smith, who had been called controversial, incompetent, unreliable and inefficient prior to and after the break of the dam he oversaw. One could only imagine the fate of TID today if Michael, who oversaw the building of two Don Pedro reservoirs and served TID for 59 years, was fired for Smith's errors. A Winter 1914 Turlock Board of Trade investigation condemned the dam's construction and ultimately criticized the TID board for filling the reservoir for the first time when leakage at the dam was known. Some good did occur in all of this. Once repaired, the reservoir had 40,000 acre feet of storage would help extend the TID irrigation season one month. And the events of 1914 put an exclamation point on the need for a much larger storage reservoir to store snowmelt that would run off into the Tuolumne. That larger storage reservoir, old Don Pedro Reservoir, would see its groundbreaking seven years later, with Director Holtman setting off the ceremonial dynamite blast of what would become the 289,000 acre foot reservoir serving TID customers for nearly the next 50 years. What became of Davis Reservoir, you might ask? Well, you know it today as Turlock Lake, but from 1917 to 1950, it bore the name Owen Reservoir, named in honor of, you guessed it, Director T.A. Owen. Ending with a bit of irony. You may remember earlier in this episode we talked about how the irrigation system was down for ten days in early June, a few weeks before the dam break because of a broken canal lining. When those minor repairs were being made, a small note was placed in jest on the F.M. Huddleston home in the area that read have inspected the canal and works hereabouts and hereby condemn them and advise you to move before long. A fitting joke at the time, no doubt. Weeks later. Probably not so much.