1873 — The Genesis of the District
The Merced Irrigation History of the District can trace its roots back to the mid 1800s when the Robla Canal Company was formed. In 1873, the fledgling canal company was bought by the Farmers Canal Company (Farmers). A few years later, C.H. Huffman and Charles F. Crocker, a nationally known banker and railroad magnet, organized the Merced Canal and Irrigation Company and acquired Farmers. The Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Company succeeded the Merced Canal in 1888.
1919 — Crocker-Huffman
During the years between the 1870s and the early 1900s, miles of canals were constructed to convey life-giving water to the land. By 1919, nearly 50,000 acres were being irrigated from Livingston to miles south of the City of Merced. Citing lack of profitability, Crocker-Huffman decided to sell its irrigation system in 1914. This, and the need to create a more stable farming economy, led a number of forward thinking, Eastern Merced County residents to launch an effort to form the Merced Irrigation District. It took nearly five years. With the Merced County Farm Bureau in the lead, a 15-member committee was formed in 1917 to explore the concept. After a contentious campaign, a vote of the local citizenry was taken to decide the question on November 25, 1919.
The District is born
Many in the farming community voted against the formation, fearing that a district would be too much of a tax burden. Records are sketchy, but it is believed that the city and townspeople voted largely in favor of the District, with 1,967 votes in favor of the formation and 922 against. The District became a legal entity on December 8, 1919.
Once the formation of the District was approved by the community, an irrigation system had to be purchased, water rights on various streams had to be filed and a dam site had to be selected. Throughout the early years, the District continued to file for water rights on various streams.
1922 — Planning for Exchequer
In 1922, the District purchased the Crocker Huffman Land and Water Company irrigation system for $2.25 million. The Exchequer Mining Company on the Merced River was chosen as the ideal location to construct the District’s first dam. Planning for the dam started in 1921.
1926 — Presidential “Power”
From his desk in the White House, President Calvin Coolidge pressed a golden telegraph key that started the generators turning at Exchequer on June 23, 1926. The District was in the power business.
Early Years of Development
After selling bonds totaling $16 million in 1926, the District had a completed dam, extended canal system and power facilities to show for it. Exchequer, one of the largest concrete gravity arch dams at the time, was 326 feet high, backed up water for a run of 14 miles and allowed storage of 281,000 acre-feet of water. The District’s power facilities consisted of two generators, each had a rated capacity of 15,625 kilowatts.
1930s-1940s — The Turbulent Years
The 1930s and 1940s were years of growth, turbulence and financial hardship. The Great Depression strained the District’s growers. Leaders like D.K. Barnell, who served on the Board of Directors from 1925 to 1945, helped guide the District though the tough times. During World War II, the District had to delay most of its capital improvement projects. By the early 1950s, the U.S. economy was in full swing and the demand for water – coupled with periodic water shortages – were forcing the District to search for a more dependable water supply.
1964 — “Mr. MID” Takes Charge
Fortunately for the Merced Irrigation District, Kenneth McSwain, known as “Mr. MID,” was at the helm and had already foreseen the need. First employed by the District in 1932, McSwain rose to become Chief Engineer in 1943. He became Chief Engineer/Manager in 1957, following the reestablishment of the managerial concept by the Board of Directors.
The demand for a dependable water supply led the District in search of a solution that would increase its storage and power output capabilities as well as flood control capability. In 1964, the District was granted a license from the Federal Power Commission to expand the irrigation and power facilities on the Merced River.
McSwain saw the Merced River Development Project as the key to the search for a dependable water supply. The Project had a number of goals, including providing greater electrical energy output, producing flood control benefits and creating additional recreational facilities for the general public. At the heart of the project was the expansion of the Exchequer Dam.
New Exchequer Dam is Built
A contract was entered into with Pacific Gas and Electric Company to sell all electric energy produced by the Project at a price that would allow the District to finance the Project at no cost to District taxpayers or growers. Construction began on two new dams, each with an accompanying powerhouse and spillway.
On July 8, 1964, construction began on the New Exchequer Dam one of the largest rock fill dams in the world at the time. New Exchequer has a crest elevation of 879 feet with a maximum length of 1,220 feet. The New Exchequer Dam increased Lake McClure’s storage capacity to 1,024,600 acre-feet of water.
1967 — McSwain Dam Built as Regulating Reservoir
The second dam was named after McSwain in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the District. Located approximately six miles downstream from New Exchequer Dam, the McSwain Dam was constructed to serve as a regulating reservoir. The McSwain Dam was also constructed as a rock fill dam with a crest elevation of 425 feet and a maximum length of 1,620 feet. By 1967, New Exchequer Dam and McSwain Dam were complete, generating tens of thousands of megawatt hours of electricity each month.
1970s-1980s — Lakes McClure and McSwain – Popular Recreation Spots
The two lakes behind the dams became popular public recreational facilities. Improvements were completed in 1970. At the same time, the District undertook to improve its fisheries. During the 1970s, the District continued to acquire land necessary for the Merced River Development project and built three small dams on the District canals. In the 1980s the District renovated the Lake Yosemite Dam and launched the Double-Barreled LeGrande Flume Replacement Project.
1990s — Decade of Change
The 1990s started out with a drought that would have been devastating if not for the District’s expanded water supply. A severe 1987-92 dry spell reached its worst point since the completion of New Exchequer Dam on February 27, 1991. Lake McClure fell to its lowest recorded elevation of 588 feet. Consequently, storage fell to 68,000 acre-feet, less than 7 percent of capacity.
Without “Miracle March 1991,” the situation would have been devastating for the District’s growers, who, thanks to the District’s storage, received at least two acre-feet per acre through the drought years.
Strengthen the District Financially
Largely because of the drought’s reduced water sales, the District began the decade in critically poor financial shape. But since then, a variety of positive steps have helped stimulate the financial recovery that has kept the ledger in the black. The growers, at first, reeled as water rates were adjusted, but then accepted this important factor in the District’s financial recovery.
The District’s financial structure was revamped and turned to sound financial management and budgeting practices. Revenues have increased from water transfers to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies. Operating efficiencies have been achieved and Electric Services has recorded positive net income.
Improved Service Levels
One of the most important contrasts of the decade is comparing the improved service levels of the Irrigation Operations Department to its pre-reorganization predecessor, the Water Department. The goal of the early 1990s reorganization was to provide better service to our growers while managing water more efficiently and cost-effectively.
Water Projects Enhance District’s System
Infrastructure improvements-funded by a 1993, $8 million issue of Certificates of Participation (COP) have made a historical contribution to the District’s ability to manage and conserve precious water resources with thousands of acre-feet conserved annually. The initiatives included facility enhancement projects, water conservation projects, conservation incentives, conjunctive use projects, flow management projects and spill recapture projects. Strategies included automation, enhanced water measuring and improving structures such as canals, pipelines and laterals.
Sound Water Resource Planning
Actively participating in statewide and regional water resource planning and policy development, the District works to preserve agriculture’s stake and protect historical water rights in Eastern Merced County. Merced Irrigation District and other irrigation districts in the region were heavily involved in hearings for the State Water Resources Control Board’s 1995 Water Quality Control Plan. The hearings grew out of the 1994 Bay-Delta Accord-established between the U.S. government, the state, and urban, agricultural and environmental interests-to implement measures to protect the Bay-Delta system. This allowed the District to avoid excessive regulatory restrictions.
1996-1997 — Groundwater Management – a Priority
Water issues brought Eastern Merced County together cooperatively in the 1990s. The District and the City of Merced were partners in the development of the Merced Water Supply Plan, adopted in 1995 and essential to meeting the future water needs of agriculture, residents, businesses and the environment. The plan’s promise of a secure water supply was a key factor in the University of California’s siting decision for UC Merced. The Plan recently underwent major updating.
The District also adopted the related Merced Irrigation District Groundwater Management Plan in 1996. Linked to the Merced Water Supply Plan, and the result of similar operation with many other water purveyors in the region, the Regional Groundwater Management Plan was adopted in 1997. The District helped prepare and promote the plan, which satisfies state regulations and protects the vital underground supply.
1997-1998 — Floods Challenge the District
Two different flood events in the ’90’s brought out the best in the District. The first flood, New Year’s 1997, came after a combination of heavy rains and melting snow and caused most major reservoirs in the state to fill and spill, producing catastrophic flooding statewide.
Prolonged rain fell in the District’s 1,000-square-mile watershed up to its highest elevations, producing a surge of runoff. The District’s facilities filled but did not spill. Careful management averted the potential disaster of major flooding downstream on the Merced River.
The decade’s second year of serious flooding involved three events in January, February and March 1998. The first and third events were rated “100-year” floods. All were caused by localized heavy rainfall in a saturated foothill watershed that feeds local creeks. The District’s Merced River system was not associated with the floods.
Though the District has no flood control authority in Eastern Merced County, which has no flood-control entity, District personnel worked around-the-clock as part of a multi-agency response to these floods. Previous District work with other agencies to clear streams helped reduce flooding.
Late1990s — Electrical Service Division Created
Though a wholesale producer of electricity for more than 70 years, the creation of Merced Irrigation District Electric Services in the latter part of the decade brought new energy and a brighter economic picture as a retail electric provider for Eastern Merced County. Electric Services completed its regional transmission system, expanded its local power distribution networks and is energizing new customers at a rapid pace, with power deliveries doubling in 1999.
The success of Electric Services is good for the District because its revenues will help re-license the storage and hydroelectric facilities in the future. It’s also good for local communities, because a competitive electric market encourages lower prices and better service for all electric consumers.
1999 — Environmental Water Uses
The related San Joaquin River Agreement (SJRA) involved most of the irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Water Resources, California Department of Fish and Game and various municipal water agencies and environmental interests.
The District, along with other districts, transferred water for environmental purposes. The District received more than $3.5 million in net revenues during 1999 in a special one-year pact, with average future annual revenues of about $2.7 million expected from the final SJRA. These revenues funded important water conservation projects that will improve the irrigation system, help defray the cost of maintaining the system, improve service to growers and allow for the development of greater ag water resources.
Transferred water will be used as part of the Vernalis Adaptive Management Plan (VAMP), a 12-year study of the relationship between water inflows into the Bay-Delta system from the San Joaquin River, water exports from the Delta and fish and wildlife interests.
Looking to the Future
As the District looks to the future, major goals include: continuing to increase service levels to growers while keeping water rates and standby charges as low as possible working cooperatively to build regional and state water resource policy, including groundwater and Bay-Delta issues, while working to protect agriculture and historic water rights.
Proposed annexations and consolidations are expected to bring District progress to more growers in the region. Electric Services is on track to bring the benefits of public power in even greater measure to Eastern Merced County, while producing revenues to help fund the expensive re-licensing of the District’s hydroelectric facilities by 2014 perhaps the greatest challenge on the District’s horizon.
Those Who Have Paved the Way for Success
The Merced Irrigation District has been fortunate to have had forward thinking and innovative members of its Board of Directors and General Managers. They have provided the District with more than 80 years of outstanding leadership. Below are some of those leaders. There are many more, including staff and employees, who over the more than 80 years of the District’s history have helped it become among the premier irrigation and utility companies in California.
Kenneth L. McSwain – “Mr. MID”
The Merced Irrigation District owes a huge debt to the work of “Mr. MID.” After studying Civil Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, McSwain began his career with the District as a hydrographer in 1932. By the time he retired as Chief Engineer/Manager in 1976, McSwain’s impact on both the District and surrounding community ran deep.
After moving to Eastern Merced County as a young boy and as a graduate of Merced High School, McSwain was always involved in the community. A member of the planning commission for the City of Merced, McSwain served as President of the local Kiwanis Club. He also served as committee member for the California State Outdoor Recreation Plan, Master of the Merced Masonic Lodge, a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, member of the Natural Water Resources Association, member of the committee on large dams for the National Engineers Association and active in the Episcopal church.
His progressive leadership led to the creation of the Merced River Development Project, which was responsible for the construction of New Exchequer Dam.
He was also involved in the World Bank, which sent him to Syria for two months during 1977-78 to serve as an advisor on irrigation issues.
Directors Who Inspired Success
D. K. Barnell
Barnell was a member of the Board of Directors from 1925 to 1945, 18 years of which he served as Board President. During his tenure, Barnell saw the District through the turbulence of the early years financial crisis and back to stability. Poor health forced Barnell to relinquish his seat to Milton Reiman in 1945.
C. M. Cross
Cross was the driving force behind the formation of the Merced Irrigation District in the early part of the century. Cross Lumber Company was one of the major industries in Eastern Merced County. However, Cross devoted much of his time and talent to the formation of the District. He served on the Board of Directors from 1919 to 1923 as its founding chairman.
Parker was appointed to the Board of Directors in 1964, upon the death of Milton Reiman. He began his tenure with the District during the final stages of negotiations for the Merced River Development Project and served the District for 25 years, eight of which he was Board President. Throughout those 25 years, his wise counsel was a great asset to the District.
Wood was Director for 32 years, 10 years of which he served as President. Additionally, Wood was President for two years of the California Irrigation Districts Association, now known as the Association of California Water Agencies. As a director, Wood’s efforts focused on fiscally sound practices that were in the best interest of the District’s farmers. As the longest serving board member in the District’s history, Wood’s contributions to both the District and the Association will long be remembered.
Management Who Led the District
Anderson began his career with the District as Secretary/Treasurer in 1971, after which he served as Secretary/Manager from 1976 to 1984. As Secretary/Manager, Anderson brought to conclusion property acquisition cases for lands necessary to the Merced River Development Project. He also teamed up with Turlock Irrigation District to construct three small power plants on the Merced Irrigation District canal system. Continuing after retirement, and as a consultant to the District, Anderson also obtained congressional support in 1990 to protect District storage rights at Lake McClure from Federal Wild & Scenic River legislation.
L.W. Bill Hesse
Hesse served as District Superintendent of Operations and Maintenance from 1931 to 1943. District records describe Hesse as a man who “followed the principles of honesty, integrity and industry.” He served the District during some of its most turbulent years and made the welfare of the District, as he understood it, his guide in all he did. As too often happens, Hesse never received the credit due him by taxpayers, water users or Boards under which he served.
Wilbur Fisk McClure
Wilbur Fisk McClure was the California State Engineer during the construction of the Exchequer Dam. Unfortunately, McClure passed away before the completion of the Dam and so the District named Lake McClure in his honor. The inscription on the plaque at the old Exchequer Dam reads: “He brought water to the thirsty land.” Descendants of McClure still reside in the Merced area.
R. V. Meikle
In 1924, the District received an offer from the Turlock Irrigation District to allow their Chief Engineer, R.V. Meikle, to serve as Chief Engineer/Manager for The Merced Irrigation District during the construction of the Exchequer Dam and powerhouse. As a result, Meikle brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the District during its early years. This type of cooperation between The Merced Irrigation District and its neighboring district continues today.
Reta served the District from 1945 to 1990 in the engineering department. He became Chief Engineer/Manager in 1985 and served in that capacity until 1990. As a registered agricultural engineer, Reta was taught by the best: Kenneth McSwain and Reuben Schmidt. After retiring from the District, following 46 years of service, Reta had served the District longer than any other employee. Reta’s accomplishments include: the Lake Yosemite Dam repair and renovation, the Double-Barreled LeGrande Flume Replacement Project and obtaining state water rights licenses for Lake McClure.
General Manger from 1991 to 2004, Rogers was a man of vision who brought a new type of leadership to the District. He established a team concept utilizing a qualified, strong support staff of senior managers. He developed new concepts for Managerial/operational processes, and worked diligently to protect the District’s water rights on the Merced River. He became one of the leaders seeking to protect the water rights of the upstream irrigation districts. He helped guide the direction of the The District Advisory Committee, District Foundation and played an active role in the development of the Merced Water Supply Plan. Rogers will be the first to say that his accomplishments were made possible due to the District’s talented and dedicated staff and the cooperation and encouragement of the Board of Directors.
H. P. Sargent
H. P. Sargent was employed as a Right of Way Agent in 1922 and later as District Secretary until his death in 1951. During his 29 years with the District, Sargent filled in for other District officials in times of need. Like Bill Hesse, Sargent steered the District through its most difficult years.
Schmidt’s influential career with the District lasted an outstanding 43 years. Schmidt began as a Rodman on the survey crew in 1936 and eventually worked his way up to Chief Engineer. He is most remembered for his important role in the enhancement of District fisheries during the Merced River Development Project. His efforts improved the migration of salmon up the Merced River. As a result, the salmon-spawning channel at the diversion dam is named in his honor. Kenneth McSwain, who was Chief Engineer/Manager at the time, often referred to Schmidt as his “right-hand man.” Also, as a Merced High School football star, Schmidt gave the District’s youth summer employment opportunities, from canal maintenance to engineering. For many youths, this was their first work experience, and it allowed them to remain in the area and become successful in their own endeavors. In fact, some remained with the District and worked their way up the ranks until retirement, just as Schmidt did. In that tradition, several current District senior managers have Schmidt to thank for giving them that first employment opportunity.