As I explore Oakland, I find out more about the city’s eight-decade struggle to find adequate water. When Oakland was founded in the early 1850s, wells dug anywhere that people settled, especially in the old downtown area, yielded plenty (as I noted a few weeks back). But within a decade, the laws had to be arranged so that water companies could set up shop. The law gave them the power of eminent domain — if they needed your property, they had the right to buy you out for a fair price. (Several “water companies” were founded as cover for real-estate sharks, hoping to flip their paper titles like the domain-name squatters of the 1990s.) That’s when Anthony Chabot sprang into action, founding the Contra Costa Water Company in 1866. He made his fortune with surface water: the reservoirs of Lake Temescal and Lake Chabot. This post is about some smaller companies that competed on the basis of groundwater, digging and pumping wells in the area around the Coliseum. The map below shows the major sites.

From Sands Figuers’ Groundwater study and water supply history of the East Bay Plain, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, California, figure 20

“Captain” Robert R. Thompson was a prominent citizen of Alameda back when the city was still on a peninsula. Seeing opportunity in 1879, he founded the Artesian Water Company, bought out the existing Alameda Water Company, and started drilling highly productive wells on the 12-acre parcel where his home sat. Today the site is known as Lincoln Park, next to Thompson Avenue on High Street. It’s as pleasant a part of town as can be, but all trace of the High Street Wellfield is long gone.

Looking down Thompson Street from High Street

Thompson knew what he was doing as well as anyone did in those days. Well diggers found the best sources by the Bay shore, even out in the tidal marshes. The theory went that a wide “subterranean river bed” extended along the shore of San Leandro Bay from the south end of Alameda all the way around to San Leandro Creek. I have a better idea that I’ll expound below.

Alameda’s demand for water rose until it outstripped Artesian’s supply, and in 1887 the company acquired the Damon tract east of the Oakland city limits near the town of Fitchburg, just down the “subterranean river,” and struck enough water there that in 1888 the High Street field was shut down except for emergencies. By then Thompson had sold his company and left town. Five years later Artesian bought a much larger (and much more productive) parcel on the Bay side of Fitchburg, near the Damon Wellfield. In 1899 Artesian was acquired by the Contra Costa Water Company during the East Bay’s “water wars,” when most of the private water companies competed themselves into bankruptcy and consolidation. Contra Costa became the Peoples Water Company for a while, then the East Bay Water Company, and finally a public utility, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, took them all over in 1928 and imposed the rational, dependable system we have today.

The Fitchburg Wellfield was where the Coliseum sits today. There were 51 wells lined up here along the Southern Pacific (Amtrak) right of way and another line of 19 out in the tidal marsh.

This 1912 map shows the plumbing in the Fitchburg Wellfield. It produced a good million gallons a day of “pure, fresh water” for Alameda customers.

From Figuers, figure 21

The outer line of wells (at the bottom) was within the range of the tides, so the wells were guarded by levees. In February 1909 a storm overcame the levees and sewage from the Bay contaminated the wells, giving 8700 Alameda residents instant gastroenteritis. Nobody died, but some of the victims with severe nausea, stomach pain and diarrhea may have wished they had. After things were put to rights, the wellfield produced water steadily until 1930, when EBMUD shut it down and got entirely out of the groundwater business.

Farther over, at the intersection of Jones Avenue (98th Avenue) and the Western Pacific railroad right of way (under the BART line), the Union Water Company drilled dozens of wells starting in 1910. In fact they had seven wellfields in the area, five of which fed the pumping plant in the Elmhurst wellfield, between 89th and 92nd Avenues north of G Street. Others were in Stonehurst and in San Leandro’s Broadmoor area. Together they produced about 3 million gallons a day. The Union Water Company was sold in 1921 to the East Bay Water Company.

All the old wells are long gone now, but signs of the Contra Costa, Union, Peoples and East Bay water companies can still be seen in Oakland’s streets.

See them all at my Oakland Underfoot blog

So what of that subterranean river? It wasn’t nonsense, just naive. Groundwater lives in underground layers of sand and gravel that have enough pore space to let water accumulate and flow. These layers slope downward toward the Bay, which means that the lower you can tap them, the higher the water will rise in the well and the easier the work of pumping will be.

To my eye, each of these major wellfields is related to a separate creek. At High Street, the waters of Sausal Creek flow straight down to south Alameda, where the thick sands of the former peninsula soak it up.

At Fitchburg it’s the even larger flow of Arroyo Viejo.

And at Jones Avenue, it’s not clear where the water might come from until you look at the geologic map, which shows a former course of San Leandro Creek heading right toward it — the unit labeled Qhl, meaning levee deposits.

So you could call these “subterranean rivers” and not be too incorrect. See them all in one image here.

You might wonder, “If fresh water is abundant at the shoreline, could it go even farther offshore?” And yes indeed, groundwater can advance quite far past the shoreline, and in many places there are freshwater springs under the sea. No one notices them but fish and scientists, but they account for a significant fraction of the world water budget.

Acknowledgment: As it happens, Dennis Evanosky wrote a piece a few days ago about Alameda’s water supply that helped me with a few details.

One Response to “Wellfields”

  1. Jerome Rainey Says:

    Terrific history and geology. Thanks!

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