Mayor Jerry Sanders had a clear message to send in his major speech last week: defeatists have always stood in the way of progress in San Diego.
Just think back 120 years ago, Sanders said, to when voters overwhelmingly passed a plan to bring water to the city. A “clever lawyer” was troubled by the pro-water vote and challenged it in court.
“So apparently,” Sanders said, “no idea is so good that it can’t attract an impassioned opposition.”
Fair enough. But Sanders, who relied on a brief account in a history book, missed the real story behind the epic 19th-century battle over bringing water to San Diego: In a mad dash for profit, wheeler-dealers fought each other in newspapers and the courthouse over who would control water.
In essence, the water wars weren’t so much over good ideas vs. bad ideas as over who’d get rich and who wouldn’t. Local moguls “knew it was a moneymaker, and whoever would control the water could control development,” said Iris Engstrand, history professor at the University of San Diego and co-editor of The Journal of San Diego History.
The problem then — as it is now — was that there’s water everywhere (just walk west) but barely a drop to drink. San Diego’s late 1880s boom times had gone bust, and its population has fallen to about 16,000. But our fair city’s residents still needed water to drink and, just as crucially, to help the city expand. Water from wells just wasn’t enough.