Santa Cruz Mountains


Water Our Precious Resource

Water is a transparent fluid that covers 71% of the world’s surface as a liquid, as a solid in the form of ice and snow, and as a vapor in the form of steam, fog, dew and clouds. 96.5% of our planet’s water is found in oceans and seas, 1.7% in groundwater, 1.7% in glaciers and the ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland, 0.001% in the air as vapor, clouds, and precipitation. Only 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater available for human consumption, with less than 0.3% in reservoirs, lakes and rivers, leaving 98.8% as ice and groundwater.

What is water? Technically, a water molecule contains two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom connected by a bond that involves the sharing of electron pairs between atoms. Referred to as H2O, pure drinking water is tasteless and odorless. Vital for all forms of life on Earth, although it contains no calories and nutrients, it is our most critical resource. A study of the evolution of human civilization shows a distinct correlation between water and human development.

Water is continually moving through the cycle of evaporation from the oceans and seas into the air, and transpiration from land plants and animals into the air. Precipitation, from water vapor condensing in the air and falling to earth, and runoff from the land flowing into rivers, streams, and creeks, provide potable water. It wasn’t long ago that most of the drinking water in the world was contaminated with human waste, however in modern times the drinking water in many parts of the world is safe for human consumption.

The human body itself contains 55% to 78% water, depending on size and weight. Medical specialists don’t agree on how much water we need to function properly, but they do agree we need a lot to avoid dehydration, depending on our level of activity, temperature, humidity, etc. We ingest some through our food intake, but the majority should be by the consumption of potable drinking water.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains we obtain our water from several different sources. Wells are drilled deep into the ground, springs bubble out of the ground, and creeks that meander through our community are diverted to our water tanks and carried into our homes by PVC pipes. Pumps are used to move the water more quickly or defy gravity by pumping the water up a hill. Groundwater is pumped up from wells that extract water from underground layers of sand, gravel or porous rock called aquifers, rendering it generally free of bacteria. Surface water comes from reservoirs, lakes, rivers, and streams. To control bacteria, all surface water must be filtered and disinfected.

Reservoirs in the Los Gatos-Santa Cruz Mountains have supplied water to and controlled flooding in the Santa Clara Valley. By the late 1800s, so much water had been pumped out of underground aquifers that the valley floor sank. In order to continue watering the hungry fruit orchards, the water needed to come from somewhere else. It was decided to tap into the natural creeks and rivers coming out of the mountains above the valley. Flooding had also become a serious problem and as the population increased it caused more damage. Dams were built in the mountains in several locations for the collection of surface water.

San Jose Water Company was incorporated on November 21, 1866, as an investor owned public utility. (It changed ownership several times over the years and for a period of time it was named San Jose Water Works, until 1983 when the name was changed back to the original.)

By 1913, when an official report on the appraisement of properties of the San Jose Water Company was completed by a San Francisco engineering firm, it was stating that they owned 4047 acres of land in the Los Gatos portion of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Four of their eleven reservoirs were located in the mountains. These were by order of construction, Lake Ranch Reservoir (Lake McKenzie), Howell Reservoir (Lake Kittredge), Lower Howell Reservoir (Lake Couzzens), and Williams Reservoir. According to the 1913 report:

•“Williams Reservoir, situated near the headwaters of Los Gatos Creek, and having a storage capacity of 51,173,000 gallons.
•Upper and Lower Howell Reservoirs, located at the headwaters of Rundell Gulch, the Upper Reservoir having a capacity of 71,938,500 gallons and the Lower Reservoir has a capacity of 46,477,000 gallons.
•Lake Ranch Reservoir, situated at the headwaters of Beardsley Gulch, and having a capacity of 110,070,000 gallons. •Run-off from Los Gatos Creek and such of its tributaries as empty into it below the Jones Dam is diverted at the Forbes Dam near Los Gatos and conveyed through a pipeline around Tisdale Reservoir (Lake Vasona) to the main supply line to San Jose.”

Lake Ranch Reservoir, the first reservoir to be built by the water company was started in 1874 and finished in 1876. The land up Lyndon Canyon Creek, off of Black Road was purchased from the Bernard family who continued to live on the north end of the lake until 1922. The area was a sag pond that had sunk because of earthquakes, creating a natural pond. It was also known as Lake McKenzie after Donald McKenzie, the man who organized and was the first president of the San Jose Water Company, investing $100,000 in its creation.

In 1877 land was acquired and construction began on the water meadow off of Black Road across from Lakside School, that would become Upper Howell Reservoir, with completion the following year. Five years later it was enlarged. Work was also done on Lake Ranch Reservoir again in 1889 when the dam was raised higher. In 1892, more land was purchased along Los Gatos Creek for watershed protection and the Williams Reservoir land was purchased and named after the water company president, Edward Williams. Again the next year more land was purchased, this time at Howell Reservoir, and more watershed along Los Gatos Creek and Cavanaugh Creek to protect the quality of the water. In 1895, construction of a concrete dam at Williams Reservoir began and once again more property was acquired along Los Gatos Creek to insure the purity of the water. By 1901, 1902, and 1906, the Williams Reservoir dam was raised and more property was acquired along the creek.

The next few years brought the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and its aftermath of rebuilding. Then World War I, the roaring twenties, the fall of the stock market in October of 1929, and the imminent great depression that plagued the entire world.

Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District was formed in 1929 to address the issues on water in the county. Then floods in 1931, 1937, and 1938 influenced a decision to build seventeen more reservoirs to capture rain water around the valley. As this new ambitious water system was being built, the population in the county jumped from 30,000 in 1940 to 90,000 in 1948. By 1950, influenced by the post war growth, the population of Santa Clara County exploded to 291,000.

With the 1940s came a serious drought that lasted until 1946. Voters in the valley passed bonds to build two more of the proposed reservoirs, Lexington and Anderson, to increase water storage. Incidentally, heavy rains in 1940, 1942, and 1943 generated disastrous floods that engulfed the valley, killing four people in the Gilroy area. The valley was transforming from an agricultural area to industrial with suburban residential developments, when again in 1955, during Christmas week, flooding left thousands homeless. On the evening of December 22, the city of Santa Cruz experienced the highest flooding in recorded history.

The last reservoir to be built by San Jose Water Company was Lake Elsman, completed in 1950 and named after Ralph Elsman, the San Jose Water Company president who led the company through its greatest growth. Located below Lake Williams, it is east of the train tunnel located in what was once the town of Wrights, now owned by the water company. An embankment dam more than 900 feet in length and 180 feet high, was built on the lake making it more than 140 feet deep in places. In a good year this reservoir provides more than 10% of San Jose Water Companies total water capacity.

Beneath the water are the remnants of the Austrian Gulch and Germantown settlements. Refugees from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 homesteaded in these rugged mountains and planted vineyards. The community of 1000 acres was abandoned because of severe flooding in 1889.

Lexington Reservoir, at 450 acres in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Los Gatos California was the last reservoir and the largest to be constructed in the mountains. It is owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, a public entity. Lake Ranch Reservoir (Lake McKenzie) was sold to the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation in 1981. It is now part of Sanborn Park and open to the public. There are no facilities except one table with benches at each end of the reservoir. Very quiet and serine, birding is a popular endeavor. The walk from Black Road is about two miles on a fairly level, dirt service road. Bicycles and dogs are welcome, but motorized vehicles are not allowed.

The two sleepy towns of Lexington and Alma were purchased and demolished for the construction of Lexington Reservoir. At that point, only about a hundred people lived in the two adjacent towns. Alma had first been an important stage stop and railroad station when the narrow gauge railroad was moving goods and passengers through the mountains. By 1940, the railroad ceased operations and the new highway for automobiles, Highway 17 was completed. The idea behind the reservoir was to percolate the water into the ground down in town and increase the amount of well water available in the Santa Clara Valley. In order to build the new reservoir, State Route 17 (Santa Cruz Highway) had to be rerouted. Construction began in the spring of 1952 and was completed in the fall.

Lexington Reservoir County Park is used for recreational purposes besides being used for flood control and to replenish the percolation ponds in the valley. The 914 acre park is a popular spot for hiking and fishing. Only non-motorized boats are now allowed on the lake because of noise complaints. The reservoir is stocked with black bass, trout, bluegill, and crappie providing hours of enjoyment for the local fishermen.

The county’s population continued to swell putting strain on the water system, as the cycle of drought and flood continued. 1976 and 1977 were severe drought years leading to the overwhelming flooding of 1982, 1983, and 1986. January 4 and 5, 1982 will go down in history as one of the worst disasters in Santa Cruz County history. The San Francisco Chronicle, January 13, 1982 edition, lists the damages from the Santa Cruz County flood as “22 dead, 50 injured, 400 people displaced, 135 homes destroyed, 300 homes damaged, $50 million in private damages, and $56.5 million in public damages.” There were 18,000 landslides throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, the worst being the two million cubic yards of mud and trees that came crashing down on Love Creek Road in Ben Lomond, burying ten people in a permanent grave. Landslides were the largest cause of death, along with being swept into a creek or having a tree fall on your house. Landslides from Soquel Creek devastated the Village of Soquel, damaging the Soquel Drive Bridge, pushing mobile homes against it from the mobile home park up the creek. Rain-swollen streams and creeks rampaged through neighborhoods, carrying heavy logs and complete trees, along with propane tanks, water heaters, sheds, garages, complete homes, and debris from the lives of the people upstream. Mud oozed everywhere, filling homes and businesses, burying cars and drowning roads in muck. The weather normalized for a few years, but by 1987 we saw the beginning of another drought that was to last for seven years.

October 17, 1989 brought a crisis to the mountain communities. The Loma Prieta Earthquake caused changes in the water table in the middle of a drought. Several of the mountain communities in the Los Gatos-Mountains could no longer supply water to their residents. San Jose Water Company built pipelines up the mountain to supply water. Since its inception, San Jose Water Company has continually expanded its distribution to include the neighboring communities, Los Gatos, Saratoga, Campbell, and a few more surrounding cities. Today they service over 1,000,000 people.

Now in 2015, we are again in a drought cycle that has been progressively worse for the last four years. Will the rain return again as it has in the past? Will we have severe flooding after years of drought?



Fishback, Karen; Mountain Breezes, San Jose Mercury News 5/18/82, 1986
Rogers, Paul; Ghost town remnants resurface as Lexington Reservoir level falls, San Jose Mercury News 12/06/2008
Pierce, Russell, Nine Men and 100 Years of Water History, The Story of San Jose Water Works, 1967,_California%29

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