Message from the President of the United States, relative to the threatened destruction by the overflow of the Colorado River in the sink or depression known as the Imperial Valley or Salton Sink region.1
[January 12, 1907.—Read; referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations, and ordered to be printed, with accompanying maps.
To the Senate and House of Representatives:
The governor of the State of California and individuals and communities in southern California have made urgent appeals to me to take steps to save the lands and settlements in the sink or depression known as the Imperial Valley or Salton Sink region from threatened destruction by the overflow of Colorado River. The situation appears so serious and urgent that I now refer the matter to the Congress for its consideration, together with my recommendations upon the subject.[Page 529]
Briefly stated, the conditions are these: The Imperial Valley, so-called, in San Diego County, Cal., includes a large tract of country below sea level. Southeast of the valley and considerably above its level is the Colorado River, which flows on a broad, slightly elevated plane upon which the river pursues a tortuous course, finally entering the Gulf of California. The lands in Imperial Valley are 200 feet or more below the level of Colorado River. Down as far as the international border they are protected from inundation by low-lying hills. South of the boundary, in the Republic of Mexico, the hills cease abruptly, and only the broad low mud banks of the river protect the valley from being converted into an inland sea or lake. In order to get any water to this vast tract of fertile but desert land, or, on the other hand, to protect it from too much water, works of supply or of protection must be built in Mexico, even though they may tap the river in the United States. The United States can neither aid nor protect the interests of its citizens without going upon foreign soil.
Nature has through many centuries protected this great depression from overflow, but the restless river, constantly shifting, has annually threatened to break through the banks. Only a little human aid was needed to cause it to do so.
This condition has been long known, and through many years schemes have been discussed either to convert the Salton Sink area into a lake or to irrigate the desert lands below sea level by making a cut in Mexico through the west bank of the Colorado River. It was also well understood that if the cut in the bank was not carefully guarded the river would quickly get beyond control. Finally, after many plans had been tentatively tried, the California Development Company, a New Jersey corporation, actively undertook the work. To insure the safety of Imperial Valley the head of the canal on the river was first placed on United States territory near where the river was bounded by hills. The canal then swung southwest and west away from the river through Mexican territory to connect with natural depressions leading to the valley and back into the United States. The organizers of this company, in order to carry on the work in Mexico, caused to be created a subsidiary company in Mexico acting under Mexican laws. Concessions were granted to this company by the Mexican Government, and provision was made for the employment of a Mexican engineer, to be designated by that Government, in order to see that the work was properly carried out. The dangerous character of the attempt was thus recognized in this concession.
The California Development Company began its work by making representations to possible settlers of the great benefits to be derived by them by taking up this land. A large amount of money which might have been used in needed works was expended in advertising and in promoting the enterprise. The claims were not only extravagant, but in many cases it appears that willful misrepresentation was made. Many of the operations of this company and of its subsidiary organizations tended to mislead uninformed settlers. At first the success of the company was great, and it disposed of water rights to settlers at prices sufficiently large to obtain a fair revenue either in cash or in securities of value.[Page 530]
The money thus obtained from settlers was not used in permanent development, but apparently disappeared either in profits to the principal promoters or in the numerous subsidiary companies, which to a certain extent fed upon the parent company, or served to obscure its operations, such as a construction company, a company to promote settlement, and a company to handle the securities of the various other corporations. The history of these deals is so complicated that it would require careful research, extending through many months, to unravel the devious ways by which money and valuable securities have disappeared. In brief, it is sufficient to state that the valuable considerations which were received for water rights were obviously not used in providing necessary and permanent works for furnishing water to the settlers.
The whole enterprise and the spirit of those promoting it, as well as of the numerous smaller speculators attracted to the subsidiary organizations, were of the most visionary character. Actual investments made have been small in proportion to estimates of wealth which appeared to be possible of realization.
The company entered upon its construction work with large plans, but with inadequate capital. All of its structures for the control and distribution of water were temporary in character, being built of wood, and of the smallest possible dimensions. Through the efforts thus made a large amount of land was brought under cultivation, and at one time it was reported that over 100,000 acres were being more or less irrigated.
The first heading of the canal of the California Development Company was in the United States, immediately north of the Mexican border. It was found, however, after a time, that the heading on the United States side of the line did not give a grade to furnish sufficient flow of water, and, after headings had been opened at other points without successful results, a cut in the river bank was made 4 miles farther south in Mexican territory. This gave the water a shorter and steeper course toward the valley. The making of this cut in a bank composed of light alluvial soil above a depression such as this without controlling devices was criminal negligence. This short cut on Mexican soil was made in the fall of 1904. It was gradually eroded by the passage of the water, and in the spring of 1905 the floods of the Colorado River entering the artificial cut rapidly widened and deepened it until the entire flow of the river was turned westerly down the relatively steep slope into the Imperial Valley, and thence into what is known as Salton Sink or Salton Sea.
After the mischief became apparent strenuous efforts were made by the California Development Company to close the break, but these were without success. Finally the Southern Pacific Company, finding its tracks imperiled and traffic seriously interfered with, advanced money to the California Development Company, received as security a majority of the shares of the company, and thus took charge of the situation.
By means of the facilities available to the Southern Pacific Company the break in the west bank of the Colorado River was closed on November 4, 1906. A month later, however, a sudden rise in the river undermined the poorly constructed levees immediately south of the former break and the water again resumed its course into the Salton Sea.[Page 531]
The results have been highly alarming, as it appears that if the water is not checked it will cut a very deep channel which, progressing upstream in a series of cataracts, will result in conditions such that the water can not be diverted by gravity into the canals already built in the Imperial Valley. If the break is not closed before the coming spring flood of 1907 it appears highly probable that all of the property values created in this valley will be wiped out, including farms and towns, as well as the revenues derived by the Southern Pacific Company. Ultimately the channel will be deepened in the main stream itself up to and beyond the town of Yuma, destroying the homes and farms there, the great railroad bridge, and the Government works at Laguna dam, above Yuma.
It is difficult to estimate how many people have settled in the valley, the figures varying from 6,000 persons up to as high as 10,000. It is also difficult to ascertain how much money has been actually spent in real improvements. Town lots have been laid off, sold at auction, and several hundred buildings erected in the various small settlements scattered throughout the tract. The greater part of the public land has been taken up under the homestead or desert entry laws, and sufficient work has been done to secure title. Some crops have been raised, and under favorable conditions the output in the near future will be large.
The actual amount of tangible wealth or securities possessed by the settlers to-day upon which money can be raised is believed to be very small. Nearly all individual property has been expended in securing water rights from the California Development Company, or from the other organizations handling the water supply and controlled by this company. It is evident that the people have slender resources to fall back upon, and in view of the threatened calamity are practically helpless. The California Development Company is also unable to meet the exigency. The obligations assumed by the sale of water rights are so great that the property of the company is not adequate to meet these obligations; in other words, a gift of the visible property of this company and of its rights would not be a sufficient offset to the assumption of its liabilities. Nevertheless, the people in their desperation were reported as trying to issue and sell bonds secured by their property in order to give to the California Development Company a million dollars to assist in repairing the break.
The complications which have arisen from the transfer of the property and the involved relations of the California Development Company with its numerous subsidiary companies are such that the United States would not be justified in having any dealings with this company until the complications are removed and the Government has a full understanding of every phase of the situation.
It has been stated above that the California Development Company has not the financial strength to repair the break and to restore the bank of the Colorado River to such permanent condition that a similar occurrence can not happen. It is further understood that the Southern Pacific Company, having expended $2,000,000 or more for the protection of its interests, declines to furnish more money to the California Development Company to save the Imperial Valley, beyond controlling the present break in the river bank. The owners of the property in Imperial Valley, both farmers and townspeople, together with the Southern Pacific Company and the California Development [Page 532] Company, have combined to call upon the Government for a contribution to assist the California Development Company to the extent of erecting permanent works to insure protection for the future.
If the river is not put back and permanently maintained in its natural bed the progressive back cutting in the course of one or two years will extend upstream to Yuma, as before stated, and finally to the Laguna dam, now being built by the Government, thus wiping out millions of dollars of property belonging to the Government and to citizens. Continuing farther, it will deprive all the valley lands along the Colorado River of the possibility of obtaining necessary supply of water by gravity canals.
The great Yuma bridge will go out, and approximately 700,000 acres of land as fertile as the Nile Valley will be left in a desert condition. What this means may be understood when we remember that the entire producing area of southern California is about 250,000 acres. A most conservative estimate after full development must place the gross product from this land at not less than $100 per acre per year, every ten acres of which will support a family when under intense cultivation. If the break in the Colorado is not permanently controlled the financial loss to the United States will be great. The entire irrigable area which will be either submerged or deprived of water in the Imperial Valley and along the Colorado River is capable of adding to the permanent population of Arizona and California at least 350,000 people, and probably 500,000. Much of the land will be worth from $500 to $1,500 per acre to individual owners, or a total of from $350,000,000 to $700,000,000.
The point to be especially emphasized is that prompt action must be taken, if any; otherwise the conditions may become so extreme as to be impracticable of remedy. The history of past attempts to close the break in the river bank has shown that each time, through delay, the work has cost double or treble what it would have cost had prompt action been taken. It is probable now that with an expenditure of $2,000,000 the river can be restored to its former channel and held there indefinitely; but if this action is not taken immediately, several times this sum may be required to restore it, and possibly it can not be restored unless enormous sums are expended.
At the present moment there appears to be only one agency equal to the task of controlling the river, namely, the Southern Pacific Company, with its transportation facilities, its equipment, and control of the California Development Company and subsidiary companies. The need of railroad facilities and equipment and the international complications are such that the officers of the United States, even with unlimited funds, could not carry on the work with the celerity required. It is only the fact that the officers of the Southern Pacific Company, acting also as officers of the California Development Company, have been able to apply all its resources for transportation, motive power, and the operation of the road that has made it possible to control the situation to the extent which they have already done. The Southern Pacific Company is now reported to be working strenuously to fill the break through which the Colorado River is flowing westward to the Salton Sea, and in repairing and building levees to keep out the high water due next March. This work will be more or less of a temporary character. Further construction is necessary, and all temporary works must be replaced by [Page 533] permanent structures. It is estimated that for this additional work $2,000,000 should be available. The question as to what sum, if any, should be paid to the Southern Pacific Company for work done since the break of November 4, 1906, is one for future consideration; for work done prior to that date no claim can be admitted.
But one practicable course is now open for consideration.
The Southern Pacific Company must continue its work to close the break and restore the river to its proper channel. The United States can then take charge, making the protective works permanent and providing for their maintenance.
It is not believed that a free gift of this money should be made, as by its investment the stability of property of great value will be secured and the increase in land values throughout the Imperial Valley will be sufficient to justify the provision that this money should be returned to the Government.
The Reclamation Service should be authorized to take steps at once for the construction of an irrigation project, under the terms of the reclamation act, for the lands in the Imperial Valley and in the lower Colorado River Valley. The service should be in position to proceed actively with the organization of the project and the construction of the works as soon as the conditions in regard to the protection of the valley against overflow will justify expenditures for this purpose.
To accomplish this the United States should acquire the rights of the California Development Company and its subsidiary corporations in the United States and Mexico upon such reasonable terms as shall protect the interests of the Government and of the water users. The United States should obtain by convention with Mexico the right to carry water through that country upon reasonable conditions.
Most of the land in the Imperial Valley has been entered under the terms of the desert land act or the homsetead laws, and title has not passed out of the United States.
The construction work required would be: The main canal, some 60 miles in length, from Laguna Dam into the Imperial Valley; the repair and partial reconstruction of the present distribution system in the valley and its extension to other lands, mainly public; diversion dams and distribution systems in the Colorado River Valley, and provision for supplementing the natural flow of the river by means of such storage reservoirs as may be necessary. This would provide for the complete irrigation of 300,000 acres in the Imperial Valley and for 400,000 acres additional in the United States in the valley of the Colorado in Arizona and California.
The reclamation fund now available has been allotted for projects under construction, and the anticipated additions to the fund for the next few years will be needed to complete these projects. It will therefore be impossible to construct a reclamation project for the Imperial Valley with the funds now in hand, and it will be necessary for Congress to make specific appropriation for this work if it decides to undertake it.
Such appropriation would be expended for a project carried out under all the provisions of the reclamation act, requiring the return to the reclamation fund of the cost of construction and maintenance [Page 534] of the irrigation works, and there should be the further requirement that the cost of permanent protective works and their maintenance be repaid.
The interests of the Government in this matter are so great in the protection of its own property, particularly of the public lands, that Congress is justified in taking prompt and effective measures toward the relief of the present situation. No steps, however, should be taken except with a broad comprehension of the magnitude of the work and with’ the belief that within the next ten years the works and development will be carried out to their full proportions.
The plan in general is to enter upon a broad, comprehensive scheme of development for all the irrigable land upon Colorado River with needed storage at the headwaters, so that none of the water of this great river which can be put to beneficial use will be allowed to go to waste. The Imperial Valley will never have a safe and adequate supply of water until the main canal extends from the Laguna Dam. At each end this dam is connected with rock bluffs and provides a permanent heading founded on rock for the diversion of the water. Any works built below this point would not be safe from destruction by floods and can not be depended upon for a permanent and reliable supply of water to the valley.
If Congress does not give authority and make adequate provision to take up this work in the way suggested, it must be inferred that it acquiesces in the abandonment of the work at Laguna and of all future attempts to utilize the valuable public domain in this part of the country.