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Cache Creek Water Wars in Lake County

In this day and age wars are fought about water use because too many users want to draw on too small a supply. In this look at Lake County history it was the other way around. There was too MUCH water.

Cache Creek is the exit for Clear Lake’s waters flowing down to the Sacramento River. Someone had the bright idea in the 1860’s to dam the outflow and use water power to run a grain mill and saw mill. The Clear Lake Company dam controlled the lake level but gave no thought to the consequences effecting property value and health.

All around Clear Lake homes had been built, orchards planted, and land planted to crops taking into account the natural high and low water levels. All of a sudden, with a dam in place, people were experiencing flooding in Lower Lake, Burns Valley, and other areas with cattle sickening, orchards destroyed, and water-born diseases killing people.

The old Fowler Grain Mill near Lower Lake had been purchased in 1865 by the company and they got a bill through the state legislature in 1866 allowing them to build a new solid stone dam, a larger lock, and they put in new cribs to place a new mill directly on top of the dam. It would be impossible to take down the dam without destroying the mill.

The bill had been cleverly constructed to allow the company to regulate the level off the lake water. The company wanted to sell water for irrigation purposes. The state had decreed water level could not vary more than once foot summer to winter. The years 1866 and 1867 had very wet winters and the water level the company chose as “normal” reduced farmers to destitution with flooded fields and rotting crops and people were dying of malaria and diphtheria.

People time and time again tried to take the company to court with legal challenges, but the company could buy jurors votes during trials because they were making money. By November 1868 all hope for a lawful resolution vanished and 300 local citizens decided to take action.

An action was planned at the dam site. The sheriff knew what was coming. The citizens allowed him to read the Riot Act to the crows, then did a citizens arrest on him, the superintendent of the mill works, and the mill hands. A local minister sanctioned the activity as a righteous deed and asked for blessings on all who participated. No one was harmed. Guards were posted while citizens dismantled the mill after carefully removing everything they could carry and barrels of flour and then demolished the dam. They worked a day and night and burned everything they could and Cache Creek ran unimpeded again.

In the San Francisco newspapers Clear Lake Water Company called the event a mob action and bemoaned the loss of the fine mill “one of the best in the state.” The company claimed (unsubstantiated) hundreds of tons of wheat went up in smoke, along with their saw and planing mill.

An 1869 court case said by law the government of Lake County was responsible since they allowed the dam destruction to happen and would have to repay the company. They court said “The dam was a nuisance, the people had properly abated said nuisance,” but they were still financially responsible.

It was decided Lake County would pay $20,000 to the company in a clever way. For the next 20 years everyone in the county would be charged a tiny fee on their tax bill, about the cost of a two pound bag of flour, to compensate the water company. Taxpayers agreed.

Clear Lake Water Company said it wasn’t their fault the dam kept backing up lake waters and flooding shorelines. The fault was that of Grigsby Riffle two miles downstream from the dam. Seigler Creek entered the waterway at that point at a sharp turning point, flowing faster than Cache Creek was. A build up in sand, debris, gravel and branches caused Cache Creek to back up into Clear Lake. A handy excuse for the company was to blame nature, not their practices.

One Comment

  1. James Browneagle, Elem Tribal Historin January 8, 2022

    Again and again the the Good old Boys of Lake County Denied the existence of any tribes and their Water rights under the Winters Doctrine which gave tribes the first right of use. Still to this day any tribal government can claim their inherited water rights. The Federal government has millions of dallors for Water Rights settlements for tribes. Yet not one Pomo tribe of Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma county has made a claim. Racism is still in the power of the good old boys leadership in these Jim Crow governments in most of the rural county’s in California. All My Relations

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