This work explores the manner in which human interactions with water shaped the social, cultural, and physical landscape of early twentieth century San Diego, California. Water management, or choices regarding how water should be developed, allocated, and utilized in this semi-arid region, impacted race and class relationships within the area, the local and regional environment, and international relations in both intended and unintended ways. The pursuit of a robust water system initiated urban growth and expanded the economic potential of the city. It also caused changes in the local hydroscape, displaced residents, encouraged imperialism, and engendered a false sense of public safety.
This dissertation focuses on the roles multiple community members played in shaping San Diego's relationship to water, even those marginalized in broader power structures. Water development in San Diego remained locally driven and surprisingly democratic, though not egalitarian, in the early twentieth century, with a variety of stakeholders making their voices heard in the county's water debates. While certain individuals and groups were more heavily involved in the water supply question than others, like Hiram Newton Savage and the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, no monolithic "water elite" emerged to dominate the discussion. Local factions, instead of outside governmental intervention, pushed much of San Diego's early water expansion forward.
As the county grew, environmental realities continued to define urban space even as experts attempted to use technology to triumph over local limitations, creating a balancing act between the limits of the environment, the augments to local supply technology could provide, and the desires of the human population for amenities such as verdant suburban lawns. Eventually, technological advances extricated the city from local environmental constraints, fostering growth well beyond what the local environment could support and leaving the city utterly reliant on imported supplies. The pervading Progressive-era ideology regarding development, which supported massive water infrastructure projects and valued specific kinds of expertise, scientific rationality, and efficiency, remain with the region over one hundred years later, and still no allocation seems adequate to quench the thirst of the ever-growing metropolis.