Early Struggle over Water was Between One Man and 275 – Irvine Lost the Fight

Roch Bradshaw
Santa Ana Journal, September 27, 1935

The chief struggle over the water in the Santiago creek was a contest of one man against 275 others. It ended in victory for the 275; and yet, like the battle over waters of the Santa Ana River, the opposing parties finally got together and agreed to a division of the stream which satisfied all.

The lone man in the contest was James Irvine, owner of the vast Irvine ranch. The 275 were ranchers who disputed his right to use water from the Santiago creek. On August 31, 1894, they filed suit against him, seeking an injunction to restrain him from using Santiago creek water. The case is the now famous case known as William Bathgate versus James Irvine.

The complaint recalled that on July 1, 1873, the plaintiffs went to a spot known as Point of Rocks and diverted all the Santiago creek flow through ditches to their lands. The diversion was made on lands belonging at that time to the late Jonathan Watson….

In order to further develop their irrigation supply, the plaintiffs said they built a submerged dam on Watson’s land in 1879. They excavated the sand and gravel to bedrock, then filled up the hole with clay. By this means they sought to cause the water of the stream to rise to the surface so that a larger flow would reach their diversion ditches. They cemented and lined with clay the stream bed between the dam and the diversion point below, to prevent seepage.1

The plaintiffs contended that all the flow of the stream was necessary for irrigation of their lands and for domestic use. They complained, however, that on June 24, 1893, James Irvine went to a point three miles above their head gates and erected a dam, built flumes and ditches and took a large quantity of water which they needed. They said he was taking the water outside the Santiago creek watershed, which they objected to as illegal. They asked that he be enjoined from his use of the water.

In support of their claim to title to all the water, Mr. Bathgate and the other ranchers said that on November 18, 1878, James Irvine’s father had diverted 72 inches of water from the stream, but that after the farmers objected, he turned the water back and abandoned all claim to it.

irvine lake 1940s
Irvine Lake in the 1940s
Courtesy Phil Brigandi

The case went to trial before the late Judge Towner on August 12, 1895. He found that each part was entitled to water from the stream, but did not determine in what amount. The important part of his decision, however, was that Mr. Irvine was not entitled to take water from the Santiago watershed to another watershed except for domestic use or to water stock. The court found that he could use the water for irrigation only on that part of his land which was riparian or adjacent to the stream.

Mr. Irvine appealed to the supreme court. That body affirmed the decision, but modified it to rule that Mr. Irvine could not take any water from the watershed for any purpose whatsoever.

In 1931 a dam was built on the Santiago creek by the Irvine Company, the Serrano Irrigation District and the John T. Carpenter Irrigation District. Mr. Irvine furnished the site for the dam and the reservoir [now Irvine Lake]. In return, the water companies reached an agreement with him. The water concerns are to get the first 1,000 acre feet which are conserved each year. After that the supply is to be divided equally between the water companies and Irvine.

No restriction was placed upon Mr. Irvine’s use of his share of the water. He may, if he wishes, take it outside the Santiago creek watershed.


  1. The second submerged dam on the site (built in 1892) can still be seen in Santiago Oaks Regional Park.