Online Brief Photo History of the Coachella Canal

With an average annual rainfall of 3.2,” the Coachella Valley has had to rely upon other sources of water.

Surface Water

USGS photo near Fig Tree John Springs, showing ancient water line.

Periodically through history, the Colorado River changed course to fill the rift valley (Coachella/Imperial), and then it would resume its course to the Gulf of California. It is believed it last dried up around 1580.

USGS photo of Salton Sea as it rose near Fig Tree John Springs in 1906

Created by flooding of the Colorado River during construction of inlets to an irrigation canal, the Sea has no outlet and quickly became too saline to support agriculture or for drinking water.

Limited year round water was available from streams, such as this
in Palm Canyon in the western valley.
There were some seasonal streams also, such as this in Martinez Canyon in April.

With insufficient rain and surface water, mankind turned to wells

A Cahuilla Indian well, circa 1903. C.C. Pierce.
Camp at Indian Wells, circa 1903. C.C. Pierce.
An artesian well near Coachella, circa 1903. C.C. Pierce.

The Southern Pacific Railroad opened its line from Los Angeles to Indio in 1876; by 1877, it was extended to Yuma. In 1883, the line was completed to New Orleans where it could connect to eastern railways. Transportation brought more possibilities of agriculture and tourism.

January 1918: Coachella Valley County Water District was formed.

1922 Colorado River Compact: the seven states in the River watershed sent delegates that resulted in the “Law of the River” and the allocation of the river’s water.

Although we had no physical link to the River, Attorney Yeager represented Coachella Valley

On Dec. 21, 1928, President Coolidge signed the Boulder Canyon Project Act, authorizing the construction of Hoover Dam, Imperial Dam, and the All American Canal including its Coachella Branch.

George Law photo, courtesy of “University of Southern California. Libraries” and “California Historical Society.”

In March, 1930, Attorney Yeager and 4 members of the CVCWD Board drove along the route of the canal survey. While the photo above is not of them, it does show the terrain around Mecca through which they drove their 2 Model T automobiles.

An architectural rendering of Hoover Dam by the US Bureau of Reclamation

Hoover Dam: Dedicated September 30, 1935

Imperial Dam and beginning of the All American Canal, US Bureau of Reclamation photo

Imperial Dam: Dedicated October 18, 1938

All American Canal

1934 excavation through rock ridges east of Pilot Rock,
US Bureau of Reclamation photos
All American Canal construction at Pilot Rock, 1937,
US Bureau of Reclamation photo

Coachella Branch of the All American Canal

Fraught with complications from labor, fuel and material shortages due to World War II, and with heat, wind and rain by Mother Nature, construction of the 123 mile Coachella Branch Canal took over ten years.

Drop 1 and the turn out on the All American Canal to
the Coachella Branch Canal, US Bureau of Reclamation photo

Turn out construction completed July 6, 1939

16 cubic foot capacity dragline, equipped with walking traction,
roughing-out Coachella Canal, US Bureau of Reclamation photo
Portable cooling tower used for pre-cooling concrete mixing water,
US Bureau of Reclamation photo

(for more information, see “What was That? A Washboard for a Giant?” in the blog posts on the Home Page.)

By the end of 1941, 75 miles of the canal had been completed. The US entry into World War II led to the War Production Board suspending all work except that on Section 2 that was in progress, but that was slow due to shortages and not completed until March 1943. It was not until October 1944 that work could resume, and even then materials were in short supply.

Siphons were constructed to carry flash flood water to protect the canal,
US Bureau of Reclamation photo

US Bureau of Reclamation photo

Heavy rains in the Indio area in August 1945 washed out part of the work. A waste way and an emergency dike were built to protect the canal, which would lead to construction of 26 miles of dikes along the east side of the Coachella Valley.

Waste Way No. 1, June 1946,
US Bureau of Reclamation photo
Twenty-six miles of protective dikes were built on the east side of
the Coachella Valley to protect the canal from flash floods.
Civil Engineering magazine photo 1950

By 1948 canal water reached the Coachella Valley, but there was not yet a way to deliver it to farming land.

July 8, 1948
US Bureau of Reclamation photo
July 1948
US Bureau of Reclamation photo

Water well levels in the Coachella Valley were dropping at an alarming rate; from July 1948 through February 1949, emergency canal side water deliveries were made; water trucks carried water to the farms.

From 1948 to 1954, an underground distribution system was constructed, consisting of 485 miles of low-pressure concrete irrigation laterals ranging in diameter size from 12-inch to 96-inch, to distribute water to the highest point on each 40-acre block of land within Improvement District 1. The laterals were located along section and mid-section lines. Baffle stands were constructed at each turnout point and were located every 1,320 feet to create the head required for each delivery point. The gravity fed system is still in use today.*

October 1950
Mid section regulating stand

The first official water delivery was made March 29, 1949, to the Russell-Alexander Ranch near Thermal, via Lateral 99.8.

Coachella Canal turn out on the All American Canal at Drop 1, circa 1950
Coachella Canal as it heads north from turn out, circa 1950


The Coachella Valley does not have “tail water” (i.e. open ditches of runoff from farming), instead, between 1950 and 1978, CVWCD installed an approximately 164 mile underground drainage system (tile drains) to the Whitewater Channel. Many farms have on site tile drains that conduct the water to the system.

Us Bureau of Reclamation
US Bureau of Reclamation

The canal in service

Canal tour by Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Agriculture Committee,
May 1, 1953. Los Angeles Examiner, Photographer Miller

In 1958, an agreement was reached to extend the system to the local Tribes.

(In 1961, CVWCD began domestic water delivery.)

Under a 1963 betterment agreement with the US Bureau of Reclamation, the system had additional renovations, including among other provisions, installation of the first major remote control of any canal system, and creation of a new terminal regulating reservoir:

CVCWD telemetry control room, 1967.
US Bureau of Reclamation photo
Lake Cahuilla, the terminal reservoir of the canal, was opened Oct. 7, 1969;
at the time, it was the largest soil cement lined reservoir in the world.
Desert Magazine photo

The challenge to all historians is when to set a cut off point. The canal is not a static project; it continues to evolve with changing technology and demands. I have chosen this point 50 years ago.

  • I have the unique privilege of being the daughter of the owners/operators of the heavy earthwork contractors who built the distribution system under contract with the US Bureau of Reclamation.

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