Forming the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District
By Jessie Faulkner
February 3, 2003
The recent news that an Alaskan businessman was attempting to purchase what he termed as the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District’s “excess” water prompted a reflection on the history of the district and its water source.
The effort began in 1955 with the formation of the Citizens Committee of Humboldt County for Industrial Development, composed of Greater Eureka Chamber of Commerce and Humboldt County Board of Trade members, among others. One of the committee’s objectives was to find a way to make use of the estimated 175 million cubic feet of wood waste in Humboldt County each year.
Committee members were looking for an industry that could thrive through the use of those remains. The pulp industry — which creates the material for paper manufacturing — appeared to fit the bill. First, however, would be developing a means to deliver the massive amount of water necessary for that manufacturing process.
By the spring of 1956, a campaign was under way to form a water district. The issue came to the voters on March 13, 1956. Eligible voters were those who lived within the boundaries of the proposed district — from Hookton Road in the south to McKinleyville in the north and from Korbel to the Pacific Ocean. The district was formed under the provisions of the
California Municipal Water District Act of 1911.
The voters favored the district with 6,972 in support, 840 opposed.
“This overwhelming vote in favor of the water district is a mandate to the directors to do something about bringing new industries to the Humboldt Bay area,” newly elected Director A.J. Gosselin said.
A second election held about a year later in 1956 authorized the district to issue up to $12 million in general obligation bonds to fund the project. Sixty-nine percent of voters approved the bond.
With the district up and running, the focus shifted to attracting pulp mills to Humboldt Bay and developing a means to provide the necessary volume of water. Early reports noted that pulp mills on Humboldt Bay used as much as 45 million to 50 million gallons of water per day.
To meet that need, the district contracted with the Bechtel Corp. of San Francisco to survey the Mad River for possible dam locations. The survey pointed favorably to construction of the dam and storage reservoir near the remote town of Ruth in western Trinity County. Water District Board Chairman Robert Matthews recalled some of the details of financing that initial survey of the Mad River at the ground-breaking ceremonies for the dam.
The Eureka Chamber of Commerce not only pressed for formation of the water district, he said, but raised a $50,000 industrial fund to pay the cost of the district’s formation and to get it up and operating. He also noted that the cities of Eureka and Arcata as well as Humboldt County contributed funds for the survey.
In February 1959, the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District acquired a permit for use of 120,600 acre-feet of water from the Mad River. The state Water Rights Board issued the permit, which was predicated on an agreement between Trinity County and the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District.
The Trinity County Board of Supervisors, according to newspaper accounts, were none too thrilled with the idea of the dam. Trinity County officials were reported to be unhappy with the potential loss of assessable land with the construction of the reservoir.
Others opposed to the construction of Ruth Dam included residents of the Ruth area and the Humboldt County Grange Committee. The residents protested the flooding of the valley and the Grange Committee argued that there was not enough water usage to warrant building the Reservoir, according to Jerry Colivas’ “Getting Water to Eureka: A Short History,” in the Summer 2001 Humboldt Historian.
Trinity County and water district officials, however, were able to reach an agreement acceptable to both parties.
“Agreement was finally reached whereby the district agreed to pay a set amount to Trinity (County) each year in lieu of taxes and granted to that county the right to develop recreation areas around the reservoir,” an undated newspaper article stated.
Among the elements of that agreement was that the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District would relocate both Trinity and Six Rivers National Forest roads disturbed by the project, maintain the county roads for three years after their relocation, replace the Ruth air strip and purchase property to the maximum project size, including a 300-foot strip above the high-water mark.
With that hurdle surpassed, the water district finalized its ongoing efforts to attract pulp mills to Humboldt Bay. The district was able to acquire commitments from both Georgia-Pacific and Simpson Paper Co. to purchase water for pulp mills on Humboldt Bay. Under the contracts, the water would be delivered by July 1, 1962.
On May 12, 1959, the Humboldt Standard announced those agreements in large and bold type across its front page: “Two Pulp Mills Announce They Will Buy Water Here.” That prominent headline was only slightly topped by a little larger one above the masthead announcing a bank robbery in Eureka — only the fourth in the county’s history.
Originally, the district was making plans for three pulp mills. In an undated newspaper article, Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District Director H.O. Hilfiker announced that Simpson Paper Co. and Fibreboard Co. would work together to build one “giant” pulp plant.
“Hilfiker said the plant would use 20 million gallons of water per day immediately and would expand to 50 million a day shortly after,” the article stated.
With two pulp mills lined up, and approval of a $10.7 million bond, the district was ready to put the project out to bid.
The 15 bids for construction of the Ruth Dam were opened in the Eureka City Council Chambers on Aug. 9, 1960. The bid was divided into four separate projects: construction of the dam, clearing the land, relocating the Trinity County roads and relocating the Six Rivers National Forest roads.
Norman I. Fadel and Granite Construction Co., in a joint effort, had the lowest bids for three of the elements, $2.3 million for construction of the dam; $1.7 million for relocation of Trinity County roads; and $395,122 for relocation of Forest Service roads. J.H. Trisdale of Redding had the lowest bid for clearing the reservoir site, at $185,600. Altogether, the project bids were nearly $600,000 less than engineers had estimated, according to the Humboldt Times.
Upon completion, the Ruth Dam would stand at 144 feet high and back up the Mad River over seven miles and 1,300 acres. Future construction was expected to bring the dam to a height of 167 feet.
The ability to deliver water from the Mad River to points south was based on four Ranney wells installed in the river at Essex. The riverbed’s gravel would serve as a natural filtration system. The project also required installing new pipe from the Ranney wells to Samoa at the estimated cost of $3.25 million.
The water district calculated that sales to the two pulp mills would make the district self-sufficent — but such a balance wasn’t expected until the plants were open. Under the contract agreements, the companies would pay $144,000 per year each for the first two years. Two years after the water’s delivery, in 1964, the minimum price would go to $225,000. To make the water district self-supporting immediately, another 15 million to 20 million gallons of water per day would have to be sold. Newspaper stories at the time note the district was looking for another pulp mill.
Municipal customers eventually helped. Since 1938, the city of Eureka’s water had come from the Sweasey Dam, located six miles east of Blue Lake on the Mad River. Water was transported from the site to Eureka in water lines made of redwood. The city was running into difficulty with Sweasey Dam as it became increasingly full of silt. An October 1958 report noted that dredging the dam would cost $1 million over a period of four years.
After much debate and study, the city of Eureka agreed to buy water from the district, as did Arcata and, today, the city of Blue Lake, and three community services districts are customers of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District.
By Feb. 16, 1962, Ruth Dam was complete and the new reservoir filled. That night the first water cascaded down the spillway. The dedication was held on May 30, 1962. The first water from Ruth Dam was delivered to Eureka on July 2, 1962. Water district officials received permission to delay the water’s arrival by one day as July 1, 1962, was a Sunday.
The pulp mills were active for more than three decades on the Samoa Peninsula, but now only the Samoa Pacific Corp.’s pulp plant remains and, through a new chlorine-free process, uses 10 million to 12 million gallons of water per day instead of 40 million to 50 million gallons per day.
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