As long as there has been a Merced County, there has been an east-west split.
The geographic source of this division is the meandering San Joaquin River. The San Joaquin begins in the Sierra Nevada, flows northwest across the San Joaquin Valley floor and then empties into the delta.
This east-west split even led cattle king and land baron Henry Miller to attempt to organize Santa Rita County on the West Side and secede because he resented the taxes that flowed northeast to the county seat.
His attempt failed. But the effort only solidified the division.
Recently, in preparing for the upcoming "Following the Water: A History of Merced County Irrigation" exhibit, Dan Nelson, the executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, explained how the east-west division manifested itself in two distinct water systems.
While Merced Irrigation District mainly supplies the East Side, a variety of water companies and irrigation districts operating under the umbrella of the San Luis authority to deliver water on the West Side.
The difference between the East Side and the West Side water systems has to do with whether water rights have been consolidated.
MID traces its origins back to the Robla Canal Co. Formed in 1870 by the "father of irrigation," William Collier, and his partners, the canal company was one of the first attempts by settlers to use prior appropriation water rights ("first in time, first in right") to bring water to their homesteads.
Collier, who served as the president, manager, and engineer of the company, had property in what is now the Livingston area.
He went upstream on the Merced River and found a perfect location to divert the water. His plan was to build a canal and bring water southwest to Bear Creek and eventually to his property.
Because of the lack of capital, Collier succeeded only in building a 7-mile-long canal with a tunnel about 1,580 feet in length. His canal fell far short of Bear Creek.
Starting on the south bank of the river near the Crocker-Huffman Diversion Dam, the canal ended at Canal Creek about one-half mile east from Merced-
The Farmers' Canal Co. succeeded the Robla Canal Co. in 1876. Then, Charles Henry Huffman and his business partner Charles Crocker organized Merced Irrigation and Canal Co. (later known as the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Co.) and purchased Farmers' Canal in 1882.
A more comprehensive canal system was developed with the enlargement of the old Robla Canal, the building of Tunnel No. 2, the other canals, Lake Yosemite Reservoir and finally the construction of the current Crocker-Huffman Diversion Dam.
As one company succeeded another, its water rights were transferred as well.
When MID was organized in 1919, it immediately began to negotiate for the purchase of the existing works and water rights of the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Co.
In 1922, according to the late MID historian Kenneth McSwain, "the district purchased the Crocker-Huffman system for $2,250,000. This also included the canals and laterals, the diverting dam on the river, the small Lake Yosemite Reservoir, and the company's water rights."
In 1926, MID obtained one of the last old water rights of the Merced River going back to 1873. Now with the settlement of water rights and the completion of the Exchequer Dam and Power House project, MID was ready to provide services and face new challenges.
If MID controls water on the East Side, what is the West Side's water history? This will have to be the topic of another column.
In the meantime, to learn more about the West Side water system, the legacy of Henry Miller and the Great Central Valley Project, please join us at the Courthouse Museum for the opening of the "Following the Water" exhibit on Thursday at 5 p.m.
At the reception, a senior representative from MID and Dan Nelson from San Luis authority will present a joint PowerPoint program titled, "A Tale of Two Water Systems."
For more information, please call 723-2401 or visit www.mercedmuseum.org. Follow us at facebook.com/mercedmuseum.
Sarah Lim is director of the Courthouse Museum.