MERCED -- Ever since the beginning, Central Valley inhabitants followed rivers and streams to establish their settlements.
Merced County settlers did the same and took up land along the Merced and San Joaquin rivers. It was from these rivers that homes were made, fields were plowed and wealth was built.
As mentioned in the last column, the Merced River is an integral part of the irrigation system in eastern Merced County (east of the San Joaquin River) and the cradle of the county.
The County began its settlement along the Merced River bottom where Merced Falls, Snelling and Hopeton are located. Farmers homesteaded the river bottomland and organized the County of Merced in 1855.
West Side -- the area west of the San Joaquin River -- water history begins with Cattle King and Land Baron Henry Miller. He did not start the San Joaquin and Kings River Canal and Irrigation Co. in 1871. But he ultimately obtained a controlling interest in the company and built two canal systems throughout much of his West Side land.
After his death in 1916, his company, Miller and Lux, started to subdivide and sell its land holdings. Four groups eventually obtained control of Miller and Lux's irrigation system and water rights.
These four groups became known as "Exchange Contractors" in the 1930s when the federal government undertook the Central Valley Project.
They gained such title by entering an agreement with the government to exchange their San Joaquin River water rights for the guaranteed delivery of water from the Delta-Mendota Canal or other federal facilities. The water from the San Joaquin River is impounded by Friant Dam and distributed to land in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
In addition to the federal and regional players on the West Side irrigation system, there is a third partner -- the state.
In fact, the state started the Central Valley Project, but failed to complete it because of insufficient funding. In the 1960s, the state and the federal government joined forces in the San Luis Unit project and it irrigates most of the land west of the Delta-Mendota Canal.
President John F. Kennedy best described this collective partnership when he came to Los Banos for the San Luis Dam groundbreaking ceremonies on Aug. 18, 1962:
"What this project also symbolizes is the state working with the federal government, the local communities working with the state. This program is unique in this area. There is no other project in the history of the United States where a state has put in such a large contribution to the development of its own resources, and where the national government has joined with the state."
This collaborative effort resulted not only in improved water delivery to the West Side but also in a demographic change for the city of Los Banos.
Overnight, the city expanded with the influx of the San Luis Dam workers. Once again, demonstrating the role water has played in the building and expansion of Merced County -- following the water.
Today, as the Merced River continues to run through the northeast section of Merced County, the San Joaquin River has not fared as well.
As you drive on Highway 152 between Merced and Los Banos, you may pass by the San Joaquin River without noticing it because the river is dry most of the time. As recent articles about its restoration document, the San Joaquin River even without water continues to be newsworthy.
For more history about the Merced County irrigation system, please check out our "Following the Water" exhibit at the Courthouse Museum.
The exhibit runs through Sept. 30. For more information, please contact the office at 723-2401 or visit www.mercedmuseum.org. Follow us at www.facebook.com/mercedmuseum.
Sarah Lim is director of the Courthouse Museum.