- Spanish Water, Anglo Water: Early Development in San Antonio
The early eighteenth-century Spanish explorers who trailed into what is now San Antonio, Texas, knew how to stay on message. Whether captain or cleric, they said the same thing when they encountered the crystal-clear San Pedro Springs and the nearby San Antonio River. In June 1691, an entrada under the political [End Page 208] religious leadership of Domingo Terán de los Ríos and Fray Damián Massanet rode into this well-watered terrain. In his diary, Terán was struck by the array of trees that grew along the banks and the indigenous peoples who used these waters, words Massanet echoed in his musings about the verdant ground and its developmental possibilities. Subsequent visitors were similarly impressed with the watershed's abundance: so taken was he during his 1709 stopover that Fray Isidro de Espinosa speculated that the two rivers' streamflow provided "water enough to supply a town," an observation Captain Domingo Ramón repeated seven years later in his journal: the San Pedro alone, he calculated, was "sufficient to supply a city" [Southwestern Historical Quarterly 110 (July 2006): 54].
This unanimity is as impressive as it is revealing. Each man knew that water was crucial to their nation's imperial agenda. Each knew that without it there could be no mission, presidio, or villa. Each understood that without these institutions, New Spain could not radiate north and east from the Rio Grande. For all of them, water also equaled the power to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism and agricultural labor; its ready presence allowed them to build a fortified community over which the Spanish flag would fly. No wonder the early colonists began fighting over this essential resource as soon as they set down roots. It is no surprise, either, that those initial brawls have been replicated over the past three centuries. In South Texas, whoever controls water—its distribution and use—has dominated the political arena and civic life.
There is a legal basis for this continuing slugfest. As Charles R. Porter notes in this slim and uneven volume: "Texas courts have modified the early Spanish water laws and the legislature has made changes that impacted them, but in general the courts to this day honor Spanish land grants and many portions of Spanish water laws" (60). There are also political pressures that have shaped how people have adapted to the region's rugged climate. Just as the first missionaries and settlers compelled native peoples to live within the coercive Spanish water regime, so were these initial migrants later dispossessed when the Canary Islanders arrived in 1731, receiving "exclusive ownership of land and water rights" (63) and preeminent political authority, an exalted status they maintained by controlling the irrigation system. They would lose their position in tandem with the Spanish empire's decline; cholera epidemics that swept through early nineteenth-century San Antonio signified too their diminished power: because the disease comes from "bad water," its deadly presence reflected the sharp decline in their managerial oversight of local waters (83).
Although white Americans took over the city in the 1850s, it was not until the 1870s that a new hydraulic structure utilizing pumps and pipes, and a new geography of power marked by private ownership emerged. When banker George Brackenridge's bought the local waterworks company, a local politician yelped: "If Brackenridge owns the head of the river, he can govern the city." (113).
However exaggerated, that cry is evoked throughout the contested political history of water in San Antonio, the modern era of which Porter expects to narrate in a companion volume. For it to be a success, it should be a more robust and interpretative text. [End Page 209]