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If it wasn’t for water, Manteca would be Milton
Dennis Wyatt

Milton is what today might generously be called a wide spot on the road — if that.

It was founded in 1871 — some than 20 years before Manteca became more than a collection of farms across the sandy plains of South San Joaquin County when Joshua Cowell opened the creamery to serve as a shipping point for milk headed for Bay Area markets.

Milton located north of Highway 4 is accessible “the back way” from Manteca by taking Lone Tree Road east from Five Corners where French Camp and Jack Tone roads meet amid Van Groningen Farms and the old Atlanta church. Once you reach the end of Lone Tree Road near the base of Woodward Reservoir — the vision of Manteca pioneer Walter Woodward — it’s a left turn on Twenty-Six Mile Road that takes you past the ruins of Eugene and straight to and through Milton.

Milton — named after engineer Milton Latham who helped create the Southern Pacific Railroad — was the bustling terminus of the Stockton-Copperopolis Railroad. 

My first introduction to Milton was on a 110-mile bicycle ride in 1991 coming down from Lake Tulloch on what to this day is still the bumpiest road I’ve ever cycled. Its biggest landmark was a two-story white clapboard building that was built in 1881 to serve as a Masonic Lodge. The second time was a year later when I was bicycling with John Alves while surveying the Manteca Bicycle Club’s route for its annual century ride. We stopped at a place in Milton that might be best described as a quasi-bar in an old Quonset hut. Our quest was to find a cold soda on what if I recall correctly was a 100-degree day as drinking from our water bottles was akin to drinking from a hot water tap. When we came through the door dressed in cycling gear and cleats, the looks we got prompted my mind to queue up “Dueling Banjos”. We bought our canned sodas and high-tailed it out of there.

I returned — or should I say drove — through Milton on Sunday. The Masonic Lodge is gone and so is the Quonset hut. I’d venture to say there are no new homes.

Why did Milton die and Manteca thrive? The late 19th century wisdom was any community that had a railroad stop was golden.

The answer can be found 6 miles south of Milton at Woodward Reservoir. You can have all the cutting edge technology which is what railroad travel was in 1881 but you are nothing without water. Nowhere is that more true than in the geographic Southwest United States of which much of California is a part of. The fact visionaries that formed the South San Joaquin Irrigation District understood that in 1909 is why Manteca has 81,740 people and high value farming in the form of orchards as well as vines that have made San Joaquin County by the far the largest wine grape growing county in the nation. Securing water rights, developing those rights, and then protecting those rights is why the City of Los Angeles that’s located in an arid coastal basin today has 3.79 million residents and California City has 14,162 residents. California City was rolled out in the early 1960s as the Golden State’s next big city encompassing 203 square miles making it the third largest statewide in terms of land. The goal was to have upward of 1 million people living on the western edge of the Mojave Desert. It did not rise to expectations with the aerospace boom that was supposed to propel its growth. One of the big reasons was lack of sufficient water.

Drive to Milton today and you will see a splattering of almond and walnut orchards on the gently rolling terrain north of Woodward Reservoir. The soil is fairly decent but mostly you will see dry grass for miles. The completion of the New Melones Reservoir in 1979 was supposed to provide adjoining Eastern San Joaquin County where the mythical Barkley Family Ranch was located in “The Big Valley” TV series that aired from 1965 to 1969 the lifeblood needed to prosper as an agricultural region. But just like every other federal and state reservoir built in California the water was substantially overcommitted.

Eastern San Joaquin County, like the rest of the Central Valley, is facing an uncertain future due to the looming state groundwater mandate that requires basins not to pump more water from an aquifer than is replenished in a given year.

It is safe to say Milton will feel the pain when it comes big time.

To prevent a similar fate the SSJID is developing a long range water plan critical in its fight to keep the state from ignoring historical front-of-the-line legally adjudicated water rights to commandeer water from the Stanislaus River basin to use as they see fit. That, coupled with the groundwater mandate, would have a major negative impact on Manteca, Ripon, Escalon and the surrounding countryside as well as Lathrop and Tracy. While it wouldn’t send the South County back to the 1880s, it would still be devastating.

And if you think this is only a problem for farmers, guess again. Choke off the water supply based on average or above average precipitation years, and you will devalue existing homes. It doesn’t matter how close we are to the Bay Area if the water supplies of the cities that depend on the Merced, Tuolumne, and Stanislaus River watersheds are severely cutback permanently home values will crash. Most people are not going to want to buy a home where severe conservation measures are needed even in a normal weather year.