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Without developed & protected water rights secured by SSJID, Manteca would be Milton
milton depot
Courtesy Calaveras County Historical Society The depot in Milton — the eastern terminus of the Stockton-Copperopolis Railroad — is shown in the 1990s. Milton grew rapidly during a boom in copper and went bust when it played out. .

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

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

Milton is located north of Highway 4 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 and was one of California’s first congressmen — 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 1881to 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 like 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 last month. 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 with its drought and drench weather cycles 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 almost 90,000 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 3.849 million residents and California City has 15,098 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 cut back permanently home values will crash.

Most people are not going to want to buy a home where severe conservation measures — significantly more draconian than what we are now dealing with — are needed even in a normal weather year.

Milton’s fate awaits any part of the Northern San Joaquin Valley that fails to do three things.

*Protect legally secured and adjudicated water rights.

*Make wise and climate appropriate water use decisions.

*Stay constantly on guard against external threats to water supplies within the watersheds of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers whether it is Los Angeles via its tunnel version of a peripheral canal or bureaucratic forces that will sacrifice the sustainability and viability of cities like Manteca, Ripon, and Lathrop for unrestricted fish flows that have negligible gains on increasing the fish count.


This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at