Charles R. Porter. Spanish Water, Anglo Water: Early Development in San Antonio. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009. 196 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60344-122-3.
Reviewed by Margaret A. Bickers (Kansas State University)
Published on H-Water (February, 2010)
Commissioned by Justin M. Scott-Coe
The Past as Preface
In his slim and well-illustrated history Spanish Water, Anglo Water: Early Development in San Antonio, Charles R. Porter Jr. tells the story of early San Antonio, Texas through the element of water. The book, which can be viewed as an extended introduction to Porter's forthcoming work on Texas groundwater, describes the environmental, legal, and engineering setting of San Antonio, its acequia (irrigation ditch) system, and its development from a religious establishment to one of Texas prominent cities.
Porter divides the work into four sections. The first describes the region's climate and hydrology as observed by early travelers and settlers. The author highlights how rich the area was in groundwater and how unpredictable precipitation was, and is, in comparison. This sets the stage for the arrival of the Spanish friars and soldiers and lays the foundation for the story of San Antonio. It is worth noting here that the illustrations for this and the subsequent sections are both copious and well chosen, and greatly enhance the work for those not familiar with the city and region.
Section 2, "Spain and Mexico's Water, 1718-1836," is the longest section of the book and in some ways the best because of the details provided and the context the author gives for how San Antonio fit into the larger Spanish legal and colonial tradition. Porter gives clear explanations of Spanish laws and practices and spends a great deal of time on the history and goals of Spanish laws and customs regarding surface water. A description of mission and presidio life leads into a chapter about the technology and engineering required to build and maintain the acequias, the irrigation canals drawn from the San Antonio River and other streams, that provided water for the missions' fields. How the laws applied to both Native Americans and local water resources forms the heart of the next chapter, which is followed by concrete examples of the laws' working--or not working in the case of San Antonio, especially as regards conflicts between the missionaries and the newly arrived Spanish settlers, the Isleños. The last chapter in the section focuses on cooperation and conflicts between groups while using and maintaining the acequias.
The third section focuses on the Anglo-American contributions to San Antonio's water situation. Porter is not shy about letting the reader know his opinion about some of the decisions made by early city council members described in "Republic Of Texas and United States Water, 1836 - 1902." Much of this section focuses on the consequences of the city selling the headwaters of both the San Antonio River and of much of the canal system to James R. Sweet, who later sold it to George W. Brackenridge, a businessman who dominates the story of the municipal water supply until 1902. This period also marked the beginning of conflicts between Anglo-Texan ideas about water law and the Spanish tradition. Cholera outbreaks from polluted canal water led to the need for and ultimately the creation of a private municipal water company that Brackenridge and several smaller investors came to own. Porter describes how the San Antonio Water Works Company struggled along from 1878 until 1902, when the city bought the company. It is a tale of politics and public frustration, of personality clashes and conflicts over who should pay for water, how it should be used, and from where it should come--all tales familiar to students of both water and of municipal development. The reader comes to sympathize with Mr. Brackenridge, perhaps a little too much at times.
The epilogue brings the work through the year 2000 with an overview of Texas groundwater and surface water laws and how they affect San Antonio. Porter is quite clear on his preference for the Spanish traditions of water justice and "sharing the shortage" over Anglo legal institutions, especially in light of Texas's law of groundwater capture. However, the author does point out that the Spanish also viewed groundwater as property of the landowner and not subject to regulation by the crown.
This readable and well-illustrated work is a good introduction to San Antonio's water situation and will attract the interested lay reader. Those familiar with the region's story will appreciate how Mr. Porter follows the history from one group to another and, with this reader, will look forward to his next book. However, there are some weaknesses in the work as well. The lack of context for events after 1836 is especially noticeable. The section on Anglo-American San Antonio is short and lacks the context provided in the Spanish section. It would be helpful to move some of the Anglo legal background out of the epilogue and into this section in order to fill in the background for the Anglo approach to water use in more detail. More about contemporary urban infrastructure developments would also help bring the Anglo section up to the standard of the Spanish chapters. As well, the Tejano/a citizens of San Antonio all but vanish aside from the water barrel men. This absence may stem from the author's focus on development and governance, but the one-and-a-half pages in the epilogue that suggest how cultural differences in Tejano/as' and Anglos' views of water remained important into the twentieth century could be expanded and would strengthen the account without detracting from Porter's arguments.
Its few flaws aside, Spanish Water, Anglo Water serves as a good introduction to the area's water history. If used in conjunction with Nelson Blake's Water for the Cities (1952), excerpts from Marty Melosi's studies of urban sanitation and water development, and essays from Char Miller's On the Border (2001), Porter's work could be quite useful for a discussion of urban water development, cultural conflicts, or resource management. The work is also a useful addition to the literature on Hispanic water development and the subsequent overlay of English legal ideas in the American Southwest.
that the author
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Margaret A. Bickers. Review of Porter, Charles R., Spanish Water, Anglo Water: Early Development in San Antonio.
H-Water, H-Net Reviews.
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