The Vine Street Pumping Plant is a modest, unobtrusive building, set quietly back from the street. It was built in 1930 by the East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD) and is part of a larger story about water rights, the commerce of water, water monopolies, and finally, the creation of the publicly owned East Bay Municipal Utility District in 1923.
Before the creation of the public water district, property owners got their water either from their own wells, often pumped by windmills, or from private water companies.
The biggest local water baron was Anthony Chabot whose Contra Costa Water Company had complete control of water in Oakland between 1858 and 1893.
By 1906 the Contra Costa Water Company, now called the Peoples Water Company, had merged with other water companies and controlled all the water from Richmond to San Leandro. Although the public was not entirely happy with the quality or consistency of its water, the voters and Legislature did not approve the acquisition of the private water company until 1923 after many ballot measures had failed.
With approval, the voters also mandated that a new source of water be found.
The Mokelumne River was identified, and in 1924 bonds were approved to build a dam. The Pardee Dam and Mokelumne Aqueduct were complete in 1929. The pipeline carrying water to the East Bay is 94 miles long and tunnels carry water from Lafayette Reservoir through the hills to Berkeley.
The Vine Street Pumping Plant was the first, and most elaborate, of the pumping stations built for the water coming from the Sierra.
The East Bay finally had reliable and pure water, but no sewage treatment plant. EBMUD did not want the job of disposing of the sewage and it wasn’t until 1951 that the sewage treatment plant, located near the approach to the Bay Bridge, was operating. Before 1951 all sewage, both domestic and industrial, went directly into the Bay. The dumping of sewage into the Bay caused a horrible smell near the tidelands at low tide. Often called the “big stink,” the smelly tidelands took decades to clear.
Susan Cerny is author of “Berkeley Landmarks” and writes this in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.