Don Bernardo Yorba, namesake of the City of Yorba Linda, is a direct ancestor of Every Last Drop writer Jamie Della. He may have learned water diversion methods from the Kizh people of those parts of modern-day Orange County. Image is a copy of an oil painting by Henri Pénelon (French, 1827-1885) that resides in Santa Ana's Bowers Museum (Bowers.org).
My Roots in Water Activism
By Every Last Drop Writer Jamie Della
My water activism is inspired in part by my ancestor and seven times great uncle, Don Bernardo Yorba, namesake of the San Bernardino Mountains and city of Yorba Linda, who was admired for his ingenious diversion of water from the Santa Ana River uphill, defying gravity, to his gardens and orchards that fed more than 100 people on his Rancho Cañón de Santa Ana during the Spanish Ranchero period, approximately from 1800 to the 1870s.
Born in San Diego in 1800, Bernardo was the thirteenth child and eighth son of Jose Antonio Yorba, a Catalan soldier who was awarded the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, the largest land grant in modern-day Orange County, California, upon retirement from military service to Spain. So, how did Bernardo learn how to irrigate by diverting water uphill? It may have had to do with wisdom imparted to him by the original dwellers of those lands.
According to Melanie Nespa-Goss, who works for the County of Orange, maintains the Yorba Cemetery and runs the Santa Ana Historical Society, Don Bernardo Yorba helped the Kizh people, the Native population of the area, adapt to the changing times and reach autonomy. He opened a school for the indigenous children, taught the adults many skills such as tanning, farriering (shoeing horses), and smithing so they could be tradesmen, and paid them in cash rather than exploit them as free labor under the slave or feudal system popular with other Californio Dons. He gave them titles such as Zanjeros for those who were assigned to watch the irrigation ditches (zanjas in Spanish).
After the Mexican American War of 1846-48, Americans were encouraged to claim the lands of the west, plant crops, raise livestock, build homes, and push out whoever was there first – Spanish, Mexican or Native. Yet, Don Bernardo Yorba shared his insights on irrigation with the Los Angeles ranchers as well as German Americans who owned vineyards in Anaheim.
The Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center in Bishop, California (bishoppaiutetribe.com), shows maps and journal entries marking the Paiute water irrigation system. In the movie Paya: The Water Story of the Paiute, further evidence demonstrates ancestral wisdom of how to work with water. I wonder if the Kizh people taught my ancestor how to move water uphill and that’s why they were in charge of the zanjas.
When Don Bernardo Yorba died in 1858, Nespa-Goss said, one hundred Native people escorted his body in a wailing procession to Los Angeles, the closest cemetery of blessed earth. They never returned to the rancho, because they had learned enough skills and acquired enough money to live on their own.
Every Last Drop is a voice for the resilient hope that we will find an equitable way to share water. We of the Eastern Sierra and Los Angeles are as irrevocably connected to DWP as Native Nations, Americans ranchers, Spanish Dons, and German vintners were 170 years ago. We must find a way to work together. We must demand that DWP do better.
As the old Spanish dicho (saying) goes, “No sabemos lo que vale el agua hasta que se seca el pozo,” translated as “We don't know the value of water until the well runs dry.”