Water service keeps flowing after 120 years

by Juanita Lovret
Reprinted courtesy of the Tustin News

Water was stored in the tank atop this structure at the Willard Brothers Water Works at the corner of Main and Prospect. The high tower, called a tank house, offered a panoramic view of Tustin in 1887

The oldest business in Tustin, the City of Tustin Water Service, has survived three owners and three names and is still going strong after 120 years.

Early settlers depended on wells to provide water for their domestic needs, but in 1887, Charles F. and Hiram Willard and Henry Adams formed Willard Brothers Water Works to provide piped-in water to the homes in Tustin.

Utilizing an artesian well at the corner of Main and Prospect, they began to install pipes and expected to prosper with the boom of the late 1800s. However the business faltered when the boom fizzled out and a depression began in the mid 1890s.

Adams left the firm and Hiram Willard moved to Northern California. Charles Willard struggled with the losing venture until 1897 when he sold it to his former schoolmate, C. E. Utt. Utt paid him $2,000 for the business, which reportedly lost money for the next 30 years. Willard was said to have a loss of $6,000 plus.

Utt changed the name to Tustin Water Works and drilled a new well. To cut costs, he replaced the steam-driven pumps with gasoline-driven pumps.

In Volume I, “History of Orange County,” (Mrs. J.E. Pleasants, 1931), Utt wrote, “I, probably because I didn’t know any better, took over the business and have operated it for 35 years. During this period, it has increased from 50 customers to 800, or from a losing business to a fairly profitable one.

“This increase cannot be taken as a gauge of population growth. A large part of it is due to the extension of the mains to include new territory. Now the old Willard Water Works serves a territory as large as the city of Santa Ana with only about one tenth the population.”

The Utt family operated the water works for over 80 years. Walter Rawlings, Utt’s stepson, became superintendent and was in charge during the post World War II growth in Tustin. New equipment and replacement buildings maintained the efficiency of the company.

The city of Tustin acquired the Tustin Water Works in 1982 as part of its Public Works Department, changing the name to City of Tustin Water Service. In early 2000 they began a renovation program which included building an underground reservoir with a capacity of 2.2 million gallons at the cost of nearly $9 million.

They have replaced the old buildings at the corner of Prospect and Main with new structures using a style of architecture reminiscent of the 1900s and added two municipal parking lots and a small park with water features to the property. The new buildings house a well, pumps, generator and treatment plant.

Improvements under way at present include construction of three new ground water wells and reconstruction of two reservoirs. Facilities include 12 ground wells which provide 75 percent of the water used in Tustin, ion exchange and reverse osmosis water treatment plants and a water desalting facility.

The 120-year-old company is keeping up with the times.


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