First water company formed in 1873

by Juanita Lovret
Reprinted courtesy of the Tustin News

Willard Brothers Water Works and Tustin Water Works were forerunners of the city of Tustin Water Service. This tower and water tank, part of the Willard operation, was the tallest structure in Tustin in 1887.

Water for irrigating crops was of great concern during the early years of Orange County. Wells dug by the homeowners provided sufficient water for domestic use, but couldn’t meet the needs of the farmers.

After the court decided that the right to draw water from the Santa Ana River was included with the purchase of Rancho de Santa Ana acreage being subdivided, the Semi-Tropic Water Co. formed in 1873. The company sold stock to property owners in exchange for delivering Santa Ana River water to their orchards and fields.

The Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Co. eventually bought them out and continued to build a network of ditches and pipelines to carry irrigation water to the area southeast of the river, including Tustin. This water provided for the crops, but families continued to rely on private well water for household use. Windmills and tower-like structures topped with water tanks were familiar sights.


Near the end of the 1870s companies providing water for home use began to form. Charles F. Willard and Hiram Willard, brothers, joined with Henry Adams to form Willard Brothers Water Works in Tustin in 1887. The artesian well which still exists on the corner of Main and Prospect provided water for their company.

The business prospered at first with the financial boom of the 1880s, but when the Tustin Hotel failed and the Bank of Tustin closed, people lost interest in the water service. Adams left the business and Hiram Willard moved to Northern California, leaving Charles Willard with a losing venture.

C.E. Utt, a Tustin businessman and former classmate of Willard, bought the business for $2,000, a $6,000 loss for the owner, in 1897. Renamed Tustin Water Works, the operation reportedly continued to lose money for the next 30 years despite costcutting measures such as adding a well and replacing the steam-driven pumps with gasoline-driven pumps.

The Utt family operated the water works for over 80 years. Walter Rawlings, a stepson, became superintendent and directed the installation of new equipment and buildings to maintain the efficiency of the company during the tremendous postwar growth and expansion of Tustin.

In 1982 the city of Tustin acquired Tustin Water Works as part of its Public Works Department. They have replaced the facility at Main and Prospect with new structures in an architectural style reminiscent of the 1900s. The complex includes a public parking lot and a small park. Equipment has been renovated and replaced to improve efficiency.

The operation now includes an underground reservoir built at the cost of nearly $9 million, a desalting facility, a reverse osmosis treatment plant and an ion exchange water treatment plant. A member of the Orange County Water district, it produces 12 percent of the water used in Tustin.

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