Southern California has a long history of droughts, which produce a myriad of negative long-term effects on large populations of people.

Even when there isn’t a drought, the highly erratic rainfall patterns of the arid climate has, in the past, motivated local councils to attempt some pretty desperate tactics.

In 1915, for example, the City of San Diego hired a self-proclaimed “rainmaker” named Charles Hatfield.

Hatfield himself as a “moisture accelerator” and claimed he could fill the Morena Reservoir. which runs adjacent to the city. 

Making It rain

The first historical appearance of “pluviculturalists,” or people who believe they could modify the weather and create rain, began in the early 1800s with James Pollard Espy.

He posited that all storms were driven by heated updrafts, and therefore by creating large amounts of heat, one could produce large quantities of rain.

Espy further concluded that lighting massive forest fires was the best way to make it rain. This was obviously a terrible idea, and many of his colleagues that lent initial support believed, albeit correctly, that he had taken things a little too far.

He was succeeded a few decades later by a man named Edward Powers, who believed it tended to rain more often in the week following a battle.

A series of congressionally funded experiments involving fake battles were conducted.

They found that these battles were in fact followed by rain — when conditions were favorable, which is about as useful as saying that a piece of paper is more likely to burn if it’s thrown into one of Espy’s fires.

It wouldn’t be long before another influential pluviculturalist stormed onto the scene, this time attempting to make it rain by wafting a secret chemical mixture into the atmosphere.

Charles Hatfield, born in 1875, started out as a salesman for the New Home Sewing Machine Company. He apparently had interests beyond selling sewing machines, because he spent much of his spare time studying this idea of pluviculture.

By 1902, he had developed a concoction of 23 different chemicals, many of which he kept such a secret that we’ll probably never know exactly what they were.

Two years later, he landed his first rainmaking gig.

With the help of a promoter known as Fred Binney, Hatfield convinced a group of ranchers in Los Angeles to produce rain in exchange for $50.

With the help of his brother Paul, Hatfield built an evaporating tower and released his chemical mixture into the air.

And behold! It was so successful, the ranchers paid him double the agreed fee, and didn’t seem at all concerned with the Contemporary Weather Bureau’s report that the rain was part of a storm already expected to hit the area.

Charles Hatfield
Portrait of Charles Harfield, an American ‘rainmaker,’ who developed his own methods for producing rain, early to mid 20th century. (Visual Studies Workshop via Getty Images).

His initial “success” meant that Hatfield started to get more, better job offers in the years that followed.

Sometimes his efforts were followed by rain, sometimes they weren’t, but this inconsistency didn’t seem to hamper his success in finding work.

Eventually, in December 1915, his services attracted the attention of the San Diego City Council.

The year 1915 wasn’t actually a drought year in San Diego; its 13.6 inches of rainfall that year was well above the historical average of 10.26 inches.

The real issue in 1915 was that the population of San Diego had grown significantly in the preceding years and the area’s water infrastructure had not kept pace,” explains Dr. Andy Strathman, a historian at the San Diego History Center.

“The city population had gone from about 18,000 in 1900 to over 39,000 in 1910, which put a strain on the city’s reservoirs. In 1915 the summer had been dry (as it usually is), but no rain fell in September or October, either,” he added. 

Hatfield promised that he would fill the city’s Morena Reservoir to overflowing by the end of the following year.

San Diego city counselors agreed to a fee of $10,000 if Hatfield succeeded, a figure equivalent to about $250,000 today.

It may sound like a desperate and crazy maneuver by the city, but Strathman explains that hiring rainmakers like Hatfield was not unheard of in those days.

“Employing a rainmaker was in a lot of ways an act of desperation, especially for a city,” Strathman said. “The bigger context, though, is that for a city of San Diego’s size, Hatfield promised something that would otherwise be unattainable.

Civic and business leaders wanted San Diego to continue to grow, but this would require water. The problem was that the city’s ability to issue bonds for infrastructure development was limited because of its small population and low assessed valuation. Unable to embark on an ambitious program of dam-building, city leaders likely saw Hatfield’s services as a relatively inexpensive gamble.”

Opening the floodgates

It wasn’t long before Hatfield’s chemical cloud-making formula appeared to start paying off. A steady rain began to fall on January 14, 2016.

Although the rain was at first welcomed, even celebrated, by local populations, the unrelenting downpours continued for days and began to present more problems than it was solving.

More than twelve inches of water had fallen by January 17, which led to massive flooding.

Dams such as the Sweetwater Dam and the Lower Otay Dam overflowed massively, contributing even more to the massive flooding already caused by the heavy rains.

Bridges, homes, railroad tracks, and telephone lines were wiped out. Communications between the city and the outside world were almost completely cut off.

It’s estimated that at least 15 people were killed by the flooding, with the death toll possibly reaching as high as 50. 

As far as Hatfield was concerned, he’d held up his end of the deal and was owed payment, but the people of San Diego weren’t so keen to reward him.

As Strathman puts it: “Hatfield demanded pay for having brought the rain, but given the damage caused by the flood, the city was reluctant to pay.

City officials finally offered to pay Hatfield if Hatfield would accept responsibility for the flood.

The city reasoned that if Hatfield accepted responsibility, then the city would not be liable for damage claims brought by those who had been harmed by the failure of the Lower Otay Dam.

Hatfield would not accept the city’s offer and instead sued the city in an attempt to recover his fee. This suit was finally dismissed in 1938; Charles Hatfield was not compensated for his services.”

Nowadays, San Diego is much better equipped to deal with its frequent droughts and erratic rainfalls, even with a metropolitan population of millions.

Over time, its government has constructed an elaborate system of reservoirs, dams, and pipelines.

Much of the region’s current water planning is designed around trying to prevent shortages of water by diversifying sources of supply,” Strathman points out.

“For instance, the San Diego County Water Authority now receives water not only from the Colorado River, recycled water, and local runoff; it also has begun purchasing water from a desalination facility in Carlsbad.”

He also mentions that the city did contemplate hiring a rainmaker as recently as 1961 but decided against it in the end.

It seems they eventually realized it was better to play with the hand they were dealt, rather than gambling on a rainmaker.

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