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A Visionary: Colonel Robert Bradford Marshall

Robert Bradford MarshallHe called his proposal "only a Big Job," knowing many would doubt its engineering and economic possibilities. But Colonel R. Bradford Marshall was dedicated to the vision of a statewide water system that would irrigate California's millions of acres lying unused.

By the time he left the U.S. Geological Survey after 30 years of service, Colonel Marshall knew California intimately. He came to California in 1891 as a surveyor and rose through the ranks rapidly to eventually be assigned responsibility for all Western states. And as he gathered data all over California, Colonel Marshall wondered why its residents did not use its abundant water supplies to irrigate acreage that could increase its population and its economy and produce billions of dollars worth of crops, making it "the world's greatest garden."

Colonel Marshall was known as a man who would not propose a plan for construction until he knew all the facts. He wrote in his report that "we have all the field data necessary to begin this work and could start construction tomorrow." Specific facilities were described such as a diversion dam across the upper Sacramento River above and near Redding with water flowing down two grand canals, one down each side of the Sacramento Valley.

He justified the project's costs, which would probably run in the billions, with the jobs it would provide and the food it would produce to feed the hungry. Water user costs and hydroelectric sales would repay the expenses and provide for operations and maintenance.

When his proposal was unveiled in 1919 however, very few people took it seriously and had no interest in studying his maps in detail—although the press had reported on it favorably. So Colonel Marshall retired to his farm in Patterson, knowing someday his plan would be recognized.

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