A tribute to California’s ‘First Lady of Water’

Rodney Davis

A former telephone operator from Nebraska, Pauline Davis became the longest-serving woman in the California Legislature and an effective advocate of local water development. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

By Tina Cannon Leahy

As water policy consultant for the California Assembly, I occasionally research legislative history to iron out competing theories on a law’s meaning. So it was earlier this year when I visited the California State Archives to investigate the Davis-Dolwig Act of 1961.

I took a manila folder from the nice clerk and sat in the rows of small wooden desks to learn what this “Mr. Davis” and “Mr. Dolwig” had in mind when they drafted the bill more than 50 years ago.

My jaw dropped when I pulled a carbon-copied transcript of a 1960 water committee hearing fully identifying the “Davis” as Assemblyman Pauline L. Davis. A woman in the Legislature! Involved in water policy! The water committee chair, no less!

It was, as James Brown sang in the 1960s, “a man’s, man’s, man’s world” back then – and still is, for the most part, in the world of water policy. As a woman in water policy I was awestruck that a woman was tackling water policy before I was born. How could I not know? What ensued was a near-obsession to find out more.

The archives didn’t hold much, but an online perusal of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library led to a jackpot: Davis had participated in a Women in Politics Oral History Project in the late 70’s and early 80’s but then she embargoed the release of the interview until 2010. (She died in 1995 at age 78.) The library still showed the transcript as unavailable, but a quick conversation with the library remedied that. As far as I know, I became the first public member to gain access.[i]

The memoir unfurled an implausible story: A petite telephone operator and mother of two from Nebraska who in the post-WWII “happy homemaker” era overcomes a divorce and the death of a second husband to become the longest-serving woman in the California Legislature and an effective player in the state’s notoriously testosterone-driven water wars.

Davis and Donahue

Pauline Davis with fellow Assemblywoman Dorothy Donohue in the mid-1950s. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

Davis was an unrelenting defender of “area-of-origin” laws – protections that give counties where exported water supplies originate a future right to call on that water if the need arises. Several causes she championed and resource questions she confronted are still alive today: How do we balance the needs of different regions of the state while protecting our fisheries? Should we build a peripheral conveyance around the Delta? Who is ultimately responsible for State Water Project enhancements versus maintenance? (That last question brought me to the state archives.)

Davis was sympathetic to the water fears of those in the Delta, stating of the 1982 peripheral canal debate, “I don’t think one geographic area of a state should rob the very thing that keeps the other area of the state alive, because in the final analysis you’re all going to sink.” The “Delta people,” she said, were “having the same problem as the counties of origin.”

Davis’ California odyssey began with a work transfer to Stockton where she tried to save her shaky marriage. The effort failed, but she stayed. Later, on a blind date, she met her second husband, Lester Davis, who was running a Democratic campaign for Assemblyman in a district covering several rural Northern California counties, from Downieville to the Oregon border.

Ms. Davis was none too pleased. Assemblyman was a part-time job that would require her husband to take a leave of absence from his better-paying work as a railroad engineer. But, as she put it, “He assured me that he wouldn’t stay in it very long so I went along with it.” Upon his inauguration in 1947, she became his sole staffer in both the Capitol and the district office in Portola, Plumas County. It gave them extra income and allowed the two to remain together in the constant shuttle between Portola and Sacramento. It was, as Ms. Davis recalled, “a very happy marriage.”


Assemblywoman Pauline Davis campaigning for re-election in 1953. Source: personal collection of Rodney Davis

But in 1952, tragedy struck. The assemblyman died of thrombosis while campaigning for a fourth term. When he still received a majority of the primary votes, turmoil ensued. Democratic party operatives implored the young widow to be the candidate. She refused, citing debt from her late husband’s primary and “the children to raise by myself,” including a toddler. She relented on a promised $5,000 in campaign donations.

No sooner did she accept the nomination than the pledges of support began to evaporate. Her backers then got the first glimpse of the courage that served her later. She threatened to withdraw unless they made good on the money, advising that they “go right across the street to the bank and borrow it.”

They did just that, but financing was only the first of her obstacles. Litigation challenging her late listing on the ballot went all the way to the California Supreme Court. Some considered her candidacy a joke. She recounted that while campaigning in Tulelake “my Republican opponent and the two men with him were making fun of me and really laughing their hearts out as I was walking down the street. So, it gave me a great deal of satisfaction to be able to take the election, because they were so sure of themselves.”


Assemblywoman Pauline Davis occupied the same seat as her late husband on the Assembly Floor – No. 68 – for all 24 years in office. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

In her first year in the Legislature, she authored a bill requiring equal pay for equal work by women. It never got out of committee. Asked if she endured any particular hostilities, Davis said, “Oh, I encountered those when I became involved in the California water plan.”

Davis immersed herself in water policy at the very start of her legislative career. She considered water to be “so basic of all the other natural resources that I felt that it would be a necessity for me to go into the field as deeply as I could.”

She sought guidance from the Office of the Legislative Counsel – particularly George Murphy and J.D. Straus, the latter of whom she called “a perfectionist in the water field as it pertained to water rights” – and spent every spare hour she could with them.

The knowledge soon served her well. In 1956, Harvey O. Banks, an engineer, is appointed head of the new state Department of Water Resources with the task of developing the State Water Project to export water from the relatively wet north to dry south.

Davis was appalled that fellow northerners did not share her alarm over the proposed enormous transfer of natural wealth.

“My goodness sakes! You’re dealing with liquid gold!” she recalled in her oral history interview. “You’re not dealing with something that is a commodity that can be replaced, because once that water wagon leaves Northern California…it just isn’t coming back!”


A water bond debate in Redding on Feb. 28, 1960. Clair Hill, a water engineering consultant and Sen. Hugo Fisher of San Diego spoke for it. Assembly members Davis and Bruce Allen of San Jose spoke against it. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

In 1959 the Legislature authorized $1.75 billion in general obligation bonds for construction of the State Water Project. Gov. As Norris Hundley Jr. tells it in “The Great Thirst,” Pat Brown won over Davis and other northern legislators by offering a compromise measure – the Davis-Grunsky Act – authorizing $130 million of the bond sales for development of local water projects. As Davis put it in a newspaper commentary, a “water bond issue of this magnitude should include absolute guarantees for the protection and maintenance of important recreation features, such as salmon and steelhead spawning grounds that might be destroyed by the construction of a water project.”[ii]

By 1961 DWR was pushing to dam the Feather River and create the giant Lake Oroville – in Davis’ district. She leveraged the Oroville debate to achieve her second major piece of legislation, the Davis-Dolwig Act, which requires consideration of fish and wildlife enhancement and recreational opportunities when planning State Water Project facilities. Importantly, the law also mandates that the project’s water and power contractors pay for actions to help fish and wildlife affected by the project.

By Shakespeare’s measure, Davis’ contributions to California water policy are clear: Her past was prologue. Look no further than this year’s water bond measure, Proposition 1. The two biggest fights during the drafting were how much to spend on surface water storage and whether funding should benefit the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.


Pauline Davis detonates explosives at a ceremonial groundbreaking of the Grizzly Valley Dam near Portola on Sept. 27, 1964. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

Prop. 1 would have met Davis’ approval. Her enthusiastic support for building reservoirs earned her the moniker “Lady of the Lakes.” A news photo of the groundbreaking ceremony for the state-owned Grizzly Valley Dam in Plumas County 50 years ago shows Davis as the lone female official flanked by her grown daughters and young son, Rodney Davis, who became a state appellate court judge and is now an Episcopal priest. With a plunger, she set off the first explosive in the construction of the dam, which formed Lake Davis, named in honor of her late husband.

Davis served 24 years in the Assembly, from 1953 through 1976, as was described by former Assembly Speaker Leo T. McCarthy as “the most effective legislator in representing her district that I have ever seen.”[iii] From 1960 to 1966, she was the sole woman in the 120-member Legislature. Reflecting on male chauvinism in her oral history, Davis advised women to “learn the men’s language, study their minds, and the way they work in the political arena and in the business field, and just go forward and not let it bother you too much.”

Here’s to you Pauline Davis. Wife. Mother. Widow. Politician. Water warrior. Role model. California’s First Lady of Water.

Tina Cannon Leahy is Principal Consultant for the California Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee. The opinions expressed here are strictly her own.

[i] All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from Pauline L. Davis, “California Assemblywoman, 1952-1976,” an oral history conducted 1977-1982 by Malca Chall, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1986.

[ii] Unattributed newspaper clipping. Personal collection of Rodney Davis

[iii] Associated Press, Pauline Davis; Assemblywoman for 24 Years, December 16, 1995

Further reading

Chall, Malca. “Pauline L. Davis, California Assemblywoman, 1952-1976,” Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1986

Video of President John F. Kennedy at Sept. 28, 1963 dedication of the federal Whiskeytown Dam near Redding, Calif. (Assemblywoman Davis can be seen on speakers’ platform, wearing a red dress.)

The Davis-Grunsky Act

The Davis-Dolwig Act

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13 Responses to A tribute to California’s ‘First Lady of Water’

  1. Ann Spaulding says:


    Thank you for your research and bringing Pauline Davis’ work to light!
    Not only a powerful story, but her message remains on point and timely.

  2. Leo Winternitz says:

    Great story and great important piece of history. Thank you for doing the research and sharing this, Tina.

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  4. Laura Flournoy says:

    Great work Tina! This was a great article- really enjoyed it. Who knew?!
    I plan on sharing with the office- thanks!

  5. tsac0008 says:

    Davis spoke clearly in her opposition to the Peripheral Canal and would have also been opposed to the current reincarnation under any conditions. Any proposition that would have facilitated a greater taking of other area’s water would have generated voiciferous opposition from her. Given the drought conditions and the fact that seawater desalination is now more cost effective than sending water to Southern California, less water should be pumped over the Tehachapis leaving more water for the Delta and agriculture.

  6. Tina,

    What a great piece of historical research! Thank you.

    Jeff Volberg

  7. Jim Freschi says:

    Great job on a well-written and well-researched story.

  8. Jim Scarborough says:

    Great story, as the operator of the Grizzly Valley Dam, I never knew about her involment. I will print the story and put it in the Lake Davis Operating Handbook.

  9. Bari Talley says:

    nice article and tribute, but I don’t agree that “Prop. 1 would have met Davis’ approval.” especially since she was “unrelenting defender of ‘area-of-origin’ laws”

  10. Gene Beley says:

    This is the kind of great journalism that is so lacking in most publications today. Thank you.

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  12. Tod Kimmelshue says:

    Just found your blog post. Extremely well done and a fantastic tribute to Ms. Davis. Unfortunately, as time goes on, less and less people remember this fine legislator from northern California. It is truly hard to believe the north state voters would elect a woman Democrat. It just goes to show if you have passion and believe in your cause – you can make things happen.

    Tod Kimmelshue – Durham, CA

  13. Richard Marshall says:

    Thank you for your research. She was a first rate politician and did a lot to assist Siskiyou County as well working to give the County control over its waters.

    Richard Marsahll

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