William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Aqueduct–Are there lessons for the future?

If you missed the post introducing my search for the original source of water in Los Angeles, the Zanja Madre, click here for some photos of my trip into the city. It’s a good place to start if you have an interest in understanding why Los Angeles needed a better designed system of water delivery.

An article appeared in the Pasadena Star News this weekend titled, “Real estate jolt may come through eminent domain.” Columnist Brian Charles opens with the words, “Shady land deals are as much a part of California’s history as the Catholic missions and the Gold Rush.” As he continues he references the land and water grab of the early 1900’s that leads directly to my current interest in the Owens Valley and the first Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Millions of Los Angeles residents recognize the name Mulholland, but may not know of the man. There is even a William Mulholland Memorial Fountain  honoring the self-taught engineer  at the busy intersection near the entrance to Griffith Park.

Plaque near the fountain

Mulholland’s genius has never been in question, but questions have always been connected to his name and reputation. Was Owens River water stolen from the Owens Valley settlers?

There is a great deal of debate with differing historical perspectives concerning how plans to build and route an aqueduct designed to carry water 223 miles to Los Angeles from the Owens River were originally conceived.  What is verifiable, however, is that by 1904 Los Angeles water levels were dangerously low.

But to solve that very real problem was Owens Valley water taken from them unfairly to satisfy the need  of Los Angeles? And is it more than coincidence that along the way a few wealthy businessmen saw their personal fortunes expand?

Laws weren’t broken, in fact, federal legislation in the form of the Newlands Reclamation Act, a 1902 federal law funding irrigation projects for 20 states in the American west, paved the way for the action.

So if not illegal, was the project ethical? Ah…here’s where it gets tricky and I can only give you the condensed version!

Joseph P. Lippincott, a Reclamation Service engineer, was responsible for conducting a feasibility survey for an irrigation project intended to benefit farmers in the Owens Valley. Lippincott recommended withdrawing the Owens Valley public lands from any further settlement until further surveys could be completed.

But Lippincott, Mulholland and Eaton, considered the three fathers of the L.A. Aqueduct, all traveled in the same social circles. Mulholland, authorized to explore new options for water, and his former boss, the once Mayor Fred Eaton, had long held the idea that the Owens Valley, 200 miles from Los Angeles on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, held potential to meet the Los Angeles water demand–and Lippincott held the original data collected from the Reclamation Service survey.

Other players, including Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and railroad magnates Moses Sherman, E.H. Harriman and Henry Huntington got busy purchasing property in the San Fernando Valley, knowing  the property would increase in value if the public agreed to fund the project. And Eaton and Lippincott, encouraging Owens Valley ranchers and farmers to believe they were selling land to the U.S. Reclamation Service for Owens Valley irrigation, bought property for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power at very reasonable costs. Had their true intention been known, land costs would have escalated.

A little shady or good business practice?

The answer to that question is a little difficult to answer. Researching archives connected to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, one would conclude that the business practices were “forward thinking” and came with the blessing of both local and federal government. Even President Theodore Roosevelt was involved in settling disputes in favor of the City of Los Angeles. But the Owens Valley Committee, a current non-profit citizen action group organized to protect the natural resources in the Owens Valley, takes a very different position!

When plans for the aqueduct were revealed, the farmers and settlers regarded the aggressive pursuit of water rights along the Owens River as a well-orchestrated swindle. There were numerous outbreaks of violence, including dynamiting the aqueduct at Jawbone Canyon–the beginning of  The California Water Wars.

But despite protests, the aqueduct, Mulholland’s design and engineering marvel, was completed, connecting the Owens Valley to Los Angeles in 1913.

Remember my statement that William Mulholland’s genius isn’t in question? Remember, too, he was primarily a self-taught man. The aqueduct, a truly amazing design, has been compared to the building of the Panama Canal.

There were 142 tunnels, totaling forty-three miles in length. Transportation was largely by mule power, which was deemed too expensive, leading to the acquisition of caterpillar tractors. After maintenance and repair grew too expensive they returned to the mules to haul wagons of supplies to the construction camps.

By 1924, Owens Lake and fifty miles of the Owens River were dry, leading to Los Angeles eventually owning 95 percent of all farm and ranch land in the valley.

It’s all perspective, isn’t it? There were substantial gains for one ever-expanding region, but not for the agriculturists in the Owens Valley. Solving a big problem for one created hardship for others.

I am fascinated by the dual perspectives. And I can’t help but think about another highly controversial project currently in California headlines.

We are set to become home to the first high-speed rail system in the nation. Politicians say full steam ahead while the pubic outcry, in general,is demanding the project come to a full stop, at least until California’s economy is on an up-swing. But the high-speed rail project is being sold as a “critical lifeline” to the state; an answer to the oil depletion and the DROUGHT of energy supply.

Sound at all familiar?

The rail project was originally sold as a rail line allowing passengers to connect between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and forty minutes. The project plan has morphed several times, reducing the original claims to expectations far less tantalizing.  And projected costs have skyrocketed since the original project was approved by voters.

But does it represent a better future? For everyone? Questions, questions!

Farmers and landowners in Central California, many originally in favor of the project hoping the high-speed rail would help the Central Valley by making it less isolated, now complain that high-speed rail officials are arrogant and unhelpful, dismissive and closed-mouthed about the plans. Tracks will limit access to the land of some of the farmers and orchard and complex irrigation systems will be divided and lost.

Have I heard this before?

I certainly see interesting parallels. And I admit my doubts about the feasibility of the project. It just sounds fishy to me.

BUT could it be that history will one day look back and see the high-speed railway project as genius? Will the exorbitant costs we’ve been quoted seem like a bargain fifty years from now?

Then again, who really gains, and what backdoor deals have been made?  History tells us there is undoubtedly a story behind the quoted story.

The questions and concerns, perspectives and opinions bounce back and forth and never completely land. Future generations may continue to debate the merits of the project long after it is constructed.

Well, I’d better not open the door to this question too wide or we’ll be sitting here all day. As you can tell, I do find the topic interesting.

And to conclude, let me share just a few photos from the beautiful Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. I’m tempted to throw my support over to the Owens Valley Committee just on the basis of all this natural beauty. What do you think?

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41 thoughts on “William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Aqueduct–Are there lessons for the future?

  1. High speed rail links invariably cause a lot of debate and heated arguement – We’re having a similar one about HS2 in the UK (which will connect London with the West Midlands). People against the link argue that it is unnecessary as minor track changes and additional carriages on trains can handle the growth in passenger numbers to meet the required capacity. They conveniently don’t talk about freight, which is growing very fast on the line the HS2 is providing relief for as a result of the success of the channel tunnel. The government has decreed that the route will go ahead – recognising that it will create lots of jobs and may help with the current recession, which may dig them out of a hole but not before the next election!

    If the construction of your new railway is correctly carried out then there will be no need to divide irrigation systems. Orchards may well be a different matter but access between fields should normally be possible to maintain. From what you’ve written above it sounds like someone is trying to get away with reducing costs by skimping on the design and construction.

    • I’m so glad you shared about the HS2, Martin, and I may try to follow that evolving project through internet new sources. It would be interesting to me to see what similarities and differences in the projects I can discern. I am currently only able to read the arguments “for” and “against” in our state, and I’m not sure I have the capacity (yet) to really under determine what the wisdom really is. It has become very political, and once that starts, the spin is so fast and furious it’s hard for me to keep up. We also have been told that it’s a project that will boost the economy in employment opportunities. It would have gone better with me there if they hadn’t then gone one step further and started saying the project will put “veterans” to work. That seemed quite a manipulative comment, as certainly we want our veterans to find work. Ha!

      I think despite public outcry it is going to be built. So now we watch history in the making, and I do think someone 100 years from now will be writing some version of 2112 blog about whether it was an ethical use of public funds! 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate that you read my mini history lesson.

  2. I agree with you – it’s always so interesting when dual perspectives are involved. Usually I can understand both points of view, and when the issue revolves around something before my time, it can be hard to make a true determination. After all, so much of history is watered-down or altered. Beautiful photos!

    • Ah, a kindred spirit! Do you ever just feel “wishy washy” when trying to verbalize an opinion? Ha! I have strong feelings, impressions and many people think I’ve very opinionated, but I always seem to see multiple perspectives “all at once” which makes it hard for me to land and stick to it. My opinions do change quite frequently. I would be a good diplomat, perhaps, but I could never run for office! Imagine what labels I’d acquire. Isn’t the geography in the region just gorgeous? I am still just thrilled to have discovered this mountain range. It’s only been there for millions of years! LOL! D

  3. A provocative post, Debra, with complex issues, questions, and concerns. I recently heard a snippet on the National Park Service, which I love and whose establishment has made our country all the better. The comment, however, was that what we forget is that Native Americans lived in most of what are now our parks long before we discovered them and they were removed in the process of securing the lands – for all Americans. Oh, dear Debra, you have given me much to chew on this day and I thank you.

    • Oh Penny, you’re so right. I almost got “into that” aspect but realized I had to cut the topic off for fear of getting way over my head! I am planning to later share about some of the “swindles” the railroads perpetrated on the Native people here in the west. When we were in the Sierra foothill towns we saw multiple little outposts mentioning the Paiutes and another tribe I can’t recall right now, and I realized how little I knew about the Native Americans in this region, so we mentioned we need another “field trip.” And of course we have a lot of Native American influence right here in San Gabriel, and the history that comes with settling the west certainly isn’t comfortable reading. We weren’t taught that “version” of history when we were in the 4th grade and learned about the Spanish Mission system! I’m so interested in the history, and just wish I had a little more reading time to fill in the many “blanks” in my knowledge. Maybe one day…ha!

  4. I love your photos, Debra. A nice breath of fresh western air for my morning. Thank you.

    As to the other, I’m such a cynic at this point that I don’t know how anything happens without dirty dealing. I believe we do need lots more public transit in America and less reliance on cars, though the way our cities have developed, I don’t really see how we would ever make that come to fruition. We are a one car family, but we are rare outside of major cities. Given all the budgetary issues states like CA are having, I wonder why they would choose to spend so much money on a high speed rail system that would really benefit so few.

  5. A lot on information here! very deep topic. People amaze and confuse me. I know we all live in this world and we all have our opinions and outlooks. I just hate the fighting! Peace peace peace! Bless us with more water bring on the rail system. Just do it all with grace and wisdom from above and not down under.

    • People amaze and confuse me, too, Deb. I like the way your mind works. It would be nice if others were in synch, but power and money seem to dictate policy! We can still be alert and do our best not to fall for the schemes! 🙂 So nice to hear from you.

  6. Similar concerns here, Debra. Especially about the back door deals in the proposed high speed line between Tampa and Orlando ~ the chosen stops (few and far between) seem likely to be auctioned off to the highest “bidders” (bribers, and dirty dealers . . . as the case may be).

    • It’s interesting to me that we aren’t hearing about other high speed rail lines. Maybe we’re in a race with the others and that’s why the rush? It all has to do with federal money we’ve been promised, and you know politicians and a boatload of money! There is a lot of speculation that the designated funds will be used in ways other than as promised. I guess we don’t wonder why we grow more and more cynical? D

  7. fascinating Debra, and the links to today even more so. I see someone has already put you onto the proposed HS2 line here. But look at that debate now, and then look back at the debate that went on with the Channel Tunnel and the high speed link (HS1) from the port into central london. There really are no simple solutions, but we do need transporting 🙂
    Lovely photos too, such a beautiful area !!

    • You make such a good point about the debate with the Channel Tunnel. We were at an exhibit this summer with the 150th anniversary of the Union Pacific Railroad. I got such a kick out of the old newspaper headlines. 150 years ago people were debating exactly the same things. Not everyone thought we needed a transcontinental railroad either. I really do believe that most progress is fought in the present, and heralded as “genius” much, much later. And in the end, we rarely stop progress anyway! I’m going to try to follow the proposed HS2 line. I’m kind of hooked on the topic! 🙂

  8. Debra! Your brain must be fit to burst just processing all that interesting stuff! Politics is in everything, and someone will do well out of whatever decisions are made. Sadly, it’s more likely to be a shadowy rich guy than a ‘real’ person

    • I’m completely hooked on the topic of the water wars and backdoor power dealings, Speccy. I had to leave a lot of detail “on the cutting room floor” or I’d have put you all to sleep. But the early twentieth century power brokers were even more slick than the ones today, I think. There were no television cameras following them around! 🙂

  9. Pingback: Stories I’m Writing #18: An Unfortunate Life | The Write Stuff

  10. Dear Debra, those photographs reveal breath-taking beauty in the Sierra’s. And your posting elucidates a truly provocative conundrum. By that I mean it provokes me to think about all the things that have happened in my lifetime that, when examined, reveal issues of legality, morality, and ethics.

    One thing I know is that just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder so morality and ethics seem to be also. So many of us can defend our choices even amidst the cry of outrage from others. And then of course, there’s the whole question of genius and far-reaching sight into possibilities.

    I wonder sometimes why anyone would want to run for president when we are faced with so many decisions and problems that have no easy answers. Always, it seems someone or many get hurt. Peace.

    • I agree with you, Dee, that the lines concerning both political and personal ethics don’t seem to be very clearly drawn. There is a justification put forth for almost every decision, regardless of whether others are hurt. I try to keep up with the initiatives I’ll be voting on, but it’s difficult to wade through all the spin. I think we can only do the best we can in discerning the politics of the day, but it can sure be wearying to the soul! I am always so glad to hear from you, Dee. 🙂

  11. The size and scale of the project is unbelievable and it certainly solved the issue of Los Angeles water problems. But whether or not it’s right to re-direct water from where it’s meant to be is like you say, very difficult to answer xx

    • The good thing about the ethics of the Los Angeles Aqueduct is that it all took place 150 years ago…I don’t have to suffer any guilt while I water my lawn! 🙂 Now the shenanigans of today are another subject, but I don’t have any power in those situations either, do I?

  12. Issues of water isn’t easy to deal with – and the way politicians deal with them aren’t always beautiful. I learned about the struggle for water in the LA region long time ago, and though I see there it always depend on perspective, my support would go to the people in Owens Valley. But of course that’s all history now – even if it repeats itself with the high-speed railway project. Mentioning Mulholland, gets me thinking about the excellent movie by David Lunch, by the way. As for the high-speed railway project, I see anything that moves people away from using car as the future. The pollution from cars are one of the biggest challenge to our climate.

    • I’ve never seen the Lynch movie, Mulholland, Otto. I am intrigued enough to do so now. And it’s so interesting to me that I believe you know more about the fight for water in California than many people I know who have lived here all of their lives. I appreciate your interest, I really do. I have been doing a lot of reading on the topic lately and it fascinates me. I am in agreement with you about our need for more pubic transportation systems, and the high speed train project is such an interesting concept.

  13. What a great example of history repeating itself … and that human nature seems to want to ignore lessons from the past.

    BTW – very impressive research to create this two posts. Interestingly, you may be more knowledgeable that many of the loud ones who speak out.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the water war posts, Frank. I was concerned that my interest in the topic might not translate very well. It’s amusing to me to take some of my interests to the blog. I don’t assume everyone will find it interesting, but that’s the truth for me in my social circles, too. So often my interest in history isn’t easily shared with friends, either! 🙂 Blogging is better than talking to myself–I hope!

  14. It seems to me, Debra, that sometimes, we’re equally powerless, no matter on which side of the issue we find ourselves. Sure we can feel good about ourselves if we’re on the “winning” side but, in reality, by the time we know of the project or proposal, it’s already been decided. Tell me. How many Los Angelenos were in favor of chopping down the trees for the Space Shuttle?
    The photo slideshow gave us a good glimpse at one of America’s beautiful areas. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

    • I plan to address the tree issue this weekend, John. Not really address it, I suppose, but reference it. It is indeed just one more example of how there are multiple perspectives on anything and the trees/Space Shuttle are just one more of those troubling eminent domain issues. If those trees were in my neighborhood I’d be grieving! It’s going to be an interesting day today. I have plans that are all indoors…I will probably end up seeing all the ‘hoopla” on tv and miss it entirely. I just hope people on the freeways behave themselves! Thanks for your timely insights, John. I sometimes feel like you follow things better, even California topics, than many if not most of my friends here. That’s a whole other story! Ha!

  15. My sincere thanks and congratulations on your well researched provocative posts on L.A.’s water. I really mean it!

    I know a little bit about the Owens River valley – a superficial knowledge that after we’d stolen their water those farmers lost their family farms and we didn’t give a darn about them. Thank you for filling in more of the story.

    Mr F and I are concerned that even though we live in a semi-desert area with no water of our own, most folks who live here don’t give a fig about wasting it. How can houses still be permitted to install those huge bathtubs or showers with five or six shower heads??? What’s wrong with one? Walking around our neighborhood we see sprinklers that water more concrete sidewalk than lawns…

    However I sincerely believe we have to have a high speed rail connection between L.A and San Fran. I’m sure you agree that we have to cut down on our dependency of oil by cutting down our fuel usage. To do that we need to (a) get as many cars off the roads as possible (b) stop using airplanes (c) Learn to use trains as our go to mode of transport as they do in Europe.

    I don’t understand why the rail line has to go through the Central Valley. Do our politicians not care that every California farm that is lost means we’re a step closer to getting our fruit and vegetables from China?? We already have a rail line to San Fran. Why can’t the high speed train travel that route?

    • I was so interested in your response to the subject of water shortages and then the high speed rail, Rosie. You are much more in tune with what is going on than far too many of our fellow Californians. It is really frustrating to me that we have so little focus on conserving for the future. There is incredible waste. I see the same disturbing water waste even on city properties. It’s really odd to me that there aren’t more regulations.

      As for the high speed train, I agree with you that we have a need for more rapid transit, but I’m concerned that the concept behind the connections for the proposed route between Los Angeles and San Francisco just isn’t making sense as they speak of it. I suppose we’ll just have to see what happens. It may not be the best or most efficient design, but it’s going to be interesting, isn’t it?

  16. Debra, this was a truly fascinating and thought-provoking post. You know how much I enjoy your historical posts, but as a mere Briton 🙂 I don’t really feel qualified to comment on specifics here. I will however say that from my knowledge of British social history, if there was big money to be made from new infrastructure or industry, at least some businessmen found it far too easy to cut moral and ethical corners.

    • Your observations about William Mulholland and his business associates are accurate, I’m sure, Perpetua. I think the only major difference between “then” and “now” is that moral and ethical indiscretions are sometimes hidden or buried under red tape today and politicians are better prepared to defend their actions with rhetoric, and at the turn of the century there wasn’t much accountability. It’s more complex than all that, of course, but I really find it fascinating. The more I read about that time period, the more questions I have! I’m glad I can occasionally share a little bit of California history with you. I’m currently devouring several good books trying to really understand the early Spanish period. I’ll be sharing some photos from Santa Barbara later this week that play into that time period. Thanks for encouraging me forward…I am sometimes concerned that it’s a little dry! 🙂

  17. Somethings unfortunately never change…as long as greed supersedes courage, projects and business and political ventures will always favor the party or mongol in control at that time. A complete disregard to others outside their social circle or future generations is not even a passing thought. Courage,

    • So good to hear from you! I think that we are still rather cavalier about water and it isn’t often that we are really aware that we live in a desert! I’m still reading about the history of bringing water to Los Angeles and just fascinated with how convoluted a story it is! 🙂

      • Cavalier is the perfect description about our relationship with water unfortunately. It’s a mission of mine to turn the relationship into a caring and charitable one for our sake our future generations in particular.

  18. Pingback: The Water Wars Revisited…This time with an anniversary. | breathelighter

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