The Water Wars Revisited…This time with an anniversary.

If you have followed along with me for a while you already know I have a tremendous interest in California’s Water Wars. 

In 1910 Los Angeles covered a mere 44 square miles with a population of 319,000– but growing. By 1911 the first movie companies had set up shop bringing even more people to an already water-starved little city. Despite the fact that at one point the need for water was considered critical enough to be a health hazard, there was no design or plan to remedy the situation.

But that’s where the story gets really good.

Political subterfuge, dirty politics and lots of “the end justifies the means” conniving and a rather grand scheme was hatched.

Today marks the 100th  anniversary of the christening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the engineering marvel responsible for delivering water, the precious resource rightly belonging to the farmers and ranchers of the Owens Valley, across 240 miles to water starved Los Angeles.

On November 5, 1913, Water Chief William Mulholland, the self-taught, hardworking Irish immigrant and engineering brains behind the structure, stood in front of 40,000 cheering Angelenos, and opened the sluice gates saying, “There it is. Take it.”

And that’s just what the thirsty population did.

Foggy L.A. skyline from Mulholland Drive

Foggy L.A. skyline from Mulholland Drive

The city no longer required centralization. Dependence on the Los Angeles River and local aquifers was of little significance and by 1915, just two years after the water began to flow, the city of 44 square miles had spread to 500 square miles.

Real estate advertisements of the day promised plenty of water stating it was “neither precious nor dear.”  Imagine believing the water was unlimited!

One of my favorite passages from a fantastic book, Cadillac Desert by the late Marc Reisner, describes the effect the Owens Valley water had on Los Angeles.

“The same uncharacteristically engorged desert river that was keeping the Owens Valley green was responsible, in Los Angeles, for the most transfixing change. Santa Monica Boulevard, once a dry dusty strip, became an elegant corridor of palms; in Hollywood, where the motion picture industry had risen up overnight, outdoor sets resembled New Guinea; and since most Los Angelenos were immigrants from the Middle West, every bungalow had a green lawn. The glorious anomaly of a fake tropical city with a mild desert climate brought people from everywhere…All things were possible; anyone could get rich; the cardinal sin was doubt.”

And although Mulholland was the brains behind the water delivery system, other masterminds were  pivotal in trickery and outright deceit, basically stealing the water rights east of the High Sierras along with most of  the Owens Valley, turning rich farm land into dust.

The stories, interpretations, implications then and now, conspire to create the most fascinating tale. The best fiction has nothing on these stories.

And if you’re interested in just a little bit more about this fascinating-to-me piece of history, this little clip is short and will show you some of the gorgeous Owens Valley.

Despite history’s record of supreme chicanery, there are recent efforts to “undo” some of the wrongs and create a spirit of cooperation between the two regions.

Memories are long. I guess only time will tell.

40 thoughts on “The Water Wars Revisited…This time with an anniversary.

    • I think your words are so true, Colleen. We do manipulate our resources, and it has damaging effects somewhere. Sometimes good intentions have unintended consequences that are very destructive. I wonder how our current decisions will be judged by future generations. That’s a rhetorical question..I probably don’t want to know! 😦

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the video that showed some of the lovely Owens Valley, Frank. From our home we would prefer to go through the Owens Valley to Yosemite, rather than approach from the west. It’s a lovely and unique, quiet part of the state. The lack of water killed ranching and farming for the most part, but the gorgeous Sierra Nevadas and many large freshwater lakes make skiing and fishing big draws year-round. If I could handle snow, I might like to live there. 🙂 (I’m a weather wimp!)

  1. Water wars continue-your descriptive reporting added to a long interest that my father started. The railroad industry during that era had a major investment in the water rights & the property rights & still do! Thanks deb!

    Sent from my iPhone


    • I’m so glad you caught the post, Beth. I know that my interest also started with my dad’s conversations. I heard things said in passing and he always talked about Mulholland. And then the good old railroad comes into almost every story of early California history. I’m glad we don’t have centuries of history to decode, because I find enough to really intrigue me with 150 years! 🙂

  2. Revisiting wrongs and making things work for the betterment of everyone is always a positive step, isn’t it? It is good to see that the Owens Valley and water is being revisited, Debra. I appreciated seeing the clip you posted – and I always enjoying reading about this topic. Lake Michigan has had its own drama over the years with it bordering states and water issues.
    You really are a champion of California history.

    • You’ve interested me in reading something about Lake Michigan’s issues, Penny. I think I’ll Google for some information. The whole notion of who “owns” resources and how they are apportioned is a conversation that I really enjoy. I was at a presentation at one of the local universities last week with an environmental professor talking about water in California. And his prediction for just a few decades from now? People in the American Southwest, from Texas to the Pacific Ocean, will begin migrating to Canada–because of water. He was dead serious! Now how that is going to happen, he didn’t take the time to state. Will we all have to give up our American citizenship? Are we going to invade Canada? LOL! So you can see how this topic fascinates me. I’m glad you enjoyed the little clip. The Owens Valley is simply gorgeous! We love it there and visit as much as we can. ox

  3. Such an interesting subject Debra – thanks for sharing this. I had never given it a thought before, where the water in LA comes from. Fortunately here in Bavaria shortages are unheard of, but even parts of the UK regularly have bans on the use of hosepipes if it’s a dry year. We should all be much more aware of what resources we are using up and the effect it may have elsewhere. A very thought-provoking post!

    • I appreciate your thoughtful response, Cathy. Whenever I talk about the water issues here in Southern California I am aware it might not be an interesting discussion for all. But Southern California features so prominently in media and film, so the landscape is familiar worldwide. I like to remind others that we are a city that never should have been established. Typically cities form around a water source…and we didn’t! The high cost for continuing to allow growth in unprecedented sprawl makes the problems utterly fascinating to me. I think any waste is a lack of awareness, and someday in the future perhaps we who have lived in this century will be judged as ignorant of the consequences, much like we judge the past. And by the way, this situation is in part why I am so admiring of your gorgeous, very green garden! I couldn’t afford the water it would take to give me that deep green. LOL! ox

  4. I remember reading about how years ago LA had no water and what was done to fix it and how there was a lot of corruption involved. Like you say, the true story is better than fiction xx

    • The story of who are the “good guys” and “bad guys” in the water wars is completely fascinating to me, Charlie. It really depends on which story you want to deem most worthy. I love reading about all the political maneuverings and being reminded that there’s nothing new under the sun! Political leadership is tricky business…literally! 🙂 Because we don’t look like a desert here in L.A. people forget that their water is a luxury! I do, too, sometimes, but I’m more aware when I read these stories. Thank you for stopping by, Charlie. ox

  5. I never even knew about Owens Valley, Debra. It looks like a lovely place, water starved and all. I remember reading about Hetch Hetchy and a similar thing in San Francisco, but I never realized Los Angeles did the same thing. I wish money and power didn’t always win.

    • I think some of the water issues are relative to the fact the state is so large, and the valleys between mountain snow-packs so vast. Water delivery systems have been enormous issues. For years there was a debate about dividing northern and southern California, but the water was the issue! And then the cities grew too quickly. The Hetch Hetchy controversy came up when San Francisco nearly burned to non-existence after the earthquake. And Southern California was growing even faster. I guess there weren’t any certified urban planners back then. LOL! The Owens Valley sits below the beautiful Sierra Nevadas, Andra, and is the gateway to Yosemite if you approach Yosemite from the East. It’s an absolutely gorgeous part of the state, and very tourist-worthy! 🙂

  6. How we use natural resources, and the lengths we’ll go to fetch them, will be debated ad infinitum. It would be easy for me — and many others — to point fingers and ask how could this happen. Yet, as was stated in the video, our world would be a vastly different place had the aqueduct not been built — and who’s to say it would be a better place? We all certainly have benefited from the aqueduct. Some wrongs can never be made right. What we can do, though, is address those issues that can be helped, as is apparently being done in the Owens River Valley. Thanks, Debra, for a fascinating post.

    • You can tell I’m completely fascinated with the story of the water here in SoCal, John, and I frequently consider the question of how “we” will be regarded by future generations when it is clear that resources continued to be squandered in light of evidence that they are disappearing. The Sierra Mountains, where the water comes from in the Owens Valley, is experiencing a continually shrinking snow-pack. And yet water is wasted in ways that just amaze me. Well, I could go on and on (and to some friends, I do!), but I really do appreciate your thoughtful comments. In the reading that I’ve enjoyed about early Los Angeles, the need for water was critical to the point of disaster. And yet citizens continued to flock to the west for economic opportunity and the creativity in the water solution is mind-boggling for any time in history, but 1913? I’ve had a good week of reading…every news source here has been covering this issue at great lengths. I’m by far not the only one interested. 🙂

  7. you have opened my eyes Debra! I had no idea about the water coming from so far, and yet, of course!! Interesting that some more water is now made available to the Owens Valley ….

    • California gets about 1/3 of its water from the Owens Valley at this point in time. The aqueduct system was greatly expanded in the 1970s and we get water from Northern California as well as the Colorado River. It’s all greatly controversial as absolutely no limits have been placed on growth in Southern California. I watch this issue fanatically and with fascination, really believing that there will be a greater crisis at some point. The Owens Valley was so severely neglected in the early twentieth century that farming and ranching became a thing of the past, but in the shadow of those gorgeous Sierra Nevada mountains it is a gorgeous part of the state and is tourist friendly. We visit as often as we can and just drink in the beauty–no pun intended! 🙂 Thank you, Christine!

  8. That’s a fascinating post and does provide pointers to similar water stress situations occurring in many parts of the world. But at the end of the day, one reaps what one sows.In the not too distant future, wars would be fought over water as gated communities of the affluent would aggrandise this precious resource and keep the rest of the “thirsting vandals” out of the equation.

    Can technology change this grim future?


    • That is a grim future, Shakti, and I’m sure not far off the mark. Resources are badly squandered and for the first time on a local level I have been hearing debate about the high cost of water delivery, and what that will mean in terms of economic disparity. But the point to me is that seriously addressing waste would be a place to start. And yes again to the comment “one reaps what one sows.” That is always true. The consequences from past actions are going to follow us forever. It’s interesting to me that we still debate some of these issues, but change is very slow to come. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. Debra

  9. Thanks for this fascinating update on the water wars, Debra. How sad to think that rich farmland was turned to desert, just so people in LA could thoughtlessly waste precious water on lawns and trimmings pools. Sigh….

  10. I have a letter from the Mono Lake Committee sitting next to me right now, Debra! One of the wrongs being undone is to restore the tributaries leading to Mono Lake, an inland sea in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas. In 1994 The Los Angeles DWP was ordered to limit diversions from those sources and come up with a plan to restore Mono Lake, but they just shrugged and said sorry, our facilities were designed to take all the water, can’t limit it! They had to go back to court to force DWP to update their facilities. It amazes me how tedious the battle can get.

    There is an aqueduct museum at Pyramid Lake, have you ever been? I tried finding it online, but I found this website instead:

    • I’m so glad to hear that you’re also interested in the history and controversy surrounding the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Janine. I learned a little ore about the Owens Valley restoration at a small symposium at the Claremont Colleges a week or so ago. The Library has some nice holdings from that era, including original blueprints and photos. Prior to that I really didn’t know there was such an effort to “right” some of the unfulfilled promises to the Owens Valley region.

      How cool that you have a letter from the Mono Lake Committee. I’m curious about that, I must admit! It continues to be such a fascinating subject. Isn’t it just fascinating to realize that it’s only been 100 years? I often wonder what Mulholland and his cohorts imagined when they thought of the future of Southern California. It’s mind-boggling. I’m so glad you shared your thoughts, and the link. No, I haven’t been to to the aqueduct museum…didn’t even know about it! I sure will. Thanks. 🙂

  11. San Francisco has the same sad history. The city’s water supply is derived from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, a once beautiful valley of granite next to Yosemite that some say was more majestic than Yosemite, but was dammed up and the water piped to San Francisco.

    • I learned a little bit about the water diversion to San Francisco when I watched the Ken Burns series on our National Parks. When I concluded that series I was somewhat amazed we have anything of beauty left at all. The idea that the land and its resources were of so little value that they could be taken from one region and often wasted in another really saddens me. I hope we continue to learn from our past mistakes, although conservation efforts are surely spotty, aren’t they Tom? It’s a big concern!

  12. Wow, I just wrote a post about the importance of accepting sincere apologies…I wonder if the revision of the detoured watering system has anything to do with maybe realizing that the once thriving valley of richness needs to be revived for their sake as well. Everyone needs to eat, right?

  13. It’s interesting stuff, Cristine! This many years later there are still wounds associated with the backdoor dealings that went into taking the water from the Owens Valley. There have been some measures of “giving back” to the region but there’s still something really underhanded about the way the ends were achieved. Los Angeles needed water, and you know public policy…the end justifies almost any means. I must get over and read what you’ve written. It’s not often I ever hear sincere apologies. A lost art, perhaps. That’s a sad thought.

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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