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.
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.
- A Self-Guided Tour of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (kcet.org)
- Water, Pipeline, and 100 Mules (kcet.org)
- How An Aqueduct Turned Los Angeles Into A ‘Garden Of Eden’ (wnyc.org)
- The fathers of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (framework.latimes.com)