My search for the Los Angeles Zanja Madre and introducing William Mulholland– thief or visionary?

I feel like I almost need to apologize for taking a huge story and distilling it down to read-in-one-sitting proportion. OK. It will probably take two posts, but I can promise that if you really get deeper into the story of water in Los Angeles you’ll discover it is more entertaining than fiction. My only reasonable goal, however, is to introduce a little historical context along with a brief character development of one of the most influential, yet controversial men responsible for the rise of Los Angeles, and perhaps encourage you towards further reading. If you live in California, it’s almost a requirement.

I don’t know what turned on the light, but for several months I’ve had an almost insatiable interest in connecting the dots in the story of California. My primary focus has been centered on the transition from the Rancho days of Spanish rule through the era of Mexico’s independence from Spain, followed by the US turning the tables once again, declaring war on Mexico. All of this leading to California becoming a territory of the United States in 1848 and achieving statehood in 1850. It’s  a big story.

But then, California is a big state! To drive from the northern border to the southern tip is a longer journey than traveling on the opposite coast from Maine through at least six New England states.  California has so many varied needs and interests, it’s often charged as ungovernable. But numerous considerations of dividing the state in two, the first denied by Congress in 1861, highlight a significant problem.

There’s this little matter of water! Southern California, semi-arid, drought-prone, and overpopulated, is dependent on elaborate and somewhat controversial systems of water delivery.

Traveling north on one of the main arteries running the length of the state I always enjoy a glimpse of the California Aqueduct, 701.5 miles of primarily concrete-lined channels conveying water collected from the Sierra Nevada Mountains as well as the valleys of Northern and Central California with delivery to otherwise parched Southern California.

But the idea of a water aqueduct started much, much earlier than the modern California Aqueduct, and the history leading up to a system of water delivery is complex and prone to conflict.  First we need a little context.

Los Angeles, or, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (the Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels) was a Spanish pueblo founded in 1781.

The Avila Adobe, built in 1818, is the oldest standing residence in Los Angeles.

Olvera Street, part of the Pueblo, exists today as the oldest part of Downtown Los Angeles, and is now considered a tourist attraction with its restaurants and colorful carts selling leather goods, candy and trinkets.

Exposed original street

On a recent trip to Olvera Street I was focused on finding a particular landmark. I wanted to find the Zanja Madre. What is that?

The site of the original Zanja Madre

The Zanja Madre, or Mother Ditch, was Los Angeles’ original aqueduct. It was an open, earthen ditch system that ran for more than a mile, connecting the Los Angeles River to the Plaza (where Olvera Street is now) providing not only drinking water, but also irrigation of surrounding vineyards and agricultural land.

Diagonal bricks mark the position of the original ditch, Zanja Madre

From the very beginning, water was a source of conflict. Under Spanish colonial rule the pueblo held exclusive rights to the water from the river, with a communal interest in maintaining equitable use. Los Angeles sits in a semi-arid coastal plain and all water needed to be managed efficiently.

View of current Los Angeles City Hall from Olvera Street

But the city grew! In 1854, water administration took on new dimensions as the city council’s “water overseer” administered the distribution of irrigation water, which seemed to work well for agriculturists within the city limits, but homeowners grew more and more dissatisfied with the open-ditch water supply, polluted by bathers and animals.

Irish immigrant William Mulholland arrived in Los Angeles in 1877, when the city had a population of about 9,000. Originally employed as a ditch digger, he was soon hired as a Deputy Zanjero–basically the tender of the ditch– with the Los Angeles Water Company. Then in 1898 the city council didn’t renew the contract with the Los Angeles Water Company, forming the Los Angeles Department of Water, and hiring Mulholland as superintendent.

In the early days of Mulholland’s role overseeing the delivery of water to ever-expanding Los Angeles, he was tremendously concerned with conservation. The rudimentary water system was still dependent on rainfall for filling strategically positioned reservoirs, and against public pressure, he instituted the first metering system in the city, attempting to control flagrant waste of the precious resource.

While certain wealthy and influential citizens wasted water,  ignoring the pleas of officials warning that water levels were perilously low, a social  invitation of the time indicates water scarcity, warning “If you expect to retire, take your blankets, and if this is your month to bathe furnish your own towels.”

At  the turn of the century the Southern Pacific Railroad was a significant transportation system, credited with contributing to major population growth, and by 1903, the population of Los Angeles had swelled to 175,000, putting great strain on the city water supply. Mulholland estimated a per capita demand of 150 gallons per day and determined that at the rate of estimated growth, by 1925 the required volume would be more than double the minimum flow of the Los Angeles River. Something had to change.

It’s at this point the Water Wars begin to really heat up. Solutions to the water “problem” were proposed, but at what and whose expense?

Opinions are dramatically divided on whether William Mulholland and other city leaders were land swindlers and crooks, or brilliant visionaries.

In my next post I’ll contribute a brief overview of how water eventually gave rise to the city of  Los Angeles, and I wonder if you’ll consider the solution an ethical response to a very large problem or fall into the camp of those who believe  Mulholland and his cohorts ushered in a long season of dirty politics.

Whatever the truth, and I’m not sure I have adequately settled the question for myself, the problem of water is always going to be a concern.

The current population of Los Angeles is 3,819, 702. That’s a lot of people, huh? How about Los Angeles County? Try delivering water to 9,889,056 people. That’s a lot of baths!

Until next time…Be sure to turn off the tap when you brush your teeth, okay?

And if you’re possibly as interested in the topic as I am, may I suggest reading an excellent book on the subject, “William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles.” It’s written by Mulholland’s granddaughter, Catherine Mulholland–there’s an interesting perspective!