Water Under the Bridge? A New Exhibit on the L.A. Aqueduct's Controversial Past

The cascades, where water from the L.A. Aqueduct flows down from the San Gabriel Mountains into Los Angeles. | Photo: Courtesy of Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library, The Claremont CollegesWilliam Mulholland, who supervised the planning and construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the flow of which would power the city's politics, nurture its industrialization, and transform its semi-arid landscape, was not a garrulous man.

"This rude platform is an altar," Mulholland told a jubilant crowd of 30,000 gathered in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to celebrate the aqueduct's dedication on November 5, 1913, "and on it we are here consecrating this water supply and dedicating the Aqueduct to you and your children and your children's children -- for all time." Although this sentence sounded like the start of a lengthy paean to that present day's shimmering future, it marked the beginning and end of his speech: "That's all," he said, and then sat down to thunderous applause.

At least those were the words he uttered for the mass of men, women, and children who had traveled by automobile, train, and horse and buggy to get their first look at and taste of Sierra snowmelt channeled from the Owens River Valley more than 230 miles to the north of the City of Angels. As the throng surged toward the infrastructure to cheer the first gallons cascading down a nearby hill, Mulholland turned to Mayor J.J. Rose and reportedly urged: "There it is, Mr. Mayor. Take it."

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The Los Angeles Aqueduct at Jawbone Canyon in Kern County. | Photo: Courtesy of Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library, The Claremont Colleges

Los Angeles took it, and then some. Since 1913, it has imported millions of acre-feet of water via this system, and its extension in the 1930s farther north to tap Mono Lake and its tributaries. A decade earlier, the city funded another lengthy pipeline to the east to siphon water out of the Colorado River. And in 1919 the idea was first floated to build a massive state water project that would divert water out of the Sacramento River delta and send it through the Central Valley, up and over the Tehachapi Mountains, and into Southern California, a hotly debated concept that would take fifty years to bring to fruition.

Exploring this complex past is a new exhibit at the Claremont Colleges' Library called Water, Power, and Technology: The Los Angeles Aqueduct, 1913-2013. Special Collections Librarian Lisa Crane and I collaborated on it to commemorate the aqueduct's centennial, focusing particularly on the first act of this long-running drama. Yet the displays also offer a foreshadowing of what was to come, as a comparison of a clutch of its first images suggests.

A bird's eye view of pueblo Los Angeles in the 1850s -- spare, dry, and compact -- lies in stark contrast to the post-aqueduct terrain, a verdant and sprawling landscape of orange groves and suburban subdivisions, an irrigated Eden where "water is neither scarce nor dear." There were (and remain) unstated costs in the wiping out of native ecosystems and biological diversity in the Owens River Valley and in Southern California, some of which are captured in the swirling mists of imported water sprayed on manicured lawns, but those benefitting from these imported waters rarely stopped to think about such consequences.

Among those happy to ignore the deficits that the L.A. Aqueduct might impose were those urban boosters most loudly touting its benefits. Power brokers such as Mulholland, Fred Eaton, and J.B. Lippincott, and a host of politicos, entrepreneurs, and industrialists, operated with a simple calculation: water equaled growth. And growth was good, as defined by such indicators as increases in population, economic activity, and living standards. That would seem a simple sell, yet to secure the funding necessary to build the massive conduit required an extensive "campaign to make the aqueduct popular." To sway voters, aqueduct advocates unleashed a sophisticated media blitz, rallied local chambers of commerce, and to all promoted the tantalizing prospects of unbridled wealth and unlimited opportunity that the aqueduct would generate.

Persuasive, too, were the blueprints, photographs, topographical maps, and other illustrative evidence of the project's technological ambitions; it created an engineered landscape that moved vast quantities of water and kilowatts of electricity across a rugged terrain, demonstrating anew the human capacity to subordinate nature to our very material ends.

Surely it is not by happenstance, too, that at the same time Los Angeles was falling in love with automobility and building a new street grid to speed its movement across the land, it was also constructing of a complex system of pipes, dams, tunnels, and channels to rush water into the community's many new orchards, factories, and parks, its sinks, bathtubs, and greenswards.

Detail of a poster for the 1936 annual convention of the American Water Works Assn. | Image: Courtesy of Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library, The Claremont CollegesHowever giddy were the aqueduct's prospects and realities, its development was not contest free. Many residents of the Owens River fought long and hard against the transfer of their water resources by means peaceful and violent. Through open appeals to the state and nation, they sought redress for what they knew to be a "Valley of Broken Hearts," pleas that fell on deaf ears in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Sharing Owens Valley activists' critique of L.A.'s water grab were folks living to the city's immediate east. They were convinced that local watersheds can and should be managed locally -- and sustainably. Making clever use of Southern California's geology, particularly the alluvial washes that swept out of the canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains, organizations such as the Pomona Valley Protective Association maintained these fans as open space. Winter rains and runoff would then filter into this gravely soil, replenishing the aquifers buried below; these basins "resembled very much the ordinary restaurant dinner plate with separate receptacles for different foods," one contemporary observed, and he believed they offered the region its best hope for survival.

Preferring human-built structures to natural cisterns, a choice in concert with their narrative of domination and control, Los Angeles' legion of promoters instead ratcheted up their commitment to concrete action. Certain that the aqueduct needed an additional reservoir to protect against the region's episodic droughts and ongoing sabotage of the aqueduct in the Owens Valley, in the early 1920s Mulholland, a self-taught engineer, helped design the St. Francis Dam in the San Francisquito Canyon in the Santa Clara River watershed north of the city.

Completed in 1926, it impounded an estimated 38,000 acre-feet water. Within hours of Mulholland certifying its structural integrity on March 12, 1928, the dam collapsed catastrophically, tragically in the middle of the night; it unleashed a killer surge of water that crashed down the canyon before blasting into the Santa Clara River. "It seems probable that the flood peak immediately below the dam exceeded half a million second-feet," a subsequent engineering report intoned, "and this, together with its occurrence in the darkness, and the suddenness and violence of the wave, was such that very few of the persons in the constricted valley below the dam escaped with their lives." More than 600 people perished that evening, many of their bodies were never found.

Although this horrific disaster destroyed Mulholland's reputation, it did not damage the citizenry's belief in his ambitious effort to import ever-larger amounts of water to slake the city's deepening thirst. Voters easily passed bond issues in support of the Colorado Aqueduct and the Mono Lake project, setting the stage for additional investments in the second half of the 20th-century, a legacy that has proved pivotal to the making of what is now the nation's second largest city.

That end, the aqueduct's original proponents would have asserted, justified their means.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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