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A Self-Guided Tour of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

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The Los Angeles Aqueduct cascades in Sylmar.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct cascades in Sylmar. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

This week's 100th anniversary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct is being observed with a commemorative L.A. Department of Water and Power event, historical photos, discussions about water usage, museum exhibits, and even a 100-mule train. But despite the events and media coverage, most of the recipients of the Aqueduct's water still have no idea where the water conveyance system is, much less what it looks like, or how it functions.

Last year, during my first visit to the Owens Valley, I was able to not only experience the Aqueduct first-hand, but meet the very people who have been impacted -- both positively and negatively -- by its presence. Since then, I have made two more visits within the past year, learning more about the Aqueduct every time. Although, most Angelenos who don't already ski, fish, or hike in that part of the state probably wouldn't care to make the four-hour drive to the Eastern Sierra just to see water being carried.

But the Aqueduct can be much closer than that. At 233 miles, the southernmost sections are just minutes away from urban L.A. I've designed this self-guided tour, complete with map links and driving directions, to give us city folks a chance to see the Aqueduct for ourselves, from our geographical perspective, and learn a little bit more about how our water gets to us, and the issues that surround the one commodity that we cannot survive without.

Most descriptions of the Aqueduct follow the water's flow from north to south. However, this self-guided tour of the 100-year-old built Aqueduct is designed to be traveled south-to-north, from Sylmar in the San Fernando Valley to Aberdeen in the Owens Valley, giving the opportunity for city-dwellers to make the trip as short or as long as they please, whether one wishes to make a long road trip out of it, or experience it in multiple trips.

1. Cascades
The most visible part of the L.A. Aqueduct to Angelenos is the Cascades, where Eastern Sierra snowmelt water emerges into the city. Located at the westernmost extremity of the San Gabriel Mountains, the cascades feature the termini of the century-old L.A. Aqueduct (the shorter, zig-zagging channel on the left) and the 43-year-old Second L.A. Aqueduct (the long channel on the right). The former was where the Aqueduct's chief engineer William Mulholland told mayor Henry Rose, "There it is, take it!" at the opening ceremonies 100 years ago this week. The two aqueducts merge into one course and lead into the DWP's L.A. Aqueduct Filtration Plant on the south side of the 5 Freeway, where a chemical process consolidates dirt and impurities, and the water is cleansed through a six-foot bed of anthracite coal. As soon as 45 minutes later, Aqueduct water enters the city's water main system.

Map: 17001 Foothill Blvd, Sylmar.
Directions: From 5 Freeway, exit Roxford St., east on Roxford to Foothill Blvd, turn left. Park on the second Balboa Blvd (near County Assessor's Office) and walk to Cascades.

The L.A. Aqueduct pipe scales a hill next to a shopping center in Canyon Country.
The L.A. Aqueduct pipe scales a hill next to a shopping center in Canyon Country. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

2. Aqueduct Pipe in Santa Clarita
The Aqueduct runs literally through people's backyards in Santa Clarita, a city which ironically hardly receives any of that water (They do, however, receive California Aqueduct water, which ends up at nearby Castaic Lake). Here, the L.A. Aqueduct is most visible at places like Saugus High School, across the Santa Clara River, and adjacent to the Walmart-anchored shopping center in Canyon Country, which has a pocket park area where one can sit and admire at the Aqueduct, just feet away.

Map: Various locations; shopping center is on Golden Valley Rd and McKeon Way and Saugus High School is on Centurion Way, off of Bouquet Canyon Rd.

3. San Francisquito Canyon Power Station 2 & St. Francis Dam Memorial Markers
About 5.2 miles into San Francisquito Canyon Road is LADWP's Power Station 2, a hydroelectric power plant, and one of 14 in LADWP's Aqueduct system. Evident by the trio of Aqueduct penstock pipes leading downhill to the only large concrete structure in the immediate area. On the north end of the property, there's a historical marker for the St. Francis Dam, which collapsed nearby in 1928. The U.S. Forest Service Fire Station directly south of the power station has another St. Francis Dam memorial, with a piece of the dam, and a historical display next to it.

Map: 32300 San Francisquito Canyon Rd., Santa Clarita.
Directions: From Copper Hill Drive, take San Francisquito Canyon 5.8 miles north. You can park at the U.S. Forestry Service Fire Station, which is next door to the power station.

4. St. Francis Dam Site
Engineered by William Mulholland and built as part of the L.A. Aqueduct system in 1924 to store water in a three-mile-long reservoir, this dam broke on the night of March 12, 1928 due to unstable bedrock beneath the dam, flooding San Francisquito Canyon and killing around 600 people in the second-largest disaster in California history. The floodwaters reached the Santa Clara River and ended up in the Pacific Ocean five hours later. Accepting full responsibility, Mulholland ended his LADWP career because of the catastrophe.

Map: Off of San Francisquito Canyon Road, 7.5 miles from Copper Canyon Road.
Directions: From Power Station 2, take San Francisquito Canyon Road 1.7 miles north to a gravel turnout on the east side of the road. Park here and walk down the abandoned road past the concrete barrier. The dam site and ruins can be seen off the left side of the road where it makes a major bend.

LADWP's Power Station 1 in San Francisquito Canyon.
LADWP's Power Station 1 in San Francisquito Canyon. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

5. San Francisquito Canyon Power Station 1
Built in 1917, this hydroelectric facility was LADWP's first power generation station. Fed by the Aqueduct penstock descending from the mountain above, generating 71,900 kilowatts of electricity. Directly south of the power station is a small community of currently under 20 residents known as Pelton, which mostly houses power station employees. A small park also features Aqueduct-related equipment on display such as a section of pipe, a reaction turbine from one of the power stations, and a debris car used during the Aqueduct's construction. The Power House Wildfire of May 2013, which originated nearby, was named after Power Station 1.

Map: At the end of Pelton Street, off of San Francisquito Canyon Road, Pelton
Directions: From St. Francis Dam turnout, Power Station 1 is 3.8 miles north on San Francisquito Road. Follow the "Power Station No. 1 Road" leading down the hill, and pass the residences and park to the end of the road.

6. Aqueduct Penstock/Bouquet Canyon Inlet/Outlet Pipe
Just up the road from Power Station 1 is the Aqueduct's penstock leading to the power station below. You'll see three pipes: The one on the left is the Second L.A. Aqueduct, and the other two are the original Aqueduct. Around the hill, you'll see a single pipe travel over the road and toward the east. This is the inlet/outlet pipe to the Bouquet Canyon Reservoir, located two miles away.

Map: San Francisquito Canyon Road, south of Green Valley.
Directions: The penstock is located after the horeshoe curve, 1.4 miles from the entrance to the road leading to Power Station 1. The Bouquet Canyon pipe is 0.4 mile after that.

7. Elizabeth Tunnel
At the water tank (unrelated to the Aqueduct) along Elizabeth Lake Road is the approximate location of the Elizabeth Tunnel, which originates at Fairmont Reservoir on the other side of the hill, and runs for five miles, some 250 feet beneath this spot. Incidentally, the tunnel also crosses the San Andreas Fault at this spot, which created the three lakes in this valley.

Map: Elizabeth Lake Road, near Munz Lakes, Lake Hughes.
Directions: From the Bouquet Canyon pipe crossover, take San Francisquito Canyon Road to its end after Green Valley. Make a left turn at each of the two "T" intersections ahead. Munz Lakes is the lake after Lake Elizabeth, the water tank is across the road.

The L.A. Aqueduct crosses over the California Aqueduct in the Antelope Valley.
The L.A. Aqueduct crosses over the California Aqueduct in the Antelope Valley. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

8. California Aqueduct-LA Aqueduct Crossover & Antelope Valley "Siphon"
Here, you can view two of our water sources, right on top of each other: The L.A. Aqueduct encased in pipe running above the open-channel California Aqeduct. The latter ends up at Lake Perris in Riverside County. There is also an interchange mechanism to transfer water from one aqueduct to another in case of emergency. Looking toward the other direction is the four-mile Antelope Valley pipe, the longest continuous pressurized pipe section of the aqueduct. This is also the path of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Map: Off of 3 Points Road, just north of the California Aqueduct, Neenach.
Directions: From Lake Hughes, take Elizabeth Lake Road straight ahead until it turns into Pine Canyon Road, then straight onto 3 Points Road into the Antelope Valley. After the open-channel California Aqueduct is crossed, park on the right just outside of the fence. You can enter through the fence on foot only through the Pacific Crest Trail entrance to closely view the aqueduct crossover and the partially-buried Antelope Valley "Siphon" directly north of it.

9. Aqueduct Conduit
Most of the 233-mile L.A. Aqueduct can't be seen -- 98 miles of it runs in an underground concrete conduit. According to LADWP water works engineer Fred Barker, the unpressurized conduit must meander to follow the contour of the land and keep a steady elevation drop to allow the gravity-assisted water to flow. Most of the conduit is inaccessible if you're not a LADWP worker. However, if you know where to look, you can see the outline of the concrete lid of the conduit on the ground, and see a few access structures.

Location: The conduit runs along the north side of the Sierra Pelona Mountains from the Fairmont Reservoir to the Antelope Valley Siphon, below the Tehachapi mountains, and alongside the southern Sierra Nevada mountains.

The L.A. Aqueduct scales Jawbone Canyon in Kern County via sag pipe.
The L.A. Aqueduct scales Jawbone Canyon in Kern County via sag pipe. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

10. Jawbone Canyon "Siphon"
"Don't call it a 'siphon,'" says LADWP's Barker, "It's a 'sag pipe.'" However, the "siphon" terminology was a popular, if not accurate, description of the pressurized structure, in the era the Aqueduct was built. Without the use of mechanical pumps, gravity works the water down and back up again through water pressure and the width and thickness of the piping. This example is the best-known example of sag piping in the Aqueduct. Located in Bureau of Land Management-owned recreational land, the canyon is also a popular spot for camping and off-road vehicles. The newer Second L.A. Aqueduct can be seen across the mouth of the canyon.

Map: Jawbone Canyon Road, Kern County.
Directions: Take the 14 Freeway north past Mojave, turn left at Jawbone Canyon Road, Aqueduct is 2.8 miles up.

11. Haiwee Reservoirs
The two man-made reservoirs serve both L.A. Aqueducts: The north reservoir feeds into the Second L.A. Aqueduct and the south reservoir feeds into the original Aqueduct. Both continue south toward Los Angeles via concrete conduit after leaving the power station here.

Map: Off of Haiwee Reservoir Road, south of Olancha.
Directions: Take Highway 395 north, turn right at Haiwee Reservoir Road.

Owens Dry Lake Bed in the Owens Valley.
Owens Dry Lake Bed in the Owens Valley. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

12. Owens Dry Lake
By far the largest environmental impact created by the L.A. Aqueduct was the emptying of Owens Lake. The opening of the Aqueduct caused its only inlet, the Lower Owens River, to dry up, turning what was once the second-largest lake in California into a dry lake bed. Since then, high desert winds have kicked up the dust from the heart-shaped lake bed to create one of the worst air-polluted locations in the entire United States. The LADWP was forced to implement dust mitigation measures in the form of limited flooding, irrigation, native plant growth, and gravel placement, which has since stemmed most of the dust pollution issues in the region.

Map: Directly east of Highway 395 between Cartago and Lone Pine.
Directions: Turn right at any of the roads adjoining Highway 395.

13. Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center
More than just an information center, this building features an interactive model of the L.A. Aqueduct system, a section of Aqueduct pipe and an exhibit on the waterway's construction. Information and passes on nearby Sierra Nevada hiking trails can be obtained here as well.

Map: On Highway 136, at its junction with Highway 395.
Directions: Take Highway 395 to Lone Pine, turn right at Highway 136, turn right into parking lot.

14. Metabolic IOU Garden
Established in 2009 as a project of Los Angeles-based Metabolic Studio, this urban-style community garden on a LADWP-owned lot in Lone Pine gives local farmers a place to grow local produce (albeit on raised planters, as per DWP rules), a venue for a fortnightly farmers market, and a facility for developing compost to grow produce on the local alkaline soil.

Map: Southeast corner of Main and Willow streets, Lone Pine.
Directions: Take Highway 395 (Main Street in Lone Pine) north to Willow Street, garden is to the right.

The Lower Owens River Project outside of Lone Pine.
The Lower Owens River Project outside of Lone Pine. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

15. Lower Owens River Project
In 1991, The LADWP and the county of Inyo signed a Long-Term Water Agreement which addressed the management of groundwater in the Owens Valley. One of the stipulations was to allow some of the Aqueduct water back into the section of river south of the Intake -- nearly dry since the opening of the Aqueduct -- for ecological and recreational benefit. The plan was to restore the affected Lower Owens River in as soon as three years. Fifteen years later, the Lower Owens River Project (LORP) finally restored life into the nearly-dead riparian ecosystem, allowing wildlife and plantlife to flourish again, and provide opportunities for fishing and kayaking. But not without a hitch: Tule reed growth exploded on the river and have severely limited its recreational potential.

Location: Along the Owens River, between the Intake and Owens Lake.
Directions: Can be seen from any of the major roads intersecting Highway 395, between two and four miles east of the highway. The best location is near Lone Pine; take Highway 395 north to Lone Pine Narrow Gauge Road, turn right and go 1.8 miles ahead to the river. One can walk only 50 yards in either direction from the river and notice the stark contrast in the environment.

16. Alabama Spillway Gates
Named after the adjacent Alabama Hills that lie directly to the west, this is a spillway channel intended to re-direct water into Owens Lake in the event of Aqueduct overflow, which occurs occasionally due to summer monsoon thunderstorms and flash flooding in the area. Because of that, this location has been the traditional ground zero of the Owens Valley Water Wars, having been the site of numerous bombings and occupation actions by local residents, irate over environmental damage or having been shortchanged by the LADWP on their water rights for agricultural use. A recent L.A. Times article interviewed Mark Berry, the person who instigated the last bombing as a teen in 1976 and works for the LADWP today. But some locals have claimed that Berry merely took the fall for the real bomber, adding to the lore of the Water Wars.

Map: Located between the northern end of the Alabama Hills and Highway 395, five miles north of Lone Pine.
Directions: Can be easily viewed from both the northbound and southbound lanes of Highway 395. Look for the flagpole and the red-roofed concrete structure that sits atop the spillway.

One of LADWP's water pumps, near Manzanar in the Owens Valley.
One of LADWP's water pumps, near Manzanar in the Owens Valley. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

17. LADWP Water Pumps
There are roughly 100 of these water pump structures in the nine water well field zones around the Owens Valley. All them sport a similar look: A 10-square-foot concrete platform with beige-colored piping and control boxes, surrounded by chain link fence. Though ground water has been pumped into the Aqueduct since the 1920s, the modern system was installed in the 1970s to facilitate water input into the Second L.A. Aqueduct. The amount of groundwater that is pumped varies, but it is typically just over 50,000 acre-feet a year, according to Barker. The LADWP has increased groundwater pumping during drought years, but it comes at a cost to the environment: The desiccation of the Owens Valley floor, causing destruction of native plant life and collapse to the immediate ecosystem that surrounds it.

Location: Various, around the Owens Valley.
Directions: Can be viewed from Highway 395 or any of the major roads intersecting it.

18. Manzanar National Historic Site
The place where over 10,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II also has a connection to the Aqueduct. The LADWP had begun pumping out Owens Valley groundwater into the Aqueduct in the 1920s, and farmers lacked water for irrigation, rendering the former apple-growing farm community of Manzanar (hence the name in Spanish) a ghost town by the end of that decade. In 1933 the LADWP purchased the area around Manzanar for water rights, and the U.S. Army had to lease 6,200 acres of DWP-owned land to establish the War Relocation Center in 1942. The National Park Service-run interpretive center and grounds are still worth a visit anyway for another great history lesson.

Map: 5001 Highway 395, Independence.
Directions: Take Hwy 395 north, turn left at Manzanar Reward Rd.

19. Alfalfa Farm
This unusually verdant patch of farmland offers a small glimpse of what parts of the Owens Valley looked like before the Aqueduct. Like most of the Owens Valley today, this is LADWP-owned land. This particular patch hosts an alfalfa field, leased by farmers, and developed as one of the mitigation measures agreed to by the LADWP to address or minimize environmental damage created by groundwater pumping.

Map: Located 1.5 miles north of Manzanar along Highway 395; can easily be seen from the highway.

20. Unlined Aqueduct Channel
The northernmost 24 miles of the built Aqueduct run in an unlined channel -- basically an open ditch -- intended so that the underground water table can feed into the Aqueduct system. The various water pumps placed around the valley facilitate the process.

Location: Between the Intake near Aberdeen and the Alabama Gates, north of Lone Pine.
Directions: Best viewed from any of the major paved east-west roads crossing Highway 395 such as Mazourka Canyon Road in Independence (heard two miles east) or Manzanar Reward Road (head half a mile east).

Century-old Aqueduct construction wagons are on display at the Eastern California Museum in Independence.
Century-old Aqueduct construction wagons are on display at the Eastern California Museum in Independence. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

21. Eastern California Museum
This museum (also built on LADWP property), which focuses on the regional history of the Eastern Sierra, has an exhibit on the construction of the L.A. Aqueduct and the subsequent Owens Valley Water Wars, featuring historic photographs and diagrams. On the museum's grounds, actual vehicles and equipment used in the construction of the Aqueduct are on display. Free admission.

Map: 155 N. Grant St, Independence.
Directions: Take Hwy 395 north to Independence, turn left on Center Street; museum is at the end of the road.

22. LADWP Independence Facility
Aside from the Aqueduct itself, there is no stronger image of the LADWP's influence in the Owens Valley than the sight of one of their familiar white service trucks with the Sierra Nevada mountains towering in the background, some 225 miles north of the city whose seal appears on them. The LADWP is the second-largest employer in Independence, a town of some 600 people and the seat of Inyo county. In addition to providing electric power utilities to most of the area, LADWP crews also perform monitoring and maintenance tasks on the Aqueduct, groundwater pumps, dust mitigation efforts, and the Lower Owens River project.

Map: 201 S. Webster St., Independence.
Directions: The LADWP's Independence facility is located directly south of the Eastern California Museum.

23. Independence Creek
One of the most accessible and visible tributaries of the Owens River/L.A. Aqueduct watershed is this creek, which flows year-round from behind Independence Peak up in the Sierra Nevada. For a tangible experience of what our water is like before it becomes part of the municipal water supply (it empties out through a culvert into the Aqueduct, just east of Independence Airport), touch or wade in the ankle-deep waters of this cool, clean, shallow stream.

Map: Located along the north edge of Independence, best accessed from the parking lot at Dehy Park, at Edwards and Inyo streets. Can also be accessed from the Eastern California Museum's native plant garden, which features a half-mile walking path along the creek that leads to Dehy Park.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct intake, outside of Aberdeen.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct intake, outside of Aberdeen. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

24. Aqueduct Intake
This is the Aqueduct's visible and symbolic gateway, marking the start of the man-made watercourse which opened 100 years ago. This is where (most of) the Owens River is diverted onto its 233-mile gravity-propelled waterslide into the city. The intake structure is actually 102 years old now (Its date of construction is emblazoned on its north side in Roman numerals) and was turned on in February of 1913. The long dam-like structure adjacent to the Intake is the diversion weir, which was modified in 2005 to allow controlled amounts of water to flow back into the Lower Owens River.

Map: Located east of Aberdeen, CA.
Directions: Take Highway 395 north to Goodale Road, turn right, follow dirt road for 1.4 miles.

So there it is, take it. Get to know our city, our environment, our water, our Aqueduct.

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