Los Angeles' political and business leaders knew by the late 1800s that the city needed two key ingredients for a successful growth: more water and a transportation network that would move people and commerce throughout the basin. The transportation question was (for a time, at least) addressed by an efficient system of trolleys and trains as well as a growing network of roads for use by the automobiles. The question of water was more complicated.
The city was dependent on the Los Angeles River and its many tributaries, including the Arroyo Seco, for its water. As the population grew astronomically from 1880 to 1900, independent real estate developers, ranchers and farmers worked feverishly to devise new methods to pipe water from the river and underground aquifers.
By 1900, however, it was becoming abundantly clear that in order to provide the needed water, it would need to be brought in and sold to residents and businesses. Several influential men collaborated on this project, including Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, who had been buying up cheap land on the northern outskirts of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. They enlisted the help of William Mulholland, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Water Department, and J.B. Lippencott, of the United States Reclamation Service.
After a lengthy campaign—both overt and covert—to convince the rest of the city of its necessity, work started in 1908 on what would become the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 223-mile pipe that would bring water from the Owens River in the Eastern Sierra Nevada to Los Angeles. Completed in 1914, the Aqueduct and the new supply of water provided just what the city needed to continue its expansion and development into the San Fernando Valley, much to the benefit of the Otis-Chandler family's finances.
The reliable source of water provided by the Aqueduct also fueled the process of "voluntary" annexation of surrounding areas to Los Angeles, including Palms (now Atwater) and Eagle Rock. The offer of water service became a powerful lure for neighboring communities with inadequate or unstable water sources. The city strategically took advantage, locking in customers through annexation and refusing to supply other communities.
While Highland Park and Garvanza had voted in favor of annexation before the arrival of the Aqueduct, water was one of the main reasons behind the measure. The area had its own source of water in the Arroyo Seco, going back to the days of the Tongva and the Hahamog-na Village settlements, but by the late 1800s the Arroyo had become strained and unreliable due to wild fluctuations between a dry bed and extreme flooding. Community leaders looked away from their local river to the growing metropolis to the south for support.
After the devastating flood of 1914, area residents demanded that public officials better protect residents from the Arroyo. The city agreed, and plans were quickly underway to establish an agency that would manage the development of a comprehensive flood and transportation package. In 1915 the Los Angeles County Flood Control District (LACFCD) was created by the State Legislature. Devil's Gate Dam was dedicated in 1920, essentially closing off the source of the Arroyo Seco. Over the next 25 years the County moved towards a complete channelization of the Arroyo.
The longstanding history of access to the river once enjoyed by the residents around the Arroyo Seco evaporated almost overnight. The river that had once provided water and nourishment to the independent communities of Highland Park, Garvanza and Sycamore Grove was completely encased in concrete by 1940.
A Primary Resource
Timothy Brick describes the need for water in Los Angeles and the Arroyo Seco area.