L.A. Aqueduct: A Century of Water for the Future


It was the promise of the future that prompted Los Angeles to look further afield.

A century ago, self-taught engineer William Mulholland dedicated the Los Angeles Aqueduct, described as the most ambitious engineering project since the Roman times, with the now-familiar words, "There it is. Take it!"

Having not been there that day, I've always thought the words held some sort of vitriol, as if the gargantuan effort Mulholland had undertaken had also taken its toll on his soul. I would have felt the same knowing that for the price of a fledgling Los Angeles's future, I might be putting the Owens Valley's destiny on a more miserable path.

Despite any imagined misgivings or regrets Mulholland might have had, the Los Angeles Aqueduct did fulfill its promise. By carrying water more than 230 miles from the eastern Sierra Nevada, where the Owens River collected runoff and deposited it to Owens Lake, to the city, Los Angeles has grown in leaps and bounds, more than what it would have relying just on the Los Angeles River. For $23 million, in 1905 citizen-approved dollars, the Aqueduct became the lifeblood of Los Angeles, pumping in 313 million gallons of water per day, shooting the growth of Los Angeles from 102,000 people to 577,000 in 1920.

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Its legacy is now being celebrated by large-scale watercolors, a beautification of Mulholland's Memorial fountain, and resurrection of an age-old water system, among many initiatives.

What isn't being celebrated is the city's increasingly precarious situation when it comes to water supply.

Again and again, Los Angeles reached outside of itself for water, like a vampire looking to others for sustenance. In the early 20th century, Mulholland looked elsewhere -- this time toward the Colorado River -- as a new source of water. The city yet again looked northward to the San Francisco Bay Delta, the largest watershed on the West Coast. By 1970, the city finished the second Los Angeles Aqueduct, half as wide and shorter than its elder iteration. Together, their waters contribute 88 percent of the city's water supply, at a significant cost. The city paid $912 for every foot of imported water over a one-acre area in 2011.

Only 11 percent of LA's water comes from local groundwater. 88 percent is imported | Courtesy of LA DWP
Only 11 percent of LA's water comes from local groundwater. 88 percent is imported | Courtesy of LA DWP

It's no exaggeration to say that without waters from far away places, Los Angeles would not be what it is today. But ecological problems facing these foreign water sources put Los Angeles' future prosperity at risk.

The Colorado River is drying up. We can reasonably expect less water from the Bay Delta due to environmental action to protect endangered wildlife in the nearby estuary. As Jonathan Parfrey, Executive Director of Climate Resolve, pointed out in the last water conference, "Imported water has a high risk for disruption. Local water means a higher confidence in supply."

But in this, thankfully, the city isn't sleeping. Adel Hagekhalil, assistant director of the Bureau of Sanitation in the city of Los Angeles, points out that a new Stormwater Permit rolled out at the end of last year. "The new permit regulations look at stormwater not as a pollutant, but a resource." The permit makes room for water management plans that would treat and re-use water instead of flushing it out into the ocean.

Instead of working in silos, city agencies are trying to open up the lines of communication, starting with the Integrated Resources Program, a 20-year program that sees these agencies sharing future projects, hoping to find avenues to introduce more water benefits and share the costs of building it in. "It took us 18 months to develop, and we have 22 years to implement it, but we're looking to capture 85 percent of rain and re-use it," said Hagekhalil.

Los Angeles has seen some of these multi-benefit projects come to life, thanks to Proposition O. South Los Angeles saw the opening of a wetland repurposed from a bus and rail yard. In Sun Valley, Elmer Avenue transformed from a daunting cement-packed neighborhood to the "Rolls Royce of L.A.'s Green Street initiative."

"Every dollar spent on water projects results in $20 in benefits," said Hagekhalil. "By doing these green solutions, the money we spend goes further. Our finite funds are used smarter."

Angelenos are using less water than it did 40 years ago | Courtesy of LA DWP
Angelenos are using less water than it did 40 years ago | Courtesy of LA DWP

Angelenos have also done their part. David Pettijohn, Manager of Water Resources, L.A. Department of Water and Power, notes that residents are using less water than they did 40 years ago. Despite an increase of more than a million people since 1970, Angelenos are using almost 10 percent less water, or 123 gallons per person a day.

But Los Angeles will have to keep on doing more.

With the slow pace of ecological change, no doubt the troubles of our imported water sources will continue, but what Los Angeles does have control over is its own backyard. Every project that deals with land should consider adding infrastructure that would capture and re-use water, which won't only be a bonus to our water supply, but often means good news for the neighborhoods that find themselves stewards of a new park that host bioswales, water capture and infiltration sites that also clean the city's polluted runoff and recharge its water supply.

"In the next hundred years, we need to re-plumb Los Angeles and redesign our streets to capture water," said Parfey, "It's akin to rebuilding a new Los Angeles Aqueduct. It would not only take a considerable amount of money, but more importantly, an esprit de corps."


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