Could not authenticate you.followers
With five simple words, Los Angeles Aqueduct chief engineer William Mulholland kicked off a boom time that completely and irreversibly reshaped the city of Los Angeles’ history: “There it is — take it.”
The centennial celebration of those famous words and the aqueduct they referenced is underway, as city officials prepare to honor the infrastructure that led L.A. to become the second-largest city in the United States.
“It was a huge deal for the city,” said Fred Barker, an “unofficial” historian for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP). “That’s when the city really had the resources to keep growing and fulfill its destiny, I guess you could say.”
According to the department, the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed on Nov. 5, 1913. Until that time, the city’s water had come solely from the Los Angeles River, but it soon became clear that the river’s supply would no longer keep up with the demands of an increasing population.
Mulholland, then the superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Company, began seeking a new supply, and it became evident that L.A. would not be able to look within itself for the answer.
In 1904, former Mayor Fred Eaton and a friend, Joseph Barlow Lippincott, were among a group that visited the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and Owens Valley. There, they discussed the area’s potential as a Los Angeles water source.
After returning to Los Angeles, Eaton convinced Mulholland to visit the valley with him, as Eaton was confident the Owens River was the answer to the city’s water issues.
Eaton began purchasing land and water rights in March 1905. Eventually, Owens Valley residents learned of Eaton’s intentions and wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt to protest. Despite the protest and the fact that the U.S. Reclamation Service was planning a project in the Owens Valley, the city proceeded.
Mulholland was appointed chief engineer of the aqueduct and the city continued to move forward with the project. However, members of Congress were battling over whether the aqueduct should be built. Roosevelt eventually ended the debate by saying, “…yet, it is a hundred or a thousand fold more important to the state and more valuable to the people as a whole if used by the city than if used by the people of the Owens Valley.” In 1907, voters approved a $23 million bond issue for the construction.
When word spread that construction was to begin, immigrants — Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Swiss and Mexicans — were drawn to the Owens Valley looking for work. The conditions were difficult, and several men died from accidents during the construction.
In all, the work included 215 miles of road, 230 miles of pipe line, 218 miles of power transmission line and 377 miles of telegraph and telephone line. In a festival-like atmosphere, the aqueduct was dedicated on Nov. 5, 1913.
However, the city had miscalculated Los Angeles’ population growth, and within 10 years, officials were looking for water again. So, the city began pumping ground water, much to the dismay of farmers in the Independence area. On May 21, 1924, tensions finally erupted into violence, as 40 men dynamited a spillway gate.
Eventually, the Colorado River was seen as a new source of water, and in 1941, the Colorado River Aqueduct, which included the Hoover Dam, was constructed. Additional efforts to increase the supply of power and water, such as the Mono Basin Project, followed.
The Second Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in 1970 at a cost of $89 million. It began at the Haiwee Reservoir and added another 50 percent capacity to the city’s water system. Naturally, residents in the Owens Valley resented the second aqueduct as well.
In fact, some residents in the valley have animosity for the city of Los Angeles to this day. However, some praise the city for preserving the valley, said Daniel Pritchett, a member of the Owens Valley Committee, a nonprofit that aims to protect the valley’s natural resources.
He said the completion of the Second Los Angeles Aqueduct prompted a 19-year legal battle that culminated in the Inyo-L.A. Long Term Water Agreement. The second aqueduct — and an increase in groundwater pumping — had dried up major springs and wetlands on the valley floor, Pritchett said.
However, the agreement, which was supposed to mitigate impacts and avoid the creation of new impacts, is failing, he said.
“It’s failing on both accounts in my view and the view of the Owens Valley Committee,” Pritchett said.
He said the agreement stated that long-term average pumping should not exceed 70,000 acre-feet if shallow ground water will be maintained (one acre-foot is equivalent to about 325,000 gallons). Los Angeles is pumping 90,000 acre-feet per year, Pritchett said.
“It’s a huge issue,” he added.
Additionally, Pritchett said the agreement was to ensure that ranchers receive a specific amount of water, and the city is making them sign leases that guarantee less than the amount required in the agreement.
Lastly, he believes the agreement is structurally flawed, as there are only two parties to the agreement. If both parties can’t agree, the matter could be taken to court, except that both entities must agree to the wording of the complaint, Pritchett said. Stalemates have ensued.
Pritchett referenced the DWP proposal to build the Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch. He denounced the proposal, saying that is will industrialize the landscape, which is among the most “spectacular” in the country.
“Yeah, I’d say there are some serious issues here,” Pritchett added. He said the comment deadline for the project ends Nov. 4.
Pritchett said the only answer to Los Angeles’ water and power woes is conservation.
“In my view, they’re celebrating something they should feel guilty about,” he said. “They should work to reduce their use of imported resources.”
Barker, the DWP historian, said Los Angeles did take advantage of the Owens Valley at the time, but things have since been smoothed over. He said the city and its utility have treated the environment and people there better for decades now — although not always willingly.
“It’s not a particularly proud history in terms of how Owens Valley was treated in those days,” Los Angeles County Supervisor and former city councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said. “But from an engineering point of view, it’s one of the biggest engineering feats of all-time.”
He said the city has done a lot in the last five to 10 years to promote water conservation, which is evidenced by the fact that Los Angeles’ water consumption is at levels seen in the early 1990s, despite a population increase.
However, Yaroslavsky said the city did have a large impact on “one of the most beautiful places in the world.” He referenced the loss of Owens Lake, which dried up, and the air pollution created when windstorms whip up the dry landscape.
“It will be a long, long time before the valley is restored to anything close to what is was in the 19th Century,” Yaroslavsky said, adding that the city can slowly but surely restore water and vegetation. “That’s probably not going to be restored in our lifetime, if ever, but we can do something.”
And the environmental consequences weren’t all for naught. They did help Los Angeles grow to become the metropolis that it is.
“It’s important that we look at these milestones because they brought us to a modern city,” Councilman Tom LaBonge, 4th District, said, advising residents to practice water conservation. “Without water, we’re nothing. With water, we’re the second largest city in the United States.”
The city and DWP have a series of special events lined up to celebrate the aqueduct. For information, visit www.laaqueduct100.com.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.
Leave a Reply