Last week, we outlined the many parts of the Los Angeles water system. From reservoirs to groundwater wells to aqueducts, many complex parts work together to keep the Southern California region from going thirsty. In this post, we’ll highlight what is likely the most famous part of L.A.’s water infrastructure. We’re talking, of course, about the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

(above) A vintage map illustrates the route of the L.A. Aqueduct
(above) A vintage map illustrates the route of the L.A. Aqueduct

For generations, the settlers of early Los Angeles had used the Rio Porciuncula (known today as the L.A. River) to provide for their personal and industrial needs. With the arrival of more and more new residents, the city grew at an exponential rate throughout the 19th century. The city’s water infrastructure struggled to keep pace with this growth, and sensing a need to secure L.A.’s water supply, the city bought the local private utility in 1902. Along with the utility, the deal meant that L.A. now had at its disposal a young man by the name of William Mulholland (he of Mulholland Drive fame). Even back then, the city’s location in a mostly desert area meant that conservation was a big issue. Mulholland first instituted water metering in L.A., which slowed water use, but this hardly addressed the main problem: the city would not stop growing. The summer of 1904 was the breaking point for Mulholland, as two years of drought caused city demand to finally outpace supply for ten whole days. The city went dry. Something major had to be done to bring more water to the city.

Mulholland was convinced by friend and former L.A. Mayor Fred Eaton to look north to the Owens River, which flowed south in the general direction of Los Angeles. Mulholland agreed and Eaton began to buy up land options and water rights from locals, often while avoiding to explain what his true aims were: to divert the water from Owens Valley farmers to the city of Los Angeles. The controversy over this grew in intensity, until it finally reached President Theodore Roosevelt. in a letter written in June 1906, the President sided with Los Angeles. With local taxpayers voting the next year for the needed bonds for construction, the City would have it’s aqueduct. All they had to do now was build it.

Autumn 1908. Work begins on the Aqueduct. Men from almost every imaginable country came to work on the aqueduct, reflecting L.A.’s current reputation as one of the most diverse large cities on Earth. Public works projects in the early 20th century were about as dangerous as a job could get. Work was done over an incredible length and over hills and valleys in rough land. Only coal miners perhaps had it worse in those days. But the workers were provided with room and board, and even had medical care on-site. Even so, an average of ten men died per year during the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. However, their work rate set records for the time. with two teams working at each end, crews could dig up to 22 feet of tunnel per day. The challenge in front of Mulholland and his workers was immense. But they project to bring water to Los Angeles finally saw daylight in 1913, just over five years after work began. On November 5th, 1913, Mulholland addressed a throng of residents and visitors who cam just to see the faucet turn on one of the most impressive public works projects in California history. As the first gush of water bubbled down the “Cascades” (still an impressive sight just off Interstate 5 on the way to Valencia), Mulholland turned to then Mayor, J.J. Rose, and said, “There it is, Mister Mayor. Take it.”

The Los Angeles Aqueduct has continued to be a key part of the city’s water supply. Over the years, it’s been augmented by other projects, including additional aqueducts, but it remains a singular achievement of the era before computers, when engineers had only their minds and their drafting tables to rely on for the creation of monuments to the human ability to master the Earth itself. But another legacy exists as well. The Owens River Valley, once compared to a Switzerland in its heyday of agricultural production, has become a nearly bone dry, dust-plagued region. With the diversion of Owens River water to the metropolis to the south, its greener days have been behind it for more than a century. Added to this is the secretive way water and land rights were bought up without the true reasons being made clear (a process famously portrayed in the 1974 film “Chinatown”). But the history of major cities is filled with countless moments like these. The truth is many in Los Angeles like to think of the city as a utopia of perfect weather and celebrity, but one doesn’t have to look very far back in its history to contradict that belief.