February 8, 2012
Southern California’s moderate, semi-arid climate helped Los Angeles to become the thriving city that it is today. As present-day residents, we never have to worry about severe rainstorms, let alone harsh snow falls. We don’t even experience the blistering hot temperatures that desert cities endure. On top of having near-perfect weather almost everyday of the year, we don’t even experience the hardships that come along with droughts! How is this possible? We don’t get enough rain to make our lives uncomfortable, but we also don’t feel the repercussions of being in a constant drought. I guess we have William Mulholland and Fred Eaton to thank for the manufactured Utopia we live in.
Each man arrived in Los Angeles for different reasons: Mulholland for curiosity and Eaton for his strong family ties. Each man later played a major role in tapping into a water source that changed the way of life in Los Angeles forever. The building of the Los Angeles aqueduct diverts water from the Owens River all the way to the city. Eaton, an engineer and superintendent of the Los Angeles City Water Company, determined that such a feat was not only possible but would also make him and his successor, Mulholland, wealthy for a lifetime and notorious for even longer.
A key obstacle in the quest for Owens Valley water would be the resistance from Owens Valley landowners. For this reason, Eaton determined that the best way to obtain the water he desired would be to work closely with a small number of Owens Valley landowners and engineers and deceive the rest. He took several crucial steps towards the construction of the aqueduct. First, he persuaded the Reclamation Service engineer, J.B. Lippincott to help him to receive the deeds he needed for his project. This included cajoling Lippincott into choosing a reclamation project proposed by the Nevada Power Mining and Milling Company. Thomas Rickey, the owner of the reservoir site necessary for the aqueduct, ran this company. Finally, Eaton bought up many plots of Owens Valley land for seemingly overpriced sums. Though deceptive, all of Eaton’s actions were legal, and to the dismay and outrage of Owens Valley residents, the Los Angeles Aqueduct would be built and slowly suck the valley’s water supply dry.
After a brief filibuster in Congress, construction began. The aqueduct was then built over six years on a tight budget. The city could barely afford to pay the workers, but Mulholland, the new superintendent of the Los Angeles City Water Company, was able to win the workers’ dedication. On November 5, 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened, and water cascaded down the sluiceway into the San Fernando Valley.
The building of the aqueduct led to an influx of new Los Angeles residents from all over the country. The city thrived on its borrowed, or stolen, water. Not even a severe 1920s drought could crush the thriving city, thanks to the aqueduct bringing water from 233 miles away. To sustain further growth, Los Angeles would need water storage. Frustrated, Mulholland realized that he would need to dry out, or rather buy out, Owens Valley. Mulholland worked to obtain water rights to the valley from small irrigators: farmers and ranchers. This land grab led to a small series of battles, including the demolition of an irrigational diverter, the destruction of aqueduct pipes, and seizures of aqueduct gates.
Adding to Mulholland’s ruin, his reckless and careless engineering finally caught up to him, and his Saint Francis Dam collapsed. The resulting flood caused an estimated 450 deaths, causing bodies to wash ashore as far away as San Diego. His character was ruined, but his legacy was not. It has lived on in Los Angeles’s continued search for water for almost a century. As Los Angeles has grown in both population and size, it has reached farther and farther for water, even to the Colorado River.
Negative effects from Mulholland’s legacy can still be seen today. The valley has reached an appearance akin to Salt Flats, complete with toxic dust storms, and Owens Lake has dried up. The mineral-laced basin has been the single largest source of particulate pollution in the country. In 2007, restoration efforts succeeded in getting water flowing along the Lower Owens River again. Under the “Inyo/Los Angeles Water Agreement” Inyo and LADWP have committed to restoring the 60-mile reach of the river. To control dust storms, there is a plan to construct a pump system at the north end of Owens Lake, utilizing automated gates at the point where the river veers into the aqueduct to steer some water into the original riverbed. This flow would help sustain the growth of cottonwood trees, waterfowl, and other plants and animals. Although past wrongs can’t be undone, this project may steer Owens Valley back on course. There is already enough water for kayakers to enjoy the Lower Owens River area once again.
This restoration effort has had some setbacks, however. By 2011, tules and cattails had grown much quicker than anticipated—choking off portions of the river and limiting recreational activities. Mark Hill, the lead scientist of the Lower Owens River Project points out that the project has been a success for wildlife. 3,000 acres of water and wetland have been created, and there are an estimated 4,000 largemouth bass per mile, 2,000 bluegill per mile, and 108 species of birds. Although the restored river is not as accessible to recreation as people had hoped, the great ecological strides are at least steps to be proud of.
Inyo County Water Department
LA Times: Tule vegetation infests Lower Owens River http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/25/local/la-me-tules-20110725
Just Add Water The Owens Valley Land Grab
NYT: A Century Later, Los Angeles Atones for Water Sins
This post was written by Adelaide Rowe ’13 and Christopher Miranda ’12, who are each pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Studies.