From the time it was founded as a small settlement in the late 18th century, Los Angeles depended on its own river for water, building a system of reservoirs and open ditches as well as canals to irrigate nearby fields. As the city grew, however, it became clear that this supply of water would be insufficient if Los Angeles were to become a major American metropolis, as city boosters wanted. In the early 20th century, efforts to channel water from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada to the city and the surrounding region culminated in the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913.
Drought hit the Los Angeles region in the first years of the 20th century, highlighting an urgent need to find a better, more consistent water supply if city leaders were to transform the city into a major West Coast metropolis. Through the end of the 19th century, a private corporation called the Los Angeles City Water Company had maintained control over and responsibility for the city’s water supply system. In 1902, the municipal government bought the franchise, retaining the City Water Company’s superintendent, William Mulholland, as head of the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Mulholland, a self-trained engineer born in Ireland, had begun his career as a ditch-cleaner for the water company and risen to become its superintendent at the age of 31.
In 1904, the Board of Water Commissioners authorized Mulholland and several other engineers to find possible new water sources that would meet the city’s needs. With the help of his former boss Fred Eaton (who had also served as mayor of Los Angeles), Mulholland identified a potential solution in the Owens Valley region, located on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada some 200 miles away. The engineers estimated that the Owens River, which ran through this region, could provide more than enough water to meet the needs of a growing Los Angeles.
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The Fate of Owens Valley
The farmers, ranchers and other residents living in Owens Valley had plans of their own for the river’s precious contents, and were seeking federal funding from the Bureau of Reclamation for a public irrigation project in the region. By the end of 1905, however, Eaton and Mulholland were able–using Eaton’s extensive political contacts, as well as dubious tactics such as bribery and deception–to acquire enough land and water rights in Owens Valley to block the irrigation project.
Mulholland and Eaton planned to route the aqueduct from the Owens River straight into the San Fernando Valley, an arid region of land nearby the city. A syndicate of Los Angeles businessmen (including Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of The Los Angeles Times, and railroad magnates Moses Sherman, E.H. Harriman and Henry Huntington) had been buying up acres of land in the San Fernando Valley, and stood to gain tremendously once the aqueduct provided water for the arid region. With the backing of such powerful players, the $1.5 million bond issue necessary to begin the aqueduct’s construction passed overwhelmingly in 1905. Further ensuring the draining of Owens Valley, the aqueduct project had also earned the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, who considered it an ideal example of his Progressive agenda for the nation.
Construction of the Aqueduct
In 1907, Los Angeles voters approved another bond issue for the aqueduct, this time for $23 million, and construction began the following year. Some 4,000 laborers worked at top speed, using new technologies such as the Caterpillar tractor and setting records for miles tunneled and pipe cut. The aqueduct channeled the water from the Owens River through canals, pipes and tunnels until it emerged onto a spillway in the San Fernando Valley.
At a dedication ceremony on November 5, 1913, Mulholland addressed a crowd of people who had come to watch water emerge from the aqueduct, famously declaring: “There it is; take it!” At the time of completion, it was the world’s longest aqueduct, at 233 miles (375 kilometers), and the largest single water project in the world. Mulholland earned widespread acclaim for the aqueduct’s design, which allowed water to move through the system by gravity alone. The population of Los Angeles was by then around 300,000; the aqueduct supplied it with enough water for millions, and enabled the explosive growth that would characterize the region in the decades to come.
In the 1920s, Owens Valley residents grew angry and frustrated after seeing their farms drained of water, nearly every drop of which was pumped into the steadily growing San Fernando Valley. In 1924 and again in 1927, protesters blew up parts of the aqueduct, marking a particularly explosive chapter in the so-called “water wars” that had divided southern California.
Tragedy struck in 1928, when the St. Francis Dam in northern Los Angeles County burst, inundating the towns of Castaic Junction, Fillmore, Bardsdale and Piru with billions of gallons of water and drowning hundreds of residents. An investigation concluded that the rock in the area had been too unstable to support the dam. Though Mulholland was cleared of charges in connection with the incident, his reputation was ruined, and he was forced to resign. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was extended further north by the early 1940s through the Mono Basin Project, finally reaching a total length of 338 miles (544 kilometers).