The Water War

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Over most of the 240-mile route he faced a forbidding desert, devoid of the necessities of life, innocent of supply lines, crisscrossed by jagged mountains, and cursed with brutal heat. Fortunately the rugged Irishman thrived on challenge. Since steam power was impractical over this arid route, he built two hydroelectric plants in Owens Valley and strung 169 miles of transmission lines--making his aqueduct the first major engineering project in the United Slates constructed principally by electric power. He solved part of the hauling problem by building another plant near the line of march to supply the million barrels of cement he estimated he would need. And for the heavy transportation the Southern Pacific Railroad took a hand and built a standard-gauge branch line northward into Owens Valley.

Then, over sterile wasteland and through mountain ranges, Mulholland drove his giant ditch. Along the whole line the monumental work was accomplished with new engineering triumphs. Digging his tunnels, particularly the five-mile Elizabeth Tunnel that bored through the Coast Range into southern California, Mulholland’s crew equaled, then repeatedly raised, the world’s hardrock drilling record. To take water across the deep canyons of the Sierra foothills the ditch was converted into monstrous inverted siphons--one of them built to withstand a greater head of water than any other pipe in the nation. Hauling sections of steel pipe to this siphon from the nearest rail point required wagon teams of fifty-two mules each.

By the middle of 1912, in spite of physical obstacles, financial problems, and labor discontent, Mulholland was able to report to the city that “the end of our task seems fairly in sight.” But he was nearly exhausted from tension and overwork. “If it were not for looking ahead to the time of reward …” he once said, “I could not go on with the work, for I am worn out.”

That time came on November 5, 1913, when Mulholland’s big ditch was put into operation with a huge ceremony at the northeast corner of San Fernando Valley. At the point where the aqueduct came through the mountains, an artificial cascade had been built to display the water as it splashed into the valley. To this spot on the appointed day came thousands of Angelenos—by carriage, auto, and train. Around a flag-draped platform they gathered for the preliminary speeches; above on the mountainside a crew of men stood at the gates, ready to crank wheels that would release the first Owens River water. Mulholland himself gave them the signal by unfurling the Stars and Stripes on a flagpole. The assembly cheered, cannons boomed, a brass band played furiously. Down the causeway came a torrent of water—foaming, dancing, churning, spraying its mist over the nearest bystanders. Without waiting for the presentation speeches the entire multitude rushed to the side of the cascade. Left virtually without an audience, the exuberant Mulholland turned to the mayor, who was to receive the water on behalf of the city, and made the five-word speech that has become famous:

“There it is. Take it.”

In this triumphant moment Los Angeles—and all of California—turned to shower adulation on William Mulholland. The aqueduct was recognized across the country as the finest in the United States. As an engineering feat it was second only to the great Panama Canal. The University of California gave Mulholland an honorary doctor’s degree, and he was introduced everywhere as “the Goethals of the West” and as “California’s greatest man.”

Virtually overnight, Los Angeles moved from water famine to water flood. The San Fernando Valley was transformed from a grain-raising community dependent on intermittent rainfall to an empire of truck gardens and orchards—one of the richest agricultural communities in the nation. In 1915 practically the entire valley joined the city. With their sure water supply as a lure, the Los Angeles boosters were able to annex one community after another to create the biggest municipal area in the world.

But for all his engineering genius, Mulholland had omitted one vital feature from his Owens River project—a major reservoir. In his anxiety to get water to the city, he had simply diverted the river to Los Angeles; the only reservoirs were those necessary for the month-to-month operation of the aqueduct. He had, it was true, tapped the river below the valley’s main center of agriculture, so that under ordinary circumstances both farmers and city dwellers would have enough water. But without a reservoir there was no means of storing the precipitation of the wet years; when the dry years came, there was insufficient water to supply both the city and the valley. Upon this predicament the Owens Valley water war was reborn, and it was to become more savage than ever.