Op-Ed

William Mulholland: L.A.'s original champion of water conservation

Forget 'Chinatown,' Jake — Mulholland was more a conservationist than a water thief

When Gov. Jerry Brown announced mandatory water restrictions for California, he took a moment to underscore the meaning of the edict. “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past,” the governor said, suggesting a new era had begun.

News reports said the mandatory rationing was a first for the state. However, Brown was not the first public official to remind Californians — and especially Southern Californians — of the impossibility of a limitless number of residents maintaining a lush lifestyle in an arid region.

More than a century ago, William Mulholland tried to persuade a burgeoning L.A. populace to come to its water senses. Mulholland, superintendent of the Department of Water and Power's predecessor agency, is often portrayed as an imperious water thief, but the record shows him to be the city's original conservation advocate and a champion of sustainability, whose deeds and practices merit a closer look in these troubled times.

In 1893, a decade-long drought began in Los Angeles; from that July to the next only 6.73 inches of rain fell, 8.25 inches below the average of about 15 inches. Residents began complaining about fishy-tasting water caused by algae blooms in city reservoirs, about pressure-less faucets in multistory buildings and about fire hydrants dribbling while homes went up in flames.

Mulholland issued bans on lawn watering (inspectors issued 150 violations at the end of the rainy season in 1904), cut off the flow to city fountains and ponds (pines in Elysian Park reportedly turned brown), redoubled efforts to install newfangled devices called water meters (his research showed that meters, which had been in existence less than 20 years, cut usage by half on average) and threatened to sue outraged farmers and ranchers who were pumping unlimited amounts of water from the Los Angeles River aquifer in the San Fernando Valley .

His efforts reduced per capita consumption — 267 gallons a day at the time — by a third, and eventually to 140 gallons a day. (Brown is hoping for a mere 25% reduction.) But “the Chief,” as Mulholland was known, faced a problem that no amount of rationing and metering could combat: the incessant flow of settlers to the Los Angeles Basin.

In 1900, the population was 100,000; by 1904, that figure had doubled, rendering conservation efforts virtually moot. Mulholland told the city water commissioners, perhaps only half in jest, that the only answer was to have the president of the chamber of commerce shot.

When the commissioners demurred, Mulholland fashioned an unprecedented solution that is debated to this day: He wrested the Owens River from the east side of the Sierra and built a complicated, gravity-powered aqueduct to carry those waters 233 miles to Los Angeles.

From the beginning, there were protests, chiefly from Owens Valley residents who wanted the newly created Bureau of Reclamation to use the valley's water for a local irrigation project. Ultimately, President Theodore Roosevelt decided the matter, saying of the disputed river, “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 Owens Valley.”

Later books on Western water policy, including Marc Reisner's influential “Cadillac Desert,” published in 1986, have accused Mulholland of manufacturing the decade of drought, somehow hiding vast supplies of water from a thirsty region in order to drum up support for his aqueduct. In support of this theory, Reisner wrote that during the eight years it took to build the aqueduct (it actually took six years, from 1907 to 1913) “the population of the city rose from 200,000 to 500,000 people, yet no water crisis occurred.”

Reisner was right about the lack of a water crisis, but he is being misleading. Rain began to fall again in relatively bountiful amounts by 1904-05, and the situation was also helped by Mulholland's other major innovation, the installation of several huge pumping stations that drew millions of gallons daily from the Los Angeles River aquifer (the “upside-down river,” in Mulholland's parlance) near the Glendale Narrows. Water had been “hidden” all right, but by nature, not by the Chief.

What lessons might we learn from Mulholland's century-old tussle with drought? The most obvious is that dry spells end — but that take-away doesn't fit very well with the new normal of climate change. The better lesson is also obvious: Conservation has its limits.

As U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–Bakersfield) said in response to Brown's announcement, “I'm from the Central Valley and we know that we cannot ration our way out of this drought.” McCarthy instead wants to build his way out of it, lobbying for two vast new water storage facilities. Although that might sound like a Mulholland approach, I suspect that, were the Chief around to ask, he would begin by repeating, “Growth has its limits here.”

Politicians and titans of business paid little attention to Mulholland's warnings 100 years ago, and capping growth is political anathema today. But unless the heavens open soon, or a previously unknown upside-down river is miraculously discovered, or desalinization becomes somehow feasible overnight, the question pondered by Californians in 1904 — “Which places will get the water in order to grow?” — may seem quaint. Instead, we may be asking, “Which places will survive, and which will die?”

Les Standiford's latest book is "Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles." He will participate on the "Shaping California" panel at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival on April 19.

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