It was 74 years ago that William Mulholland, the big, rawboned Irish immigrant who designed and built the Los Angeles Aqueduct, watched the first wave cascading down to the system’s receiving reservoir near Sylmar and drawled a five-word dedication speech that said it all:
“There it is. Take it.”
Water. The most precious commodity in the parched Southland. Almost 3,800 gallons a second. Enough to permit the expansion of Los Angeles from a dusty, provincial railhead of 102,000 people to a major urban center of more than 2 million.
The aqueduct that brings the water south from the distant Owens Valley along a 233-mile system of ditches, tunnels, pipelines, power plants and reservoirs has been hailed as one of the engineering marvels of the early 20th Century, ranking with the Panama Canal.
Unlike many modern aqueducts, the entire system runs on gravity, without the need of a single pump to move the water. Mountain ranges were traversed with 51.78 miles of tunnels. Canyons as deep as 800 feet were crossed with immense pipelines, misnamed “siphons,” that snake up one side and down the other. Vertical drops were engineered in to permit construction of the hydroelectric plants that generate power.
“Mulholland really knew what he was doing,” said Duane Buchholz, an engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the agency that oversees the system. “I was amazed that he could have built something back then that was so substantial, that lasted so well.”
But 74 years is a long time.
And despite the fact that it continues to function well as the principal source of water for Los Angeles, the aqueduct is beginning to show its age.
Cracks are developing in some of the tunnels and ditches. Pinhole leaks are appearing in some of the massive steel pipes.
So the DWP is taking advantage of the fall lull--when runoff from the Sierra Nevada is at a seasonal low in a year when the snowpack was minimal--to drain the old aqueduct and make a few repairs.
There will be no shortage of water. Reservoirs here are nearly full, and water from a parallel aqueduct completed in 1970 will pick up most of the slack. In addition, the city can draw on the Colorado River Aqueduct, the California Aqueduct and the underground aquifers of the San Fernando Valley.
The shutdown--which began in late September and will last until Nov. 15--is the longest in 20 years, and DWP crews have moved quickly to complete as many repairs as possible.
The first part of the job has involved inspection, with teams walking, crawling and in some cases sloshing through, above and along the entire length of the old aqueduct.
The system, which drains runoff from lakes and streams along the eastern slope of the High Sierra into the upper reaches of the Owens Valley, begins with a small intake dam about 30 miles south of the town of Bishop, in Inyo County.
The dam diverts water from the Owens River into a series of open ditches--some earthen, some concrete-lined, about 15 feet wide and 10 feet deep--that run about 60 miles south along the eastern flank of the Sierra.
The ditches are followed by a 173-mile combination of tunnels, pipes and covered culverts--oval to circular in shape and averaging about 10 feet across--that continue south to Mojave and loop west around the Antelope Valley before burrowing under the San Gabriel Mountains and into the San Fernando Valley.
During the trip, which is interrupted at various spots by the reservoirs and power plants, the water drops about 2,500 feet, from an altitude of slightly less than 4,000 feet at the intake dam to slightly less than 1,500 at the Los Angeles Reservoir in Sylmar.
One of the inspection teams involved in the current repair program entered a tunnel several days ago between No Name Siphon and Sand Canyon Siphon, where the aqueduct crosses the Inyo County-Kern County Line.
Climbing down a ladder in an access tunnel, the team members slogged downstream through a dank, echoing world of total darkness, their way illuminated dimly by flashlights. An electronic monitoring device was used to make sure air in the recently drained tunnel was pure and plentiful.
Team member Ed White is an Englishman and an expert in tunnels and water systems, brought in by the DWP as a special consultant.
“The hole in the ground is the most important asset you’ve got, so you’ve got to take care of that hole,” White explained as he chipped away at the cracked and sometimes crumbling tunnel walls he and DWP engineer George Martin found and catalogued for subsequent patching as they worked their way slowly down the tunnel.
That wasn’t all they discovered.
The newly opened access tunnels draw wildlife, attracted by the unusual moisture in the dry desert air.
“So far, we’ve found two rabbits, two kangaroo rats and a snake,” Martin said.
Installing New Hatch
About 40 miles downstream, at Jawbone Canyon, where a massive siphon traverses the deepest canyon on the route, a welding team made up of John Pearce, Rocky Guerrero and Steven Minette was patching pinholes and installing a new access hatch.
Work days were long--11 hours--and temperatures at the canyon in the western Mojave Desert rose to 110 degrees during the day, but the three DWP employees didn’t seem to mind.
They are the same hardy breed as the construction workers who dug, hacked, blasted and bolted the system together between 1908 and 1913.
One of the greatest feats was construction of Jawbone Siphon.
Because of the immense pressures at the bottom of the siphon generated by the 800-foot drop, the men who built it had to use pipe more than an inch thick that was fabricated on the East Coast in 36-foot-long sections weighing more than 25 tons each.
The sections, transported around Cape Horn by ship and carried to the nearby Cinco depot by rail, had to be hauled the last four miles on immense wagons dragged by teams of 52 mules before being riveted and bolted into place.
When major pipe repairs at a place like Jawbone Canyon are made today, it’s a much easier task. Smaller plates weighing a few tons apiece are brought in by truck and then welded together at the site to reform the 25-ton sections.
Forty miles downstream from Jawbone, DWP workers have been concentrating during the last few weeks on the main job of the current repair project--relining about a mile of tunnel in the Sand Hills area of the Antelope Valley.
‘At Least It’s Cool’
It’s a noisy, claustrophobic job, but there’s one thing better about it than the work in Jawbone Canyon. “At least it’s cool in here,” DWP repairman Bob Chaney said.
The concrete used in the original lining of the tunnels was not always of top quality, and in the Sand Hills and other areas, cracks have developed through which water seeps out into the surrounding ground. This seepage, in turn, has undermined the lining in some areas, causing it to crumble away from the rock of the tunnel walls.
Chaney and his cohorts have been fastening a wire mesh to the old lining, fixing the mesh in place with bolts fired from a .25-caliber rifle. Other men spray Gunite--concrete blasted on with compressed air--over the mesh to a thickness of about two inches, while still others trowel the surface smooth.
Withstand the ‘Big One’
Another 30 miles or so downstream, the aqueduct crosses the San Andreas Fault through the 5-mile-long Elizabeth Tunnel, longest on the aqueduct. While earthquakes have caused minor damage to the system from time to time, none has forced major reconstruction, and DWP engineers are confident the old aqueduct will withstand the anticipated “Big One” as well as most modern structures.
About five miles below the tunnel, at San Francisquito Power Plant No. 1, supervising engineer Martin Beck is taking advantage of the shutdown to make minor repairs and adjustments to his equipment.
One of the plant’s original generators, installed in about 1913, is still in use. At the time of construction, its 30-ton impulse wheels--steel paddle wheels spun by jets of water fired from the penstocks--were the largest ever built.
Completed in 1913
The aqueduct was completed in 1913, marking the completion of another chapter in the continuing story of Los Angeles’ search for water.
Much of that story can be found in old newspaper clippings and in books such as “The Water Seekers” by Remi Nadeau, “Water And Power” by William H. Kahrl and “Complete Report on Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct” by Allen Kelly and the Los Angeles Department of Public Service.
The first settlers who arrived here in 1781 put down their roots along the Los Angeles River precisely because of the water that was available there. The principal source was the river’s “narrows,” a spot below the bluffs where the Pasadena Freeway now crosses the concrete channel near Elysian Park.
During the early years, residents relied primarily on open ditches, privately dug and maintained, that brought the water, which ran year-round at the narrows, to the main settlement near the Old Plaza. The water was delivered to individual homes in jugs carried on horse-drawn carts.
Pipes Washed Out
In 1857, a man named William G. Dryden built the city’s first municipal system, using a 40-foot water wheel to lift water from the main ditch to a big storage tank in the plaza. Water ran directly to a number of homes through wooden pipes laid under the streets. One problem was that the pipes leaked, turning the dirt streets into bogs. Another was that heavy rains, like those in December, 1861, sometimes washed the pipes out.
Later, other men, among them former Mayor Damien Marchessault, tried improvements, including iron pipes, but flooding in the winter of 1867-68 destroyed the system and humiliated Marchessault so thoroughly that he committed suicide in the City Council chambers.
Ten years later, with water delivery back in private hands, Mulholland--a former seaman, lumber man and well-digger--arrived in town, looking for work. The private Los Angeles City Water Co. hired him as zanjero, or ditch tender, cleaning weeds and debris out of the main ditch, or zanja madre .
Lived Beside Ditch
Mulholland lived beside the ditch in a one-room shack that stood where the memorial fountain to him now stands at Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive. Studying geometry and engineering at night, Mulholland rose to foreman and, in 1886, superintendent.
Three years later, courts awarded the city the right to all water in the Los Angeles Basin, and numerous wells were sunk to supply a burgeoning population. But rainfall grew sparse around the turn of the century, and by 1903, with the city continuing to grow, water consumption began to exceed the supply.
City Engineer Fred Eaton, realizing that outside sources would be needed if the city was to expand further, scouted the Owens River and recognized that it could provide enough water for a metropolis of 2 million people. Mulholland made a quick survey and concluded that an aqueduct could be built for $23 million.
Quietly Buying Up Land
While some city officials began quietly buying up land and water rights from unsuspecting ranchers in the Owens Valley, others successfully lobbied Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt to abandon plans for a federal reclamation and irrigation project there.
The president of the Inyo County Bank, Wilford Watterson, suspected what was happening. When he saw Los Angeles City Clerk Harry J. Lelande on the street in Bishop, Watterson pulled a pistol and demanded that Lelande hand over the deed to an important piece of Owens Valley property. But Watterson was too late; Lelande had already mailed the deed to the county courthouse.
A few days later, on July 29, 1905, The Times broke the story of Los Angeles’ plans to grab Owens Valley’s water in what was to become a continuing campaign by the newspaper for construction of the aqueduct.
Stood to Make Fortune
The Los Angeles Examiner, scooped by The Times, revealed a few days later that early in 1905, a group that included Times’ Publisher Gen. Harrison Gray Otis had bought the 16,200-acre Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley and stood to make a fortune if the aqueduct were built. The Times pointed out that the first options on the property were purchased in 1903, before the aqueduct was envisioned. The Examiner reported that the “real money” was laid down in the spring of 1905, when the plans were taking shape.
Despite the outrage of Owens Valley farmers and the furor over Gen. Otis’ potential profits, Los Angeles voters turned out on June 12, 1907, to approve construction bonds by a margin of 10 to 1. Federal approval for the municipal project was won in Congress two weeks later.
Construction began the next September in the San Gabriel Mountains at the south portal of the Elizabeth Tunnel. In the months that followed, work camps sprang up along the entire route, requiring the construction of more than 2,300 buildings and tent houses for a labor force that peaked at about 3,900 men.
Life in the work camps was hard and, with no refrigeration, camp food was so vile that the laborers occasionally rioted. The only break was an occasional visit to the desert towns along the route--places like Mojave, where the bordellos, bars and gambling joints flourished.
Life on the job was even harder, with the tunnelers putting in grueling, eight-hour shifts at the rock face while the men on the “outside” sweltered 10 hours a day in the desert sun. Derbies served as the hard hats of the era, but not always to great effect; 43 men died on the job.
One tunneler cut off by a cave-in for three days was fed hard-boiled eggs rolled to him through a two-inch pipe.
Mulholland was everywhere--overseeing work, updating designs, encouraging his men and relaying the design and construction specifications that in many cases were kept solely in his head. The aqueduct was truly a project of his making and, for the most part, progress was smooth and rapid.
The project was completed on schedule and within Mulholland’s original $23-million estimate. On Feb. 13, 1913, the intake gates were opened on the Owens River and nine months later, on Nov. 5, 1913, Mulholland delivered his succinct dedication as the water gushed down the cascade at Sylmar and into the waiting Los Angeles Reservoir.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
In the decade that followed, Owens Valley residents got madder and madder as Los Angeles bought up, piecemeal, more and more of their land and water rights. The rage further intensified on May 10, 1924, when Los Angeles filed a suit accusing some of the valley’s farmers of “wrongfully diverting” water into their irrigation ditches.
Ten days later, the farmers answered the suit with dynamite, blowing up a spillway gate near Lone Pine.
Took Over Gates
Six months later, in their most publicized move, between 60 and 100 Owens Valley men took over the aqueduct’s Alabama Gates, a diversion channel valve head about 10 miles south of Independence. They opened the floodgates, emptying the water into the dry bed of Owens Lake, and stood guard four four days before departing, feeling that their point was made.
Efforts by Los Angeles to ease the situation by offering to buy all remaining tributary land in the Owens River area at fair market price did little to dispel the anger, and over the next three years at least seven more blasts damaged the northern end of the aqueduct.
Then came an unexpected development.
Unknown to anyone else in the valley, Wilfred Watterson and his brother, Mark--leaders in the “water war” against Los Angeles--had been diverting bank funds to shore up their crumbling enterprises. Their thefts revealed during a routine audit, the two were charged on Aug. 13, 1927, with embezzling $450,000.
‘Victims of These Men’
“It is their neighbors, men and women whose confidence they won . . . who are the victims of these men,” the weeping prosecutor, Inyo County Dist. Atty. Jess Hession, told an equally damp-eyed judge and jury. Six hours later, the brothers stood convicted, later to be sentenced to 10 years each in state prison.
Their leadership in shambles, the Owens Valley warriors saw their cause languish for almost 50 years, during which time the DWP eventually completed a second “barrel” for the aqueduct that increased its capacity by about 60%.
Then, in 1976, the DWP announced plans to increase pumping from the valley’s subterranean water table, saying the water would go largely to the agency’s agricultural lessees there. The Inyo County Grand Jury answered with a report concluding that such pumping would destroy the valley’s natural vegetation and kill its wildlife. The DWP, in turn, disputed the report’s conclusions.
Tensions increased, and on Sept. 15, 1976, there was another dynamite blast at the Alabama Gates. The next day, someone strapped a stick of dynamite to an arrow and launched it into Mulholland’s fountain in the Los Feliz District. It did not explode.
Court decisions since then require the DWP to work out an agreeable environmental impact study with Inyo County that is acceptable to an appeals court in Sacramento. A committee of representatives from the City of Los Angeles and Inyo County has been set up to work things out.
There are still a few hitches, though.
Last year, after the committee agreed there was enough underground water in Owens Valley to divert some of it back into the Owens River, Inyo County Supervisor Johnny Johnson and Jack Leeney, president of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners, agreed to open the valve together as sort of a gesture of peace.
When it came time to turn the handle, Johnson pulled one way and Leeney pulled the other.