“Cattle were starving on the ranches in Antelope Valley. Lake Elizabeth had dried into a mudflat, and by July the city was consuming more water than was flowing into the storage reservoirs,” writes Les Standiford in “Water to the Angels.” This was 1904, several years into a severe drought, when William Mulholland set out to survey the Owens Valley for new water.
It’s a disturbingly apt moment for a new book about the chief engineer of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply (later the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power), and his mission to bring water to a city with dwindling resources. William Mulholland’s legacy looms large: From Mulholland Drive to the metal plates in the ground that say “LA Water,” his traces are literally embedded in the city. And, of course, without him, Los Angeles would be without one of its most ominous cultural myths, “Chinatown.”
Standiford’s book starts, full of portent, on March 12, 1928, just before midnight with a man on a motorcycle making his way high above the Santa Clarita Valley. After curving past the St. Francis Dam, he pulls off the road to light a cigarette in the “clear mountain night.” What came next was “the greatest civil engineering calamity of the twentieth century,” the collapse of the dam, which sent “a wall of water catapulting down the ordinarily dry bed of the Santa Clara River, scouring a path a mile and a half wide all the way to the Pacific Ocean, fifty-four miles away.” Between 400 and 600 people were killed.
It was the 19th dam Mulholland had built, and its failure was a crushing end to his lauded career. The author vividly captures the destruction and offers a glimpse of Mulholland, both steadfast and devastated, who never flinched from taking the blame for the disaster.
Unfortunately, in the chapters that follow Standiford doesn’t sustain the suspense or atmosphere that marks the book’s early pages. The author swiftly chronicles Mulholland’s path from Ireland (born in Belfast in 1855) to his arrival in Los Angeles in 1877, then a town of 9,000, where he took a job as a ditch tender for the then-privately run Los Angeles City Water Co., rising quickly to pipe layer and eventually to superintendent of the company in 1886. When the city took ownership of the company, Mulholland came too.
From the beginning of his tenure Mulholland sounded warnings about the need for alternate sources of water, and by the early 1900s he was convinced that Owens Valley held the solution. And so comes the legendary battle between an ever-growing, ever-thirsty Los Angeles and the rural Owens Valley, shady land speculation deals, the construction of the aqueduct that lasted from 1907 to 1913, and Mulholland’s famous invocation — “There it is. Take it.” — when the water was finally released. The following years were marked by deadly “water wars,” including several bombings, and extended litigation over reparations to the residents of the Owens Valley.
Standiford’s strategy for conveying the scale and complexity of the aqueduct’s construction, it seems, is to pile on details of competing bids, annual reports, bonus systems, revised deadlines and precinct vote tallies. Rather than explore the drama of personality flaws or clashes, the author relies on logistical quandaries for suspense: “How to transport a section of steel pipe thirty-seven feet long and one and one-eighth inches thick weighing 52,000 pounds, up several miles of dirt road?” As a result, the book comes closer to a project-management assessment than a historical narrative or a portrait of a man and his motivations.
Standiford’s admiration for his subject is evident: Mulholland was “practical-minded.” He disdained petty politics. The author refers frequently to Catherine Mulholland’s biography of her grandfather, “William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles,” and readers looking for a more fully dimensional portrait of the man will find it in that earlier book.
Given California’s withering drought today, an examination of Mulholland could offer material for our current conversation as the choices he made continue to reverberate, but “Water to the Angels” doesn’t do that. At the outset, Standiford says he doesn’t intend to examine the divisive water politics that have marked Los Angeles’ history, and he doesn’t. Nor does he engage any discussion of sustainability.
Toward the end of the book, the author briefly entertains a scenario in which the Owens Valley waters had not been diverted to Los Angeles but instead used to irrigate the surrounding land. He imagines there would now be alfalfa crops, vegetable farming, and three to four times as many residents in the valley and is quick to add "[b]ut it is just as easy to argue that had William Mulholland not fought for and built the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Southern California as we now know it would not exist.”
Indeed. And how much longer can the Southern California we now know exist? This is not a question Standiford asks, but it certainly haunted Mulholland in his lifetime and hangs over ours.
Brown is the author of the forthcoming biography “Twilight Man: The Strange Life and Times of Harrison Post.”
Water to the Angels
William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles
Ecco: 336 pp., $28.99