Quenching L.A.'s thirst

The Los Angeles Aqueduct
The Los Angeles Aqueduct flows in its unlined channel on the east side of the Sierra Nevada range.
(BrLos Angeles Times)

Owensmouth Avenue runs just to the east of Canoga Park High School, over the spot where Bell Creek and Arroyo Calabasas join to form the Los Angeles River. The whole area was once called Owensmouth, named by Los Angeles Times Publisher Harrison Gray Otis and others who had bought up San Fernando Valley land with the knowledge that its value would increase when it became, in essence, the new mouth of the Owens River, a sparkling torrent of Eastern Sierra snowmelt that gathered and dried up in a shallow desert lake but would soon flow to farms and homes in the growing city hundreds of miles to the southwest.

The Owens reached its new end point 100 years ago today, on Nov. 5, 1913, with the dedication of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Modern Los Angeles was born on that day. The city has never been the same. Our thirst has never been quenched.

Previously, the city took its water from the Los Angeles River, either directly from the spot where it flows just north of what is now Chinatown, or by pumping groundwater across the river basin.

But getting at that water was costly and cumbersome. Its source was rain that fell on the San Gabriel Mountains, a collection of ranges that are so steep that water rushes downhill and, in times past, blew past the riverbed altogether, sweeping instead across the city and into the sea in floods, washing away homes and farms and turning whole neighborhoods into islands for weeks at a time. It didn’t gather in useful lakes or reservoirs.


The city turned its back on its own river as self-taught engineer William Mulholland and Los Angeles Mayor Fred Eaton turned instead to the water from the Sierra, and the aqueduct they built to transport it met the city’s needs — temporarily. Then Los Angeles tapped the Colorado River, which no longer even reaches the Gulf of California thanks to diversions by Los Angeles and other western cities. Then the State Water Project redirected water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta down the California Aqueduct and over the Tehachapis. Then Mulholland’s Los Angeles Aqueduct system, already having drained Owens Lake, was extended to divert Sierra water from the streams that feed Mono Lake.

The same scenes were repeated across California. San Francisco and neighboring Bay Area communities submerged Yosemite Valley’s near-twin, the Hetch Hetchy. The mighty San Joaquin River, lifeblood of much of the valley that bears its name, origin of much of the Pacific salmon fishery, is now a dry gulch over a large stretch of its course. Other parts of the river flow exclusively with agricultural runoff, and it is that water, rather than pure snowmelt, that is delivered from the north to the delta.

So the century-old Los Angeles Aqueduct has two stories. One is about ambition, optimism and the construction of a great city; the other is about arrogance and environmental destruction wreaked in the Eastern Sierra and replicated across much of the state.

But there is a third story as well, and it is still being written. Depending on one’s point of view, it may be seen as a story of redemption or comeuppance, but in any case it may well be a story of a sustainable future.


It began with the lawsuit brought against Los Angeles and its Department of Water and Power in 1979 to protect Mono Lake. The result was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling establishing that the “public trust doctrine,” an ancient legal principle, cuts through California’s maze of competing water rights and makes the public interest paramount. It didn’t matter, the court said, that Los Angeles had bought up the Sierra land that holds the creeks and streams that feed Mono Lake; the public had a right to the shared resource that is the lake, and if diverting that water to the city meant killing the lake, we couldn’t do it.

California generally and Los Angeles especially are now beginning a season of water — a period of crucial decision-making that will affect how responsibly (or otherwise) our thirst will be quenched for the next 100 years.

Angelenos will soon hear more about the public trust doctrine, and how it may be applied by an agency called the State Water Resources Control Board to the San Joaquin River; and how that river and its future directly affect faucets in Los Angeles. We will hear a great deal about the delta and water security. And we must debate a statewide bond that could, among other things, help clean up Los Angeles’ groundwater — and bring us back to our roots, with at least some of our water being supplied locally, to replace some of what we currently take from distant rivers. We must come to understand that, as surely as Los Angeles is linked to the Owens River, it is linked as well to the Colorado, the San Joaquin and the Sacramento, and that we have at least as much responsibility for them as we have for our own river.

Throughout history, those who have lived in arid regions have developed a great respect for water. In Los Angeles, until now, Mulholland’s feat allowed us to take water for granted, but that’s a luxury we can no longer afford. The centennial of the aqueduct coincides with numerous intertwined discussions about water and our future and presents an opportunity to think and debate. We should take it.

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