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Los Angeles Water - Myths, Miracles, Mayhem and William Mulholland

December 05, 2012

An oft repeated myth is that Los Angeles is located in the desert. Not true I’m afraid. Las Vegas is built in a desert, as are eastern California cities such as Lancaster or Barstow, but Los Angeles was and is no desert in the strict sense of the word. With an average annual precipitation of 15 inches the city receives almost four times as much rainfall as Las Vegas. Los Angeles is semi-arid in terms of climate, but early accounts suggest many areas were even more verdant than the annual precipitation would indicate. The early Spanish and subsequent Mexican and American accounts suggest that it was anything like a desert when the region was first encountered by Europeans. This is because there were appreciable areas of the Los Angeles basin where artesian waters, sourced from the surrounding hills and mountains, fed springs or kept groundwater levels high during the dry summer months. This produced green woodlands, shrublands and grasslands described in early European accounts. Those conditions helped the region support native peoples such as the Gabrielino/Tongva, Chumash and Fernandeño/Tataviam for many millennia prior to European arrival.
The potential for productive farms and pastures was an inducement for European settlement and until the mid 1950’s Los Angeles was one of the highest producing agricultural counties in the nation. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (modern Los Angeles) was founded by the Spanish inland on the banks of the Rio Porciúncula (modern Los Angeles River) because this site in the middle of the basin provided ample permanent water fed by surrounding hills and mountains. The natural and agricultural landscapes of Los Angeles are now largely paved over or otherwise erased.
Driving through the lush precincts of Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Las Feliz or the UCLA campus one might accept the alternative myth that the region is a lush tropical realm of fig trees, palms, citrus trees, birds of paradise plants and bougainvillea. That myth, and the dreamy green gardens and streetscapes of affluent Los Angeles that give it substance, have long been an important part of the allure that land developers used to sell Los Angeles. It is an artificial landscape – created through the use of millions upon millions of gallons of imported water applied year after year to support largely imported plant species. A final myth is that Los Angeles is now on the verge of drying up and blowing away because there will not be enough water to quench the thirst of the 19 million people who live in Southern California. Whether by a prolonged natural drought, or due to increasing evapotraspiration and decreasing precipitation caused by anthropogenic climate change, the city and region is seen to be perched on the brink of an arid cataclysm. Let’s look at some of the engineering miracles and resulting mayhem that the quest to provide water to Los Angles has wrought and then return to this final myth.
Despite being better watered than many people might suspect, drought was and is a frequent occurrence for Los Angeles. Each year there is a seasonal drought during the summer months when almost no precipitation falls – and lawn sprinklers must do double-duty to keep grass green despite high temperatures and evaporation. On top of this there are years and runs of years in which precipitation falls far below the long-term average. Annual rainfall in extremely dry years can be less than one-third the annual average. Continuous to partially continuous dry periods in which precipitation averages two-thirds or less than annual average have extended up to eight years. It is sobering to consider that recent prehistoric droughts surpassed anything experienced in the 20th century. Moisture sensitive limber pines (Pinus flexilis) growing on the high mountains around Los Angeles live to over 1,000 years and analysis of the annual growth rings from these trees show that during the 12th century there was a 50 to 60 year period of continuous extremely low precipitation. A less prolonged drought during early historic times contributed to one of the most important 19th century socio-economic transitions in the Los Angeles region. The drought in 1862–1864 caused the loss of 70% of Los Angeles County’s cattle and this in turn led to the collapse of the remaining large ranchos and other vestiges of the Mexican social structure and the power of the Hispanic “Californianos”. Ranchos were often sold to American businessmen and eventually provided the real estate for the housing booms that commenced with a vengeance in the 1880’s and continued through the 20th century. The ready land accelerated Anglicization of Los Angeles as Americans from the Midwest and East moved to the region in droves. This history is commemorated in major street and neighborhood names found in Los Angeles today – such as the San Fernando Valley district, Pico Blvd, Van Nuys Blvd and Lankershim Blvd. In the 1860s, Isaac Van Nuys and James Lankershim bought the southern half of Rancho Ex-Mission San Fernando. Poignantly, they purchased the lands from the last Mexican Governor of California, Pio Pico.
An obvious engineering solution for California water challenges is to build physical infrastructure for water storage and transference. Such hydro-engineering dates back over 200 years. In the 18th century, the Spanish built substantial masonry dams such as the very early one for the Mission San Diego and aqueducts of up to 6 miles in length to store and transfer water. In 1781, one of the first substantial structures that Spanish governor, Felipe de Neve, ordered was a dam and Zanja Madre (mother ditch) to be built to supply and distribute water to El Pueblo de Nuestra Se.ora la Reina de los .ngeles.
By the late 19th century Los Angeles had a population of 100,000 and local water systems were no longer sufficient to meet growth needs. That is when a former zanajero (water ditch tender) and self-taught engineer named William Mulholland changed everything in terms of Los Angeles water strategy. Commencing in 1905, Mulholland constructed a miracle of engineering in the form of a 230 mile long aqueduct. Through an ingenious system of reservoirs, canals and massive siphon systems the Los Angeles Aqueduct brought water from the eastern Sierra Nevada to Los Angeles using only gravity. As construction was underway Van Nuys and Lankershim along with other prominent businessmen formed the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company to further purchase and subdivide land in the previously arid San Fernando Valley. There was a clear eye on taking advantage of the newly acquired water. Fortunes were made and the morphing of the agrarian valley into a sprawling suburban development commenced. On November 13, 1913, Mulholland’s project allowed the first Sierra Nevada water to flow into the San Fernando Valley. Mulholland simply stated, ‘‘There it is, take it!’’—which in a sense the land developers had already done through their prescient purchases.
For the remainder of the 20th century, massive transference of water and incredible engineering projects were the hallmark of Los Angeles’ and California’s solution to water resource challenges. Today the number one source of extra regional water to Southern California is the Colorado River. Based upon the 1922 apportionment agreement, California receives a larger share than any other Colorado Basin state or Mexico (4.4 million acre feet per-year; an acre foot is equal to 325,851 gallons). Part of that infrastructure is the All American Canal running 85 miles from the Colorado on the eastern border of California to San Diego County on the coast. This is paralleled to the north by the Colorado Aqueduct. One of the great engineering feats of the 20th century, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead is a critical piece in a reservoir system on the Colorado. The Colorado reservoir system can store four years worth of average flow of the entire river (60 million acre feet). The California Aqueduct of the State Water Project brings northern water 714 miles from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California. Thus, the current water basin for Los Angeles is subcontinental in scale and extends across 8 states. When you take a drink from a tap in Los Angeles it can include water melted from winter snowflakes in Wyoming, spring runoff in the Sierra Nevada, summer thunderstorms in Colorado and fall rainstorms in the southern Cascades.
The massive extra-regional water transference systems that commenced with Mulholland have brought water to Los Angeles, but have also caused their share of mayhem for people and the environment. To tap the eastern Sierra water Mulholland secretly bought up land and water rights along the Owens Valley and this ultimately led to the collapse of farming, orchards and herding activities in much of that region. In 1927, Owens Valley residents dynamited portions of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in protest. Even today the relationship remains uneasy and the eastern Sierra town of Mammoth Lakes is involved in litigation with the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water over access to Sierra water that Mammoth depends upon and Los Angeles covets. As water was diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, riparian habitats of the Owens River largely vanished. Owens Lake dried up producing clouds of dust laden with arsenic, cadmium and nickel. Near the head of the aqueduct system, levels of Mono Lake fell precipitously to the point of threatening to allow predators access to important island habitat used by breeding populations of birds. Decades of litigation have led to curtailed water transference in the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the Department of Water and Power has now spent millions on habitat restoration and attempts to stabilize the sediments of Owens Lake. Similarly, reservoirs and water withdrawals from the Colorado have impacted native fish populations, eradicated flood adapted riparian ecosystems and led to the almost complete destruction of the natural habitat of the Colorado River Delta, which because it lies in Mexico is not subject to U.S. environmental protections. At this time almost no Colorado River water reaches the delta directly. If the U.S.-Mexico border were but a few miles south it is inconceivable that water allocations and reservoir management would not be significantly restricted compared to what they are today in order to protect the wetlands and endangered species of the Colorado Delta.
Ironically, the greatest human tragedy wrought by Los Angeles’ thirst for extraregional water was also the direct cause of William Mulholland’s downfall. In the spring of 1928 the Saint Francis Dam, built by Mulholland in the San Francisquito Canyon about 50 km north of Los Angeles, began to suffer leaks. Mulholland inspected the dam and declared it fit. A short time later, just before midnight on March 12, 1928, the dam ruptured explosively and a torrent of water roared though portions of Los Angeles and Ventura counties – claiming some 450 lives. A somber Mulholland appeared at the subsequent inquest and stated “Don’t blame anyone else, you just fasten it on me.” He resigned, withdrew from public life and died seven years later.
So, back to our final myth, where do things stand in terms of Los Angeles and water sustainability in the 21st century? It is anticipated that population of California could grow to some 45 to 60 million people over the next 40 years. At the same time, climate change appears to be producing a hotter and drier California and the Southwest. The first decade of this century has been typified by a ‘perfect drought’ in which for a prolonged period California, the adjacent Southwest and the headwaters of the Colorado River have been unusually arid. However, predictions of the imminent and arid doom of the city confront some complications. First of all, domestic water demand has a rather large pad in the form of the outdoor irrigation water used at present for gardens and parks. Those lush gardens and extensive lawns in Hancock Park and Brentwood come at a great price in terms of water. On average between 50% and 70% of all domestic consumptive water use in the Los Angeles region is for outdoor landscaping. The simple steps of using increased xerophytic landscaping that relies on low-water demanding and drought resistant plants coupled with open areas and includes the use of native plant species can provide a massive potential cushion. In addition, water conservation is having an impact. Per-capita water use in the service area of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 26 local governments and water agencies and some 19 million people, has seen steady percapita declines and is some 10% below the 1980’s averages. Over the last two decades increasing conservation has essentially mitigated the impact of increases in population in terms of consumptive water demand. Technologies for local water provision, including recycling, desalination and storm water capture are increasingly important components of water agency portfolios. In discussions on the water future of Los Angeles and California, it is important to keep in mind that the cities of California only account for about 15% to 20% of the consumptive water use in the state. The vast majority of the water used in California is for agriculture. These crops feed not just the state, but much of the nation, particularly in winter. Water transference and sales agreements already exist between agricultural and urban agencies, and in the event of critical drought conditions it is unlikely that the taps of Los Angeles and urban Southern California would be unable to supply drinking and bathing water. That being said – the impacts of a massive withdrawal of water from the fields to the cities would have serious implications for rural sustainability, food prices and potentially food security. Like the huge geographic network of rivers, dams and aqueducts that supply Los Angeles with water today, the impacts of any severe water crisis in Los Angeles would extend far beyond the city.
Glen A. MacDonald
Glen MacDonald is a Distinguished Professor of Geography and of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA and UC Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute of Environment and Sustainability. He conducts research and teaches on climate change, environmental change, water resources and the societal impacts of these issues and has published over 130 peer-reviewed articles and an award-winning book – Biogeography: Space, Time and Life (Wiley, 2001).
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Southern California map
Major aqueducts and river systems supplying water to Southern California and Los Angeles today (Glen MacDonald, used by permission).
Hoover Dam
Credit: Department of Interior, Ansel Adams
The Hoover Dam is a critical piece in an extensive reservoir system providing water to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles region's farmlands and fields
Farmland and fields of the Los Angeles region in the 1920’s and the incipient growth of Beverly Hills. Although hardly a desert, it was not as lush as imported water and plant species have made its residential areas today (UCLA Department of Geography Spence Collection used by permission)


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