In 1850, Los Angeles was a tiny Spanish pueblo, relying on the Los Angeles River for its water supply.
The river’s water was distributed by the kind of communal system — dams, waterwheels and ditches — that still exists in parts of Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
During 1860, the privately held City of Los Angeles Water Co. began construction of a water system.
In 1870, the little city’s population was 5,721, only slightly ahead of El Paso County, where Gen. William Palmer would, a year later, found the city of Colorado Springs.
But the era of growth had begun. By 1900, L.A.’s population had increased by 1,800 percent to 102,479. During 1902, the private water companies that served the area were consolidated into a municipally owned utility.
Under the leadership of William Mulholland, the city aggressively sought new sources of water, and initiated then-radical water conservation measures, including metering.
Mulholland used intermediaries to acquire water rights through subterfuge in the Owens Valley, two hundred miles from the city. The farmers and water cooperatives who sold were unaware that Mulholland was the buyer, and that he intended to literally dry up the valley by transporting water from the Owens River to Los Angeles. The ensuing “California Water Wars” were characterized by violent encounters between workers building the 223-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct and local farmers, whose livelihoods the aqueduct would destroy.
Such clashes continued, but the L.A. water raid was a fait accompli.
Eventually, Los Angeles acquired even more water rights in the Owens Valley, enabling it to transport virtually all of the valley’s surface water to the city. Inflows to Owens Lake, once a substantial body of water, ceased. Within a few years, the lake disappeared, leaving only a vast alkali flat, now the source of persistent dust storms in the southern valley.
Roman Polanski’s 1974 film “Chinatown” was based in part on these events.
But as Los Angeles, and southern California, continued to grow, water providers had to look to more distant sources of water — to the Sacramento Delta in northern California and to the Colorado River.
An ill-conceived attempt by private water speculators to divert water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley during the early 1900s caused the catastrophic diversion of the entire flow of the river into the valley, creating the Salton Sea. This disaster ended such freelance water buccaneering.
For the next century, major water projects on the Colorado River would be conceived, funded and constructed by public entities.
By 1922, when the Colorado River Compact divided the river’s flow among seven western states, California was already diverting a substantial portion of the river’s flow. The Imperial Valley, an arid wasteland with less than three inches of annual rainfall, had become a major agricultural center. Eventually, millions of acre-feet of water from the Colorado River would irrigate 500,000 acres of intensively cultivated desert farmland.
California’s compact allotment of 4.4 million acre-feet, larger than that of any other state, encouraged Mulholland to conceive a plan even more grandiose and daring than the Owens Valley raid. The California Aqueduct, at 233 miles, had presented formidable political and engineering challenges, but nothing like those of the proposed Colorado River Aqueduct.
The aqueduct would skirt three mountain ranges in its 242-mile path from Parker Dam, below Lake Havasu, to Riverside Reservoir near Los Angeles. A portion of the river would have to be diverted westward across a vast expanse of desert. The single largest public works project of the Great Depression, the aqueduct project employed more than 35,000 people during an eight-year period.
Today, the aqueduct delivers more than 20 percent of Southern California’s drinking water, 1.2 million acre-feet annually or more than a billion gallons a day.
In a tragic coda to Mulholland’s brilliant engineering career, the St. Francis Dam, which he designed in 1926, failed in 1928, resulting in the loss of more than 500 lives. An inquest established that design flaws were responsible for the failure, the worst civil engineering disaster in American history.
Mulholland took full responsibility. “If there is an error of human judgment,” he said, “I am the human.”