Completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The city of Los Angeles completed construction of an aqueduct to bring water from the Owens Valley to the city, permitting the growth of Los Angeles and hampering growth in the Owens Valley.

Summary of Event

The growth of Los Angeles was made possible by the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which conveys water 222 miles from the Owens Valley to the city. With its water going to Los Angeles, the Owens Valley could not irrigate much of its own agricultural land, and the valley suffered a significant loss in population. In the 1920’s, it appeared that Los Angeles had won the battle over water and that the Owens Valley had lost. Los Angeles Aqueduct Los Angeles;water issues Water;access Engineering;aqueducts Owens Valley, Los Angeles Aqueduct [kw]Completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (Nov. 5, 1913) [kw]Los Angeles Aqueduct, Completion of the (Nov. 5, 1913) [kw]Aqueduct, Completion of the Los Angeles (Nov. 5, 1913) Los Angeles Aqueduct Los Angeles;water issues Water;access Engineering;aqueducts Owens Valley, Los Angeles Aqueduct [g]United States;Nov. 5, 1913: Completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct[03450] [c]Environmental issues;Nov. 5, 1913: Completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct[03450] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 5, 1913: Completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct[03450] [c]Engineering;Nov. 5, 1913: Completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct[03450] [c]Economics;Nov. 5, 1913: Completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct[03450] [c]Natural resources;Nov. 5, 1913: Completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct[03450] Mulholland, William Eaton, Fred

Los Angeles suffered a severe drought in 1903 and 1904, and it became clear that the water available to the city would not be sufficient for additional growth in the region. In the Owens Valley, however, there was enough water for a city of two million. Under the leadership of department superintendent William Mulholland, the Los Angeles Water Department began to buy up land and water rights in the lower valley between Owens Lake and the town of Independence. Not wanting to see its costs skyrocket, the Water Department was not particularly open about its plans. Eventually word leaked out, however, and the plans were made public: The Water Department planned to spend twenty-three million dollars to build an aqueduct from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.

H. A. Van Norman (wearing coat) and workers open the gates of the Los Angeles Aqueduct on November 5, 1913.

(Courtesy, USC Regional History Center)

Residents of the valley were not pleased. The Water Department had purchased enough land at rock-bottom prices to establish rights to most of the water in the valley. The Reclamation Service, which had been investigating the possibility of a federally funded reclamation project in Owens Valley, rather suddenly canceled its work. When it turned out that the Reclamation Service engineer who had been responsible for that decision had also been on the payroll of the Los Angeles Water Department, the mood in the valley deteriorated further. When Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, an ardent conservationist, extended the National Forest Reserve to include much of the Owens Valley, which had virtually no trees, the residents of the valley began to believe that the system was against them.

In most western U.S. states, water rights were appropriative—that is, determined by first use and continued use. The first person or group to use water from a particular source thereby established the right to the water. If that person or group discontinued the water’s use, the water right was forfeited. In England, Spain, and the eastern United States, in contrast, water rights were riparian; that is, they were owned by the people who owned the land adjacent to a body of water. California declared in 1850 that English common law should be applied to water rights, but in 1872 the state offered users an opportunity to assert appropriative rights. In 1887, California permitted the formation of irrigation districts to acquire rights to water from distant streams.

To maintain its right to the Owens Valley water, Los Angeles had to use it. To maintain adequate resources for future growth, the city had to have rights to water that was not essential for its current day-to-day business. The solution was to use excess Owens Valley water to irrigate farmland in the nearby San Fernando Valley. As the city grew, farms would become neighborhoods, irrigation would diminish, and the water would be used by the city. Although this ploy constituted a legal way for Los Angeles to maintain water rights, it did little for the image of the city. As real estate values in the San Fernando Valley doubled and redoubled, charges flew that the whole aqueduct project was designed to line the pockets of those who had known it was coming and had speculated in real estate accordingly. Residents of the Owens Valley believed that their water supply had been stolen so that the San Fernando Valley could prosper.

In June, 1907, Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly approved a bond issue to raise the twenty-three million dollars to build the aqueduct. Work began immediately. To prepare the way, railroad tracks were laid to transport 320,000 tons of materials. Some 500 miles of roads and trails and 240 miles of telephone lines were established, 2,300 buildings and tent houses were erected, a plant was built to supply one million barrels of cement, and two hydroelectric plants were constructed on Owens Valley creeks. After these tasks were accomplished, work began on the aqueduct itself. Tunnels were drilled through mountain ranges, and enclosed pipes eight to ten feet in diameter carried the water across canyons.

The number of people on the project’s payroll reached 3,900 before a crisis in the money markets interrupted bond financing and employment declined to 1,100. Unions organized strikes, but because the strikes came at a time when financing was weak, they accomplished little. In a little more than five years the work was done, and the aqueduct, which was completed on November 5, 1913, was being called the second-greatest engineering accomplishment in the world, after the Panama Canal.

In the 1920’s, another drought arrived. The Water Department had been unwilling to purchase land for a storage dam in the Owens Valley, so there were no water reserves on which to draw. The city had little choice but to return to the upper part of the Owens Valley and buy more land and water rights. By this time, resentment was high; opposition grew, and landowners tried to unite to get better prices for their land. Hostility and skulduggery abounded, and it was not long before valley residents used dynamite to express their sentiments. Although guarded by men with machine guns and searchlights, the concrete-and-steel aqueduct was an easy target for sabotage. California’s “water war” continued for seventeen months; it came to an abrupt end when it was discovered that two brothers who had led the Owens Valley resistance had embezzled the savings of most of the valley residents.

Nearly a century after the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, an agreement was reached to return water to the southern Owens River, and water began to flow in December of 2006, filling the more than sixty-mile stretch of river that had remained dry for so long.

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For all the controversy it generated, the aqueduct worked. This success showed local politicians that natural limits to growth could be circumvented by extraordinary engineering accomplishments, prompting Los Angeles and the state of California to tap into other rivers, principally the Colorado, to keep up with growth. Additional water permitted additional growth, and growth always seemed to help alleviate the city’s problems; the water was like a drug, and the city became addicted to it. The region’s power brokers never had to confront many of the difficulties faced by most urban areas.

The success of the aqueduct reinforced a number of ideas that pervaded California’s public policy for decades. Rural areas with little political clout could be sacrificed for the growth of urban areas. In terms of costs and benefits, a minor benefit to a city was seen to offset a substantial cost to a rural county. To local decision makers, the growth of urban centers outweighed any problems associated with disruption of the environment in the countryside. Social problems, it was believed, could be solved by technological means.

Riots, crime, and wildfires would eventually demonstrate the fallacy of relying on growth to solve urban problems. The argument can be made that had Los Angeles been unsuccessful in its efforts to import water from beyond its boundaries, the city’s growth might have been impeded but its quality of life might have been higher, and the cost of eventual social reforms might have been considerably lower.

The assumption that population growth would occur led to an assumption that real estate values would always increase, making it easy to justify borrowing money, as future tax bases would always be much bigger than the current tax base. The success of the aqueduct seemed to support this notion.

Another impact of the aqueduct and the acquisition of water rights was the hostility that developed between the residents of the Owens Valley and the city of Los Angeles. The underlying reason for this hostility was competition. As a function of the dominant culture of the day, each move was seen as calculated: If Owens Valley residents had known about the aqueduct and had gotten more money for their land, they would have won; if the water department had paid city engineer Fred Eaton (the first person to suggest bringing Owens Valley water to Los Angeles) the one million dollars he wanted for his land in the valley, he would have won; if an agreement had been reached allocating some water to farmers in the upper valley, the farmers would have won. By insisting that they would comply with legal requirements and do nothing more, the people in Los Angeles set themselves up as the opponents of those in the Owens Valley. This hostility persisted for decades, influencing politics and prompting critics to portray Los Angeles as an evil empire.

Although the tactics and strategies used by the Los Angeles Water Department engendered bitterness and animosity in the Owens Valley, no valley residents had their property condemned, all were paid at least market prices for their land, and many were offered very attractive prices. Many landowners in the Owens Valley converted their holdings into substantial fortunes. This financial success permitted many residents to leave the valley in search of a better life; however, local merchants suffered and had no real estate gains to counter the loss in business. The communities of the Owens Valley did not experience the prosperity that Los Angeles enjoyed, and many residents who felt betrayed deeply resented the city’s success.

Eventually, however, the value of the city’s growth became suspect. In the early twentieth century, growth was seen as undeniably beneficial to any community; modern communities, in contrast, struggle to enact ordinances that will permit them to limit growth. Los Angeles has grown, sprawling across huge areas of Southern California, but the Owens Valley, two hundred miles away, has been able to avoid many of the ills associated with such growth. Forced to turn from agriculture, the valley discovered tourism. Los Angeles, which resisted paying for the loss of business that its aqueduct caused in the Owens Valley, now supports the economy of the region with its tourist dollars.

Many of the earlier residents of the Owens Valley returned, and new occupants arrived, drawn by the scenic splendor of the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains, still clearly visible through unpolluted skies. Moreover, residents worry much less about crime and violence in their midst than do most of the inhabitants of Los Angeles. If the Owens Valley had been successful in thwarting the plans of the big city and had prevented construction of the aqueduct, perhaps the valley communities, not Los Angeles, would have become overdeveloped. Instead, the Owens Valley waited nearly one hundred years for water to return to the southern Owens River in 2006 in a move that promised not only to help restore riparian ecology but also to attract new tourism. Los Angeles Aqueduct Los Angeles;water issues Water;access Engineering;aqueducts Owens Valley, Los Angeles Aqueduct

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, Erwin. Aqueduct Empire: A Guide to Water in California, Its Turbulent History, and Its Management Today. Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1968. A comprehensive review of the water situation in California. Background information is extensive and informative, particularly the section on water law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Judith, and Neil Morgan. “California’s Parched Oasis: The Owens Valley.” National Geographic 149 (January, 1976): 98-127. Presents an update on Owens Valley, its people, and their feelings about Los Angeles sixty-three years after the aqueduct was completed. Includes interviews with residents who remember the great water war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moss, Frank E. The Water Crisis. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967. A good general background to water-resource development throughout the United States written by a U.S. senator who was active in water legislation. Emphasizes the importance of planning. Although deploring some of the tactics used, Moss grudgingly admires the acquisition of water resources that permitted Los Angeles to grow.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mulholland, Catherine. William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. This biography of Mulholland, written by his granddaughter, covers his entire life, from his childhood in Ireland through his success with the Los Angeles Aqueduct and beyond. Includes forty photographs, many previously unpublished, and seven maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nadeau, Remi. The Water Seekers. 4th ed. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Crest, 1997. A well-written account of the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Follows the chronology carefully, attempting to explain the motivations and expectations of the participants in the drama. Fairly successful in avoiding any obvious bias toward either Los Angeles or the Owens Valley.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyatt, David. Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1997. An account of major events that have shaped California history. Chapter 5, devoted to “the politics of water,” addresses the impact of the Los Angeles Aqueduct project. Includes bibliography and index.

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