By any standards The Great Los Angeles Aqueduct is a towering engineering feat. It is also utterly audacious and unprecedented in that it was nothing less than the theft of a major river whose source began hundreds of kilometres away high in California’s magnificent snow-capped Sierra Mountains.
It’s architect and engineer William Mulholland achieved instant celebrity status more than a century ago with LA newspaper headlines variously describing him as superman, a genius and the man of the hour.
He became known as the founder and father of LA, the second largest city in the US. Today the Greater Los Angeles Area is home to more than 18-million souls.
The opening of the giant 375km aqueduct on 5 November 1913 was the crowning moment of his life. “There it is. Take it!” he invited in arguably the shortest dedication speech in history. Angelenos needed no further encouragement, thousands surging forward with their tin mugs to scoop up the life-giving waters.
It was heady stuff and not bad for an Irish immigrant who’d never completed his schooling and arrived penniless on American shores, finding work as a ditch-digger. Hollywood could hardly have scripted it better.
And who could argue the magnitude of the achievement. The world had never seen anything quite like this with a pipeline snaking its way across desert and mountains and relying on gravity to keep its precious waters flowing. No less remarkable was the fact that despite its chief engineer having no formal qualifications, the aqueduct was completed on time, under budget and is still supplying the city.
Of course, further north in the Owens Valley the mood was – and is – rather different. Mulholland was never the hero, but rather the bad guy in the black hat. When news of the scheme first surfaced, a local headline warned prophetically: “Los Angeles Plots Destruction – would take Owens River, lay lands waste, ruin people, homes and communities.” It did all that.
Within a decade many schools and businesses had closed and the vast Owens Lake was dry, becoming the source of the worst airborne pollution in the country as winds whipped up clouds of toxic dust. The incidence of asthma and respiratory diseases soared.
For a while it looked like defiance in the valley might put the brakes on LA’s water grab. Dynamite was used to good effect to damage the pipeline with hit-and-run saboteurs hiding out in the hills. The California Water Wars were under way but were rather short-lived and no match for the city’s might or ruthlessness. Mulholland despatched 600 heavily armed police who quickly took control. LA had won.
When Mulholland had famously invited citizens to “Take it,” he’d believed that he’d supplied four times the water the city needed and probably enough to take them into the next century.
But he, and probably everyone else, underestimated the building boom, skyrocketing population growth and a reckless disregard for water conservation measures.
When it became apparent that more water was needed that could be stored in a huge reservoir, Mulholland discovered the duplicity of his friend Freddie Eaton, the mayor of LA, who had secretly bought the only viable site in the Owens Valley for a dam. He’d registered the deed in his name and demanded 1-million dollars, a then exorbitant ransom.
By now Mulholland had become obsessive about acquiring more water and bypassed his treacherous friend. Instead he chose to head downstream and build the St Francis Dam in the San Francisquito Canyon, around 70km northwest of LA’s downtown area.
It was to be a tragic mistake although he couldn’t have known that.
A leak had been reported and he conducted a site visit and pronounced the reservoir to be in good order. Just hours later, on 12 March 1928, the worst imaginable happened.
Without warning the reservoir structure failed catastrophically, unleashing a year’s supply of water from the Owens Valley. A giant tidal wave of water carrying 1,000-ton blocks of concrete wiped out entire communities and claimed more than 400 lives in the country’s worst ever civil engineering disaster.
It caused the second-greatest loss of life in California’s history after the natural disaster of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Mulholland’s career was over and from being revered as a founding father, he was seen my many as a criminal and faced possible indictment.
When a coroner’s jury found him guilty of having caused the loss of lives, he broke down and wept. “I envy the dead,” he lamented.
Now, 103 years after the opening of the LA Aqueduct, a group of role players that includes representatives of the First Nation tribes, social and environmental activists, representatives of communities around the world, local entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, filmmakers and photographers will resume the Walking Water pilgrimage.
Walking Water is a journey from the source of the waters to the place of end use, and is being staged in three sections over three years.
During the first leg last year participants followed the waterways – natural and man-made – from the source at Lee Vining Creek near Mono Lake to the dry Owens Lake around 320km and three weeks later.
Now the walk is poised to resume at Owens Lake on 23 September after a blessing ceremony in the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation. Then it’ll follow the waters – mostly unseen in a giant pipeline – to the Cascades where Mulholland uttered his brief and unforgettable dedication.
“It is a project to bring together the many voices of the Owens Valley and City of Los Angeles and to co-create a new relationship with water and each other,” said Kate Bunney, Walking Water coordinator.
“It is not a protest, or about taking sides or about recriminations, but about harvesting stories, learning and sharing, and hopefully finding models of water stewardship that could be shared elsewhere in the world.”
Visit Cadillac Desert: Mulholland’s Dream (a full-length documentary)
This blog was written by Geoff Dalglish and originally posted on his personal blog, Earth Pilgrim Africa. Geoff is an ambassador for the Findhorn Foundation community during the Walking Water pilgrimage and is also an international representative for the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN).