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In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

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William Mulholland and the California Water Wars

Posted September 13, 2012 12:00 AM by SavvyExacta

Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1855, Mulholland traveled to New York City as a 15-year-old sailor in the early 1870s. He worked in a variety of places including a lumber camp in Michigan, a dry-goods store in Pittsburgh, a mine in Arizona, and fighting the Apache.

By 1877 Mulholland was working in Los Angeles as a ditch-digger on the Zanja Madre for the Los Angeles Water Company (LAWC). The city with a population of 9,000 received its water supply through open ditches. Mulholland became superintendent of the LAWC in 1887. In 1902, he led the Los Angeles Department of Water, which replaced the LAWC as Los Angeles' water supplier. The city had rights to all surface water and nearby connected areas. This sharing program enabled residents of the nearby areas to switch to irrigation-based farming.

Mulholland described the Los Angeles River as "a beautiful, limpid little stream." Local water sources could support a population of only 500,000. Mulholland devised a plan that would bring more water to Los Angeles - from the Owens River, located over 200 miles away. Distance was not the only hurdle to bringing the water to Los Angeles. Owens Valley locals were interested in using the water in an irrigation project for their farms and ranches.

Fred Eaton, Mulholland's former boss and Los Angeles mayor, worked to study the Owens Valley water source and obtain enough land rights to squash the irrigation project. The pair understated the amount of water available in Los Angeles and claimed the water would be used for domestic purposes.

The construction of the aqueduct used to bring water from the Owens River to Los Angeles began in 1905. The first water was delivered to residents in 1913 and the Owens Lake was completely drained by 1928.

The fight over the diversion of the water became known as the California Water Wars. During the 1920s Owens Valley farmers attacked the infrastructure and attempted to re-divert the water. Earlier attempts were simply sabotage, but in 1924 70 armed men shut off the flow of the river after seizing an aqueduct gate. Three years later they blew up a 45-foot section of the aqueduct. The city eventually paid them more for their lost land and water.

Mulholland's career came to an end a year after settling the Owens Valley problems. Just 12 hours after he inspected the site the dam collapsed and 12.4 billion gallons of water destroyed a hydroelectric power plant and 65 workmen and their families. Over 600 people were killed as the water traveled the 54 miles to the Pacific Ocean. Mulholland resigned in 1929, a year after the failure of the St. Francis Dam.

Resources:

Owens Valley History - William Mulholland: The Man Who Built the Los Angeles-Owens River Aqueduct

PBS - New Perspectives on the West: William Mulholland [image 1]

USC - William Mulholland & the Collapse of St. Francis Dam

Wikipedia - William Mulholland

http://framework.latimes.com/2010/11/05/los-angeles-aqueduct/#/1 [image 2]

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#1

Re: William Mulholland and the California Water Wars

09/13/2012 12:16 AM

Did any of these events inform the movie "Chinatown"?

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#2
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Re: William Mulholland and the California Water Wars

09/14/2012 1:23 AM

According to Wikipedia, yes, it did.

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#3

Re: William Mulholland and the California Water Wars

09/14/2012 5:07 PM

"Great" is a description that carries a value based on one's perspective. For Los Angeles he certainly was great, but for the residents of the Owens Valley he was a demon. My forebears lived in both places. More important to us today is the environmental legacy we have from the work that Mr. Mulholland and others since then have done, and the lessons available in terms of how to solve problems.

The whole Western half of the USA is dependent on water resources. Some are moved as much as 700 miles or more. Is it worth it? I'm not convinced. San Francisco and many other cities in the Bay Area receive their water from the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne river inside Yosemite National Park. The building of Hetch Hetchy Dam in that canyon was the subject of the first legal battle fought by the Sierra Club. At the western end of that aqueduct are the Crystal Springs Reservoirs. The dam holding back the much larger lower reservoir is a concrete shell only a few hundred yards away from and parallel to the San Andreas Fault. When it ruptured in 1906, that dam was undamaged!

--JMM, with roots in California dating back to 1851.

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