How An Aqueduct Turned Los Angeles Into A ‘Garden Of Eden’

NPR – November 3,

Today the beauty of Los Angeles is
dramatically symbolic of the ancient prophecy: The desert shall
“blossom like a rose.”

blossoming was made possible by the birth of the Los Angeles
Aqueduct, opened 100 years ago this month. The opening of the
aqueduct might as well have been the birth of the modern West and
the image of the city as a “Garden of Eden.”
The vast quantities of water the aqueduct moved made Los
Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and other cities across the region
project fulfilled the vision of William Mulholland, then L.A.’s
chief water engineer. As he stood in front of 40,000 spectators on
the day it opened, Mulholland gestured toward the water cascade
charging down the hillside and declared, “There it is. Take
But as
with all things, the aqueduct also came at a
Birth Of
The West
The $23
million Los Angeles Aqueduct project took 5,000 workers five years
to complete. It also finished on time and under budget, something
you might not hear a lot these days.
“The state of California would be different, arguably the
world would be different, without the L.A. Aqueduct,” says Jon
Christensen, the editor of Boom Magazine. Their latest issue looks
at the 100-year anniversary of the aqueduct.
While the aqueduct brought water to Los Angeles, it also
took it from somewhere else: Owens Valley. Christensen tells NPR’s
Arun Rath that over the years there was a lot of anger and
accusations that L.A. took water the water by
sold their agricultural lands and their water to the city of L.A.,”
he says. “There’s lots of claims and evidence that some of that was
done secretly, without identifying who the real buyers were … but
there were also a lot of willing sellers.”
That anger manifested itself in the form of protests and
even a bombing of the aqueduct. The 1974 film Chinatown, starring
Jack Nicholson, helped perpetuate that myth that the “big city came
and took what it wanted.” But the film took a few liberties with
the true story of the city’s water.
“Almost nothing about [the film] is historically
accurate,” Christensen says.
might be fiction, but the century’s worth of mistrust between Los
Angeles and the rural Owens Valley is real. The valley is
sandwiched between some of the highest peaks in North America and
the deserts of Death Valley.
One area
that stands out is a flat lake bed that was formally like salt
flats. That dusty, briny pancake as big as San Francisco is the
now-dry Owens Lake — a direct consequence of 100 years of the Los
Angeles Aqueduct, says Marty Adams, director of water operations
forthe Los Angeles Department of Water and
Teddy Roosevelt, who was the president of the United States,
declared that it was way more valuable to bring that water down to
the city of Los Angeles so that the city could grow, than it was to
let it flow into the salt water of Owens Lake,” Adams told NPR’s
Kirk Siegler.
But when
the wind blows here — and it does a lot — the dry lake bed can fuel
massive dust storms. This area has long carried the dubious
distinction of being the largest single source of particulate
pollution in the country, and farther upstream the Owens River all
but disappeared.
“At one
time this valley floor was lush, green, orchards, fields … we
lived off of this land,” says Mel Joseph, who lives in nearby Lone
Joseph, a
member of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, grew up in the
valley and always heard stories about what it used to be like,
before Los Angeles started buying up land, water rights and
building dams and channels. He says people here are still
struggling with asthma and other health issues attributed to the
“It’s a
desert climate, but they made it the Dust Bowl that it is today,”
he says.
But some
things have been done to cool these tensions lately. A few years
ago, led by then Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the city
started pumping thousands of gallons of Sierra Nevada water back in
to the Owens River channel.
court order, the city has also spent more than $1 billion so far on
dust controls, covering more than 90 percent of Owens Lake.
Everyone agrees the air has gotten a lot cleaner. Yet many locals
rolled their eyes again when the city went back to court this year
to argue that the cleanup job there is done.
If nothing else, the quibble over that last 10 percent of
uncontrolled dust is a sign that one of the greatest water wars in
the West isn’t going to end anytime soon.
The ability through technology to move water from one
area to another has created water disputes in many other areas was
well, with cases in Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. Doug
Kenney, director of the Water Policy Program at the University of
Colorado Law School in Boulder, says it is just the nature of these
interstate water disputes to drag on for a long
“When I
got out of college 20 years ago, the first thing I worked on was
this dispute between Alabama, Florida and Georgia,” he says. “And
it’s still going strong.”
While “it
still pays to be the big guy” in these water disputes, Kenney says,
“but it’s not as extreme as it used to be.” He says the conflict
surrounding the Los Angeles Aqueduct has served as a model for how
not to behave. 
Making It
Mark Gold,
associate director of the Institute of the Environment and
Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles, says
L.A. has made amazing strides in conservation. The city consumes
the same amount of water it did in 1970, with 1 million more
“If you
compare them to other major cities nationally, they’re around 123
gallons per capita, per day, which is the best in the entire
nation,” Gold says.
But best
in America is still more than double the typical water consumption
in Europe, so there’s a long way to go. He says they need to be
continually moving forward with tougher plumbing standards, which
are required by state and having tiered pricing on
“So from
the standpoint [of] if you’re a water-waster, you’re paying a lot
more by gallon than if you’re actually conserving water well,” he
says. “You would start hopefully getting people to start conserving
more and more because you actually have an economic interest in
doing so.”
Gold says 80 percent of the water in the state of California is
used for agricultural purposes, and he says that needs to be
So the
Garden of Eden will be around for a while longer, it might just
have fewer lawns and golf courses, and more water
NPR’s Kirk
Siegler contributed to this report. [Copyright 2013
Credit: Mark J.

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