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2.1: Los Angeles Aqueduct

  • Page ID
    7030
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    Learning Objectives

    After reading this section, you should be able to:

    • Identify driving factors in the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct
    • Classify stakeholders in the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct
    • Evaluate the impacts of Decision 1631

    Year

    Population

    1850

    1,610

    1860

    4,385

    1870

    5,728

    1880

    11,183

    1890

    50,395

    1900

    102,479

    To understand current day Los Angeles, you need to understand the population explosion in the last two hundred years in the Los Angeles basin. Los Angeles was initially a Spanish pueblo when founded in 1781 and it had a small population. A combination of surface water from the Los Angeles River and groundwater from artesian springs remained sufficient supply for a long time. As you know, Los Angeles was entitled to these supplies of surface water and groundwater because of pueblo water rights. While the supplies were sufficient for the existing population, the introduction of cattle ranching and citrus cultivation in the 1880s coupled with a drought resulted in strained water supplies.

    Now, imagine you are the superintendent of this water system within California, which has been reliable under current conditions, but is strained by more and more people.

    Ack! Look at those numbers! You're going to run out of water!

    In 50 years, the population increased from just over fifteen hundred to over one hundred thousand people. This is the fix William Mulholland found himself in as superintendent of the water system: a burgeoning population and a dwindling water supply. His friend and colleague, former mayor of Los Angeles, Fred Eaton, suggested the Owens River as a potential supply. The Owens River relied on snowmelt from the Sierras. In order to obtain the rights for the water, the land surrounding the river was purchased to obtain water rights.

    Photographic portrait of William Mulholland with a surveyor's scope on a tripod by University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society is licensed under CC BY 3.0
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Photographic portrait of William Mulholland with a surveyor's scope on a tripod by University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society is licensed under CC BY 3.0

    Both Eaton and Mulholland were engineers. They were intrigued by the idea that the water could be conveyed entirely by gravity with a slight slope in the aqueduct from more than 3800 feet above sea level to 1400 feet above sea level. The energy from the water was even enough to generate electricity at a number of power plants that were built along the way. In many ways, their fascination with the engineering aspects of the project may have kept them from fully considering other ethical concerns as they orchestrated purchases of land in the Owens Valley.

    Year

    Population

    1910

    319,198

    1920

    576,673

    1930

    1,238,048

    1940

    1,504,277

    1950

    1,970,358

    1960

    2,479,015

    1970

    2,811,801

    1980

    2,968,579

    1990

    3,485,398

    2000

    3,694,742

    2010

    3,792,621

    Eaton and Mulholland certainly seemed to disregard stakeholders in this potential project. For example, the residents of the Owens Valley, including farmers, ranchers and the indigenous Paiute people, were certainly going to be impacted by directing the water to Southern California. These stakeholders, whose lives were dependent on the water, had very little power to mount a protest at the time. And, in fact, they generally were not asked for permission. The purchases of land in the Owens Valley were conducted in ways that seemed underhanded and non-transparent, including agents for the City of Los Angeles representing themselves as from the Bureau of Reclamation. At the point when actual stakeholders in Southern California were brought in to fund and approve the project, the land was already purchased. This is a classic example of stakeholders not being consulted until the project is almost a fait accompli.

    Even though Mulholland had found enough water for the existing population in Los Angeles, the population continued to grow. By 1923, Mulholland had explored the possibility of bringing water from the Colorado River as well as the second portion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct to Mono Lake. Both projects moved ahead because it was clear that the original Los Angeles Aqueduct was not enough.

    And, in the end, even the second addition to the Los Angeles Aqueduct was not enough. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in three parts:

    • Part One: 1913 - Los Angeles voted 10 to 1 to authorize $23 million for the first Los Angeles Aqueduct and it is subsequently built.
    • Part Two: 1940 - Los Angeles votes to extend the Los Angeles Aqueduct to the Mono Lake watershed for $40 million and the extension is built.
    • Part Three: 1963 - Los Angeles begins the construction of the second Los Angeles Aqueduct project
    Los Angeles Aqueduct
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Los Angeles Aqueduct used with permission of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

    In sum, using only gravity, the Los Angeles Aqueduct encompasses canals from the Mono Lake watershed to Los Angeles stretching over 340 miles in three separate projects.

    While the Los Angeles Aqueduct provided a great benefit to the residents in Southern California, it left the Owens Valley a dust bowl, including carcinogenic dust containing cadmium and nickel. After numerous years of protest and litigation, the State Water Resources Control Board in Decision 1631 drastically reduced the amount of water that could be removed from the Owens Valley from 90,000 acre-feet per year (AFY) to 16,000 AFY. How did this happen? This decision applied the public trust doctrine in a new way. The public trust doctrine addresses rights to things that are owned collectively for public use by the government, such as water and air. This interpretation allowed the water in the Owens Valley to be seen as a public resource and not something that could solely benefit Los Angeles.

    As a water supply, the Los Angeles Aqueduct provides water that is dependent on local hydrology within Owens Valley. Because of the variability and Decision 1631, Los Angeles has been forced to focus on demand reduction, rely more on alternate sources of water, such as those from Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and remediation of existing groundwater supplies in the San Fernando Groundwater Basin.

    Misconception Alert!

    Many people think that all of the water supply in Los Angeles comes from the Owens Valley. As you saw in this section, only 16,000 AFY currently come through the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The rest of the supply is a matter of other imported water, including the Colorado River, as well as groundwater in the San Fernando Groundwater Basin.

    Try It!

    1. What were some of the drawbacks of removing water from the Owens Valley?
    2. What were the effects of Decision 1631?
    3. What stakeholders were not consulted in the development of the Los Angeles Aqueduct?

    2.1: Los Angeles Aqueduct is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Stephanie Anagnoson.