The Los Angeles aqueduct

Happy New Year everyone! In light of the California water crisis, I thought I would share this information of the Los Angeles aqueduct. The foresight that was practiced back in the 19th century was nothing short of remarkable. But even so, we still have water issues today due to the ever-growing population. We need modern day avengers with the talents of Mulholland and Eaton to get us to the next level of water independence for the City of Angels.

In 1913, the City of Los Angeles completed construction of the first Los Angeles aqueduct. This is the story of how the dream of a few far-sighted people at the turn of the 20th century became a reality.

From the time that Los Angeles was first founded in 1769, the small settlement had depended upon its own river for water. The 11 families that settled in the area dammed up the Los Angeles River and built canals to irrigate fields. But as the city grew, those in charge of supplying the growing population with water knew the small meandering river could not meet future demands.

William Mulholland, an immigrant from Ireland, went to work for the Los Angeles City Water Company as a ditch tender. When he became superintendent of the water company at the age of 31, Mulholland began to search for a new water supply.

In 1904, Fred Eaton and J. B. Lippincott traveled to Yosemite Valley on a family camping trip. They crossed the Sierra at Tioga Pass and headed south to Bishop for supplies, and eventually back to Los Angeles through the Owens Valley. During that trip, Eaton began making plans that would bring water to a growing city and launch a long conflict.

Eaton convinced Mulholland that the Owens River could provide Los Angeles with a reliable source of water. Eaton visited the Owens Valley in 1905 and began to purchase land for the City of Los Angeles. He gave the impression that he was working for the U.S. Reclamation Service on a public irrigation project, angering local residents when they discovered he was buying land and water rights for Los Angeles.

After securing the land and water rights, the Board of Water Commissioners needed to obtain the money from Los Angeles residents, and legal rights from the Federal Government, to construct the aqueduct. A bond measure to pay for the construction passed in Los Angeles by a 10 to 1 margin. After much debate in the House of Representatives, President Theodore Roosevelt decided that Los Angeles should have the rights to the Owens River water.

Construction on the Los Angeles aqueduct began in 1908. Workers from all over the world came to work at high-paying jobs that would last for several years. Over the years, construction crews set numerous records for miles of tunnel cut and length of pipe installed. The Los Angeles Board of Public Works estimated that crews could dig eight feet of tunnel per day at each tunnel end, for a total of 16 feet per day. Crews dug more than 22 feet per day while constructing the five-mile Elizabeth Tunnel. They finished the tunnel 20 months earlier than the Board's estimate of five years.

At the dedication of the Los Angeles aqueduct on November 5, 1913, Mulholland told the thousands of people attending the ceremony that they were there to dedicate the aqueduct to "you and your children and your children's children for all time."

Once Los Angeles had a reliable water supply it began to grow dramatically. However, Owens Valley residents began to fight the city's water export. Confrontations escalated to several dynamite explosions of the aqueduct. To secure its water rights, the city began to purchase extensive tracts of land in the Owens Valley. As Los Angeles continued to grow, Mulholland began to look for a way to bring Colorado River water to meet the city's needs.

After World War II, the city began the Mono Basin Project as a way of providing a larger and more dependable flow in the Los Angeles aqueduct. Four of Mono Lake's seven tributary streams, Lee Vining, Parker, Walker and Rush Creeks, were tapped for export to Los Angeles through an 11-mile tunnel. Crowley Lake and Grant Lake were also built as part of the Mono Basin Project.

The challenge to supply water to Los Angeles continued to press. Because the capacity of the Los Angeles Aqueduct was limited, the city was unable to take its full entitlement from the Mono Basin. The California State Water Rights Board urged Los Angeles to take steps to develop its full entitlement, or risk that the water might be granted to others. To increase the aqueduct capacity, a second aqueduct was built from Haiwee Reservoir in Southern Inyo County to Los Angeles.

The completion of the second Los Angeles aqueduct in 1970 and the city's plans to augment the aqueduct flow with Owens Valley groundwater prompted renewed local protests. Inyo County filed suit against Los Angeles under the new California Environmental Quality Act, seeking an Environmental Impact Report on the new aqueduct. In 1984, after years of disagreements and court hearings, Inyo County and Los Angeles entered into an agreement to produce an EIR together.

With Los Angeles growing at a rapid pace, not only the availability of water, but also the quality of water became more important at the last part of the 20th century. Los Angeles built a filtration plant in 1986 and continues to monitor and improve water quality from its three sources.

Under Mulholland's leadership, Los Angeles began a program of metering all water uses to encourage water conservation. Per capita daily water use dropped to 178 gallons per day by the mid 1980s; about half of what was used in unmetered cities such as Sacramento. The city continues to emphasize and improve its programs through many innovative approaches that have made Los Angeles a water conservation leader in the nation.

Reclaimed water is proving to be an excellent method of providing additional water to Los Angeles in an environmentally responsible manner. Mulholland truly had a vision when he looked to the Eastern Sierra and envisioned an aqueduct to bring water to a growing city. Los Angeles has become the nation's second largest city because of his decision to find another reliable water supply.

Timothy Allinson is vice president of Engineering at Murray Co., Mechanical Contractors, in Long Beach, Calif. He holds a BSME from Tufts University and an MBA from New York University. He is a professional engineer licensed in both mechanical and fire protection engineering in various states, and is a LEED accredited professional. Allinson is a past-president of ASPE, both the New York and Orange County chapters. He can be reached at

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