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Los Angeles and Water

July 13, 2004

A public radio commentary

I've just returned from one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time: Los Angeles. Yes, that's right, the city of Los Angeles.

To see the magnitude of this achievement I took a trip to the Getty Museum. It sits atop a mountain overlooking the city. From there you can see that Los Angeles sits in a semiarid coastal plain - the Pacific Ocean borders its west side, but desert boxes in the other three sides. Not surprisingly LA gets only fifteen

inches of rain a year - yet the region supports over nine million people. LosAngeles grew from a city described in 1860 as a "vile little dump" to the second most populous city in the United States. The key to its growth: Water. In supplying that water lies great engineering. In fact, an achievement greater than the famed aqueducts of Rome.

To see the source of LA's water travel north on Highway 395, climbing up the eastern slope of the Sierras. At about 4000 feet above sea level, just pass the small town of Independence, you'll find two 20-foot long concrete blocks. They divert the Owens River toward the south - its the gateway for the Los Angeles aqueduct, a 235 mile canal that pipes water to LA. This mighty aqueduct was the brainchild of engineer William Mulholland. Mulholland emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1870 at age 15. While living in Pittsburgh, he read a History of California that excited him so much that he had to visit the place. He traveled by sea to Panama, then walked 47 miles across the isthmus to catch another ship - he didn't want to pay the twenty-five dollars in gold required for a train ticket.

When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1877 he worked first as a ditch digger. The engineering of the ditches fascinated him. So after work he went to the library and studied books on mathematics, hydraulics, and geology. Self-trained as an engineer, he rose to head the Los Angeles Water Company.

His greatest feat was the Los Angeles Aqueduct which diverted the Owens River to they city. He supervised 5,000 workers as they dynamited and dug the 235 miles of canals and tunnels, laying it through sections of desert, and at times going through solid Sierra rock.

The Aqueduct opened November 5, 1913 in a spectacular ceremony at the north end of the San Ferando Valley. William Mulholland with his characteristic brevity said of the newly flowing water: "There it is: take it."

Angeleos still do: It carries 315 million gallons of water a day to Los Angeles. Yet, it is a most unheralded archievement: The only marker you'll find is etched into concrete walls hundreds of miles north of LA, but of course Mulholland's real monument is the city of Los Angeles.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises