Seeing Water in Los Angeles: On Lethe’s banks

By Laura BlissJanuary 5, 2014

Seeing Water in Los Angeles: On Lethe’s banks

December 2013 

THE LOS ANGELES AQUEDUCT meets the city in the northern San Fernando Valley, in a neighborhood called Sylmar. To reach it, take the I-5 Freeway north, meandering past dry hills, past one active Los Angeles Department of Water and Power reservoir and another that’s been decommissioned, past blank-faced office buildings and dirt bike racing centers. There aren’t signs for it, but you can see the Aqueduct’s two termini, called the Cascades, from the freeway. The glamorous name fits: against the arid hillside, the sight of water frothing down the Cascade’s aerating concrete steps is striking. This is water that has traveled 223 miles from the Owens Valley, much of them through steel pipes. Here it breathes, on a long staircase in the dust.

On November 5, 1913, one-tenth of Los Angeles’s population gathered here to celebrate the Aqueduct’s very first water delivery. William Mulholland, chief engineer of the LADWP, spoke in dedication: “You have come here today to ask us to render an account of our stewardship, and we come ready to do it.” That stewardship meant the construction of an engineering marvel; an Aqueduct that relied solely on gravity to move water up and over mountains, through valleys, into reservoirs. He delivered his famous lines to the city mayor: “There it is, take it.” 40,000 celebrants went home with a souvenir glass bottle filled with a first taste of imported water.

This past November, on the Centennial of that day, the LADWP hosted a reenactment of the event. About 300 or so — including LADWP employees, city officials, the mayor, and media representatives — gathered at the Cascades once again. In a big white tent whipped by wind, an actor playing William Mulholland stood at an old-fashioned microphone. In a lurching Irish brogue, his speech mixed the past with present. “The aqueduct is completed, it is good,” he said. “We in Los Angeles have the fertile lands and the climate. Only the water was needed to make this region a rich and productive empire.” A Teddy Roosevelt impersonator also spoke, describing Los Angeles prior to the Aqueduct as a thirsty wasteland. “What is the greatest good for the greatest number of people?” he pondered. “The Los Angeles Aqueduct was for the good of America.” 

Then, the main event: water. We paraded out to the foot of the termini, crowding around the concrete. The man playing William Mulholland told us to wait for it. LADWP workers stationed at the top of the Cascade’s turreted gates cranked a great wheel. We pushed, craned, positioned phones, watching the hilltop for the first glimpse. At last, the silver torrent cleared the ridge. As water poured down the steps, the actor shouted, “There it is! Take it!” We cheered as if it were the first time. William Mulholland’s real great-granddaughter rang a huge brass bell, and posed for photographs with Mayor Eric Garcetti. We retired to the big tent for cake and sandwiches.


The story of the Aqueduct was enacted as L.A.’s mythical tale of genesis, in which long-awaited water turned desert into paradise. I asked Jim McDaniels, Senior Assistant General Manager of the LADWP water system, why the department had chosen to reenact the event to mark the Centennial. “We wanted to do something where employees could be involved and feel proud,” he said. “We’re more ashamed of our water history as a city than proud of it. What happened in the past happened in the past, and we need to get behind that and move forward. Celebrating helps.”

McDaniels was referring to the other side of the Aqueduct story, the side less about the origins of paradise and more about the city’s so-called original sin. Public understanding of the Aqueduct has often focused on the underhanded parts of Los Angeles’s acquisition of rights to Owens Valley water. You also often hear of the environmental catastrophe Owens Lake became, and the quagmire of litigation it spurred. With more than a little apologism for the Owens Valley, the LADWP reenactment lit the Aqueduct in rosy color, with Mulholland cast as LA’s wet Prometheus, and the LADWP workers as midwives to his dream. Spectators and participants both got to feel good about their city.

However, the story of water in Los Angeles is complex, and reaches far beyond the Owens Valley controversy. True, Mulholland’s redirection of Owens Valley water was the lynchpin for Los Angeles’s growth, helping to triple the population by the 1930s. But in 1913, Los Angeles had been booming for decades before. Beginning in the 1880s, the Central Pacific Railroad ferried droves of settlers looking to share in the region’s natural abundance — its climate, oil, and adaptable soil. There was already water, too. Until just a few centuries ago, the Los Angeles River, lush with fish, birds, and trees, supported one of the most concentrated areas of Native American settlements on the continent. When Spanish conquistador Gaspar de Portolá glimpsed the river in the winter of 1769, he marked it as prime territory for settlement. The 11 Spanish families who founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Angeles built the city’s first water system, a toma, or brush dam, across the river. This dam carried water to the Zanja Madre, or mother ditch, which fed irrigation canals in nearby fields. These canals would remain through Mulholland’s time — in fact, he began his career in Los Angeles as a zanjero, a ditch overseer. 

These stories — which make up but a thumbnail of Los Angeles’s water history — are seldom told. Los Angeles has a tendency to gloss over its history, an amnesia that spawned a canon of literature trying to explain it. Reyner Banham wrote in the 1960s that most buildings in Los Angeles “are the first and only structures in their particular parcels of land; they are couched in a dozen different styles, most of them imported, exploited, and ruined within living memory.” Norman Klein has written on Los Angeles’s turn-of-the-century boosterism, wherein the city was pitched to the rest of the country as a paradise built for Protestants, belying realities of water pollution, a devastating flood-drought cycle, and, of course, huge ethnic diversity across the city. Klein argues that the city’s natural and cultural landscape was remade over the course of the 20th century in order to match its advertising.

In these assessments (as with Carey McWilliams, Mike Davis, William Deverell, and many more), Los Angeles’s history — as a Native American settlement, a Spanish pueblo, a part of Mexico, a place once host to a real river and even more hills than presently exist — is often invisible. It would follow that in order to see any one piece of it, you might have to watch a reenactment, full of dodgy accents and big brass bells. 

Yet as you trace the fundamental piece of that much-obscured history — water — the more physical vestiges and outgrowths you find. Take, for example, the Zanja Madre. Remains of this first aqueduct were recently discovered during construction of Metro Gold Line tracks through Chinatown. They sit behind a chain-link fence on the northern rim of Los Angeles State Historic Park. They look like a fallen chimney, or a brick half-pipe, with some caution tape swaddled around. There is no official plaque or interpretive label. But the remains are easy enough to find if you walk along the perimeter trail of the park, particularly if you know to look for the big cardboard sign some vigilante historian has erected: ZANJA MADRE. Mother ditch. This is where the public right to water was first asserted in Los Angeles, and where an enduring conversation about water began.

Figuring into that conversation of late is the Los Angeles River. After the US Army Corps of Engineers encased the majority of its bed in concrete in the 1940s, most native life in and around the water disappeared. This also cut off most public access to the city’s major natural space. Today, nonprofit organizations and the mayor’s office are working to revitalize sections of the river. They hope to pass Alternative 20, a one billion dollar proposal drawn up by the US Army Corps of Engineers to improve 11 miles of the river, via habitat and wetland creation, natural riverbed restoration in non-concrete sections, and recreation spaces along the way. Plants and animals would flock to a healthier watershed in greater diversity, as would people. To be clear, the Los Angeles River will never be what it once was; the thousands currently living where it originally flowed and flooded make that certain. Yet a revitalized river would make Los Angeles visible as a place where water flows locally, and continues to serve the city.

While the ambitious Alternative 20 is years from fruition, it has echoes around the city. Next door to Compton’s Washington Elementary School is the new Compton Creek Natural Park, a four acre recreation area that features a bioswale, a streambed designed to mimic natural filtration processes, capturing pollution and trickling clean water to an underground cistern. This is not a restored patch of Compton Creek, a tributary of the Los Angeles River. The once-lively creek remains channelized. But the bioswale runs parallel to the concrete bed, sending a powerful, visual message to students of Los Angeles water history: the river’s past can inform, and possibly improve, its present.

In Los Angeles, history is largely a fascia of stories, and a word far from its root. Linguists say the word “history” derives from the Proto-Indo-European wid-tor, from the root weid, which means to know or to see. Words like “vision, ” “video, ” and “evidence” contain the same origin. Only later did history come to mean an account or narrative of the past — a definition where factuality and representation enter into play. Visible, physical connections to the past are primary evidence: less easily retouched, less easily misconstrued. In Los Angeles, they are buried, yet necessary, treasure.


About a month after the Aqueduct reenactment, I drove to the ruins of the St. Francis Dam. You can go there too, taking the same freeway that leads you past the Cascades, this time going further into Santa Clarita, near Magic Mountain. William Mulholland built the Saint Francis Dam in 1926, selecting a particularly narrow part of San Francisquito Canyon as its site. He was by then General Manager as well as Chief Engineer of the LADWP. Mulholland inspected the dam as it filled to capacity for the first time on March 12, 1928, and gave it his approval. Hours later the dam catastrophically failed. The burst wall sent 12.4 billion gallons of water down San Francisquito Canyon and into Santa Clara and Ventura County, killing more than 450 people. The engineering disaster, among the worst ever in the US, ended Mulholland’s career. History later reprieved him, citing the unstable geologic conditions of San Francisquito Canyon as the culprit — conditions Mulholland was supposedly unable to foresee. Nevertheless, other than a small plaque at a nearby power plant, the LADWP keeps the disaster in the shadows. It is another story seldom told.

But the rubble is still there. If you’re willing to hike, you can even walk along a section of the ruined dam wall. At the top of the ravine, follow the trail of broken concrete, watching your step for prodding bits of rebar. Look to the canyon floor, where shrubs grow in the reservoir’s footprint. Find the scar high on the opposite side of the canyon, etched by the 140-foot wave. In this city, more than stories or silence, water’s marks unlock the past.


Laura Bliss is a writer and museum educator living in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Laura Bliss is a writer and museum educator living in Los Angeles. Follow her seldom-used Twitter @laura__bliss.


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