MOST MEN WHO COMMIT their lives to ditch-digging accept the steady, modest rewards of daily labor such a life can hold. William Mulholland, on the other hand, committed himself to something bigger: digging the largest, longest ditch he could possibly imagine. 

Les Standiford, an accomplished novelist, sets out to tell this gripping story in Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles. Beyond just a mere examination of the story, Standiford also has an agenda: he wants to give Mulholland more credit than he usually gets — for being a pragmatist, a genius, and a consummate public servant. Standiford largely succeeds.

For all the theorizing that surrounds some writings on Los Angeles, Water to the Angels is a refreshingly engaging tale. Though it lacks the scholarly rigor of Cadillac Desert — an obvious inspiration — Standiford shares Marc Reisner’s dual fascination for the science of transporting water to unsuitable places and the political maneuvering that makes it happen. He does not let citations, theorizing, or politicization get in the way of his story of human achievement. 

Mulholland came to Los Angeles as a young man, having first emigrated from Ireland to Pittsburgh. Back then, the fledgling city’s waterworks were fed exclusively by the “feckless” Los Angeles River. Mulholland ran across a guy digging a well and asked about a job. In this capacity, Mulholland was once so absorbed in his shoveling that he inadvertently told a nosy company official to buzz off. Rather than be fired, Mulholland’s hard-headedness got him promoted. 

“Unusually perspicacious,” Mulholland discovered his preternatural talent for hydrological engineering on the job. By age 31, he became superintendent of the company and the mastermind behind what was then the greatest aqueduct in the modern world — the one that enabled Los Angeles to go from a thirsty outpost of 250,000 to the metropolis of today. Would that we had a Mulholland now to slake the thirst of 3.8 million.

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In 1900, Angelenos used roughly 300 gallons of water per day. Mulholland introduced water meters, cutting that rate in half — a rate that persists today. With the city’s population doubling in as little as five years, the Los Angeles River was attenuated beyond reason. Today, we’d call it “unsustainable.”

In 1905 Mulholland and former Los Angeles Mayor Fred Eton stole away to the Owens Valley, where they measured the flow of the Owens River and scouted a would-be aqueduct route: 235 miles south and a cumulative 2,500 feet downhill. That visit gave Mulholland everything he needed to know. He envisioned the route — including 12 miles of massive pipes, 28 miles of tunnels — and the generating plants, construction methods, and gravity-defying siphons that would bring Sierra Nevada snowmelt over mountains, through canyons, across deserts, and to a destination that nature never intended for it. 

Mulholland’s detractors have long contended that he took kickbacks from would-be San Fernando Valley developers, or that he ripped off ranchers in the Owens Valley who sold him water rights. The allegations were never proven true, but they’ve dogged his legacy nonetheless: his name is typically cloaked in Los Angeles noir, as if he was a gangster and not an engineer, a schemer and not a genius. From what we do know, Mulholland rose above petty politics, and was genuinely dedicated to the good of the city. Whatever political savvy he did or didn’t have was dwarfed by his mental faculties. He was once asked in court testimony to produce a catalog of the entire pipe network of Los Angeles. He drew and annotated a map on the spot. Field research conducted by the court confirmed each of Mulholland’s recollections.

Mulholland’s competency fueled his determination. When he believed something was feasible, he wasted little emotion ordering its execution. “It is big, but it is simply big,” said Mulholland of the proposed aqueduct.  

Eaton orchestrated the purchase of nearly all the farmland of the Owens Valley, and the water rights that went with it. This is the part of the aqueduct plan that draws the most criticism, even today, from interests in the Owens Valley who claim that Los Angeles “stole” their water and decimated the valley’s ranches. (Dust storms kicked up from the bed of the former Owens Lake wreak havoc on Owens Valley communities. Only recently has the City of Los Angeles implemented a promising mitigation plan.)

Whereas slow-growth advocates hold considerable sway in Los Angeles politics today, the citizens of 1905 Los Angeles voted in favor of Mulholland’s plan by a ratio of 11 to 1. Mulholland asked the city for exactly how much he thought the project would cost: $24.5 million. (Private contractors would have cost $40 million.) Eight years later, the project came in within $100,000 of that projection.

Mulholland’s engineering expertise distinguishes him from his most obvious historical analog, New York City’s Robert Moses. Whereas Moses wielded power to build feats of engineering, Mulholland wielded engineering to create feats of power. 

Mulholland designed the whole thing himself, at least the broad strokes. He would “sketch with a stick in the sand the outline of a piece of work […] and then leave the man to work the thing out in detail.” Mulholland devised a way to transport and join sections of pipe 10 feet in diameter. He invented a type of concrete and envisioned how to pump and spray it; refined the steam shovel and gave a treaded earth-moving machine the name “caterpillar”; and organized his several thousand workers into a dozen divisions and negotiated their wages. He eschewed subcontractors. 

Mulholland himself admitted, “I have tendencies that are absolutely autocratic and at times unreasonably domineering.” They are, perhaps, forgivable when you are right. If Mulholland had ever been wrong — even once — Los Angeles would have wasted $24 million, or it might not exist at all.

Mulholland gets accused, variously, of being a puppet of Los Angeles’s land interests, particularly those of the then-barren San Fernando Valley, and of “stealing” the water rights of the ranchers of the Owens Valley. Standiford argues convincingly that Mulholland paid a fair price and did not particularly care who did what with the water as long as it got there. He was “driven by the logic of the utilitarian credo — the greater good for the greatest number — and by his loyalty to his adopted place.” 

Opponents tried to stifle the project at several turns, scuttling bond sales, supporting opposition candidates for mayor, accusing Mulholland of personal malfeasance. Most famously, Socialist protesters set off a bomb at the (pro-aqueduct) Los Angeles Times headquarters. 

Other bombs went off in the Owens Valley. The valley’s farmers and businesspeople remained bitter even after the aqueduct opened. They instigated the “water wars” of the 1920s, in which portions of canal were sabotaged and intakes forcibly closed. The wars came to an abrupt end when a bank owned by one of the leading protesters was found to have committed multiple acts of fraud. 

If there’s any sure evidence of Mulholland’s ethical stature, it lies in the project itself. He accepted a fair but modest public servant’s salary. He fought off attempts to privatize the city’s water utility, and he lobbied, successfully, for the power utility to be public too. All the while, he brought the project in on time and on budget, with only 42 fatalities. This is an unheard-of feat for almost any infrastructure project, and doubly so for one that ranks just below the Panama Canal and Hoover Dam in magnitude. Standiford surmises that “a public servant the likes of which the world had never seen before may simply have been too inspiring for cynics to tolerate.” 

At the opening ceremony in the Newhall Pass, Mulholland uttered a proclamation as famous as it is banal: “There it is. Take it.” Standiford tries to narrate the moment with drama, but it’s still not clear whether Mulholland was being profound or just characteristically laconic.

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The people who really appreciated Mulholland were the citizens and, yes, real estate developers of Los Angeles. Summarily hydrated, they went on to build, and promote, the first major world city built not on the niceties of commerce, culture, power, or location, but rather on infrastructure. “A great Los Angeles,” writes Standiford, “meant a big Los Angeles.” Water-motivated annexations, including that of the San Fernando Valley, led to the immensity of today’s city.

The city grew to 575,000 by 1920 and 1.25 million 10 years after that.

Into his fourth and fifth decades as Chief, Mulholland continued to design major projects. In 1928, fate finally overwhelmed expertise. The collapse of his St. Francis dam, in the Santa Clara River watershed, remains the state’s second-largest disaster, after the San Francisco earthquake, and the country’s second-largest dam collapse. Standiford carefully explains the arguments in favor of and against Mulholland’s personal culpability. By most accounts, the accident left him a broken man but still a responsible one: “Fasten (blame) on me if there was any error in judgment, human judgment. I was the human.” 

Ever the autodidact, Mulholland said, “Damn a man who doesn’t read books […] the test of a man is his knowledge of humanity, the politics of human life, his comprehension of the things that move men” (in an appropriate echo of Daniel Burnham’s justification for great urban plans).

Mulholland probably would have appreciated Standiford. He’s an ebullient writer, genuinely fascinated by the story he’s telling and truly admiring of his subject. He also captures the landscape of California, bringing life to places that most Californians know only as pit stops, or just road signs, on the way to Mammoth — if they know them at all. With shades of steampunk, he has a knack for describing labor and engineering. 

Of course, Mulholland’s legend is no secret in Los Angeles. His name, which adorns the highway that skirts the crest of the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains, casts a long shadow to this day, on both sides of the hill. But it’s easy to lose sight of the enormity of that feat if only because we turn on the tap with such nonchalance. And we never know whether famous names are justly famous or whether they were just politically savvy. That’s why Standiford’s accessible account of the man, his city, and his accomplishments is a welcome addition to the Los Angeles canon.

It is also a rejoinder to another member of that canon: Chinatown, the 1974 film that puts water wars at the backdrop of a gumshoe caper starring Jack Nicholson, written and directed by Robert Towne. Whether a fictional piece deserves attention in a historical book is debatable. He gets Towne to set the record straight in an interview: Chinatown is a fictionalization. It makes for great cinema, but perhaps does a disservice to a city that struggles so mightily with its own history.

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Water to the Angels came out to coincide with the centennial of the aqueduct’s opening. Standiford could not have predicted that it would also come out amid the worst drought in the state’s history, at a time when conservation seems to be the only hope for Los Angeles and for the hundreds of other California cities that followed its lead of importing water from elsewhere and that grew accordingly. Mulholland figured that the Owens River could support 2 million residents.

Standiford quotes now-Mayor Eric Garcetti’s corny but advisable proclamation on the 100th anniversary of the opening of the aqueduct: “There it is. Conserve it.” 

Needless to say, Mulholland was no environmentalist. Standiford does not belabor this shortcoming, probably because Mulholland was no different from anyone else of his era. In fact, Standiford almost forgives Mulholland by pointing out that had the water stayed put, development and environmental degradation might have overtaken the Owens Valley, turning it into another Reno: “There could well be three or four times as many residents in the Owens Valley as there are at present, or even more, along with a corresponding greater number of schools, housing developments, and big-box retailers.”

Regardless, Mulholland arguably sets a lousy example for enduring today’s drought. Cutbacks, efficiency, conservation, and social pressure are the order of the day. Urban planners are hopeful that today’s conservation methods might effectively expand the state’s long-term supplies and, therefore, its capacity for growth. Small solutions, like reclaiming household runoff and tearing out lawns, are gaining popularity. Highly technical solutions, like desalination and “toilet to tap” treatments are too.

Even so, long-term plans for enormous water tunnels in the Sacramento Delta are being revived. They’ve been discussed for nearly 40 years — 12 years shorter than Mulholland’s career, and 38 years longer than it took him to build one of the greatest ditches, and the greatest city, the world has ever known.

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Josh Stephens is contributing editor to the California Planning and Development Report and former editor of The Planning Report.