By: Genevieve Finn
Right now, California is facing one of the toughest droughts recorded in our states history. The situation is so desperate that Governor Brown declared a State of Emergency and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for these drought conditions in January. This may have come as a shock for many Californians who were unaware of our waning water supplies, but in reality this situation has been brewing for years. Let’s take a walk way, way down memory lane to the days of William Mulholland.
William Mulholland emigrated to the United States in 1878 and worked as a ditch-digger in the Los Angeles area. This is where he was introduced to the hydraulics business of Los Angeles, which he soon became deeply involved in, taking on the position of superintendent at the peak of his career. It became Mulholland’s job to supply water for the ever-growing city of Los Angeles, which quickly sucked its main water source - the little Los Angeles River - dry. Mulholland looked north to the fertile Owens River Valley to quench Los Angeles’s huge thirst.
Throughout 1911-1923, Mulholland’s team quietly acquired the water rights to 95% of the Owens River and constructed a giant 233-mile aqueduct across the Mojave Desert to bring water to Los Angeles. Although Mulholland’s intentions were good, the way he went about doing this could be considered corrupt because he allowed his bureaucratic friends to purchase desert land for cheap with the knowledge that it would soon be quality farmland because the aqueduct would run across it. Many also think Mulholland “tricked” the people of the Owens River Valley and stole their water. In response, the local ranchers of the Owens River Valley seized the pipeline and dynamited it repeatedly. But they were no match for Mulholland and the city of Los Angeles, who promptly seized it back with a huge showing of armed force.
A few years later, disaster struck again. The San Francisquito Dam burst in 1928, with such horrible consequences that Mulholland resigned in shame, his real achievements forgotten. Mulholland’s predecessors continued his perpetual search for water for Los Angeles, looking east to the Colorado River and north to the Feather River. The city still proved unquenchable, but the last straw for the rest of California came when Los Angeles officials drained Mono Lake, destroying important ecosystems and causing an outcry from environmentalists and landowners alike.
Nowadays Los Angeles still struggles to provide it's burgeoning population with the water it needs, especially in our current drought. The effects of Mulholland's groundbreaking actions are still felt in the Owens River Valley and Mono Lake. We must always remember this story in the present and try to look to the past to solve our future problems.