California’s Water Story, A Story of Big Projects, Drought, and Disaster


Eastern Australia is flooded with water – far, far too much – but across the Pacific it’s a whole different story.

Parts of California are facing unprecedented calls to conserve water.

After three years of missed rains, Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District declared a storage emergency, demanding “drastic reductions in water use” for six million residents.

This impending disaster comes just years after California’s previous crippling drought erupted in 2017.

More than 58% of California was experiencing exceptional drought in October 2014.(Provided: National Drought Mitigation Center)

This is the latest saga in the Golden State’s long and troubled water history, featuring miraculous feats of engineering, ingenuity, deception, sabotage and death.

As we sit with full dams, what follows is a reminder of the lengths people will go when the water dries up.

The rise of William Mulholland

After years of working on ships and docks, 1877 found Belfast-born William Mulholland in sleepy Los Angeles.

The outpost at the end of the railway housed 10,000 souls and its main claim to fame was the good weather.

The Sun certainly seemed fine with 22-year-old Mulholland, who soon got a job as a ditch digger for the City Water Company.

Hitting the books at night, Mulholland quickly impressed his superiors and rose through the ranks as a self-taught engineer.

William Mulholland was a testament to the tenacity and possibility of the times.(ABC Weather: Kate Doyle)

Los Angeles had a population of 100,000 at the turn of the century, and a slightly grayer Mulholland had become head of the Water Company.

But as the city grew, it was obvious that the Los Angeles River would not be able to meet the water demand.

The solutions were not at hand; Southern California is essentially a desert.

But big trouble isn’t for the short-sighted, and former Mulholland boss Fred Eaton had excellent vision.

Eaton proposed tapping into Owens Lake – 375 km (233 miles) from Los Angeles, but still supplied with water by melting snow off the Sierra Nevada and about 1,200 m above sea level. sea.

A camping trip to the valley was enough to convince Mulholland, who drew up the plans for the entirely gravity-fed aqueduct and oversaw the project himself.

Black and white image of a big pipe going up and through mountain ranges
The construction of the aqueduct was completed on time and under budget.(Provided: United States National Park Service)

But it wasn’t just geography that stood in the way of the project.

Owens Valley residents weren’t keen on southerners stealing their water, a situation further complicated by a federal reclamation project aimed at expanding farmland in the valley.

Yet the reclamation bid was spearheaded by Joseph Lippincott, an acquaintance of Eaton, and through appeals to President Theodore Roosevelt and various nefarious deals, they purchased enough water rights in the Valley of ‘Owens to power the project.

Illustration of crowds cheering falling water
Mulholland was victorious as the crowd cheered the water flowing from the aqueduct.(ABC Weather: Kate Doyle)

So, despite frequent acts of explosive sabotage by the residents of Owens Valley, progress continued.

Under Mulholland’s command, the aqueduct was completed on time and under budget. It really was a different era.

In 1913, 40,000 people gathered to watch the first water crash, ready to supply thirsty Los Angeles.

A victorious Mulholland shouted:

“Here it is – take it!”

The self-taught Irishman had come a long way after digging ditches.

Black and white photography of water cascading down stairs waterfalls
Water rushed down the famous Cascades to Los Angeles for the first time in 1913. (Provided: United States National Park Service)

Everything is falling apart

But the celebrations were short-lived.

The residents of Owens Valley still feared that the aqueduct would lead to the death of their community and their way of life.

It wasn’t long before Owens Lake was drained, leaving vast expanses of dust – in the years since, the dry lake bed has been the largest source of PM-10 dust in the United States .

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has since spent $2.1 billion fighting the dust, ironically, including flooding parts of the lake again.

But the biggest blow to the project came on March 12, 1928.

After the aqueduct was completed, it became apparent that the city would soon need more water, so Mulholland chose the location to build a dam in the San Francisquito Canyon.

Black and white image of St Francis Dam in competition
The failure of the Saint Francis Dam was ultimately attributed to weak foundations, uplift, and design flaws.(Provided: US Geological Survey)

Two years after completion, and as the dam was filling for the first time, dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger called Mulholland to check out some worrying cracks.

Mulholland and the dam designer inspected the site in person that morning, but cleaned up the cracks as usual and returned to town.

Minutes before midnight that night, the St. Francis Dam collapsed, sending its entire contents crashing down on those unlucky enough to get in their way.

The dam keeper was among the dead, believed to have been swept offshore.

The night of horror generated stories of heroism, of police motorcyclists riding the wave to warn communities downriver, and another of telephone operators desperately trying to call ahead to sound the alarm.

Illustration: a tombstone like a piece of dam hangs over those who came to inspect the damage
An integral section of the dam wall remained, morbidly labeled “the tombstone”.(ABC Weather: Kate Doyle)

But by 5 a.m. when the wave reached the sea, hundreds of people had been swept from their beds. The official death toll is around 450 people, but it’s likely much higher.

Many bodies were never found and many migrants and people passing through the region would not have been counted among the missing.

Subsequent investigations did not blame Mulholland but he took responsibility for the disaster.

In the aftermath, he said:

“Don’t blame anyone else, just attach it to me.

“If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human.”

Regardless of blame, the disaster forever scarred Mulholland’s reputation and ended his career.

just the beginning

Despite its monumental scale, the Los Angeles Aqueduct now represents a relatively small part of the city’s water supply.

California’s water system is like one of our own schemer John Bradfield’s wildest dreams.

The Southwest of the United States is criss-crossed with aqueducts connecting distant springs so far-fetched it’s hard to believe it could be invented today.

Prior to his retirement, Mulholland was involved in planning an aqueduct to connect Los Angeles to the Colorado River.

The project eventually resulted in the Colorado River Aqueduct, 390 km long, and this time requiring pumps to take it over the mountains.

Illustration: Map showing the locations of the Los Angeles, Colorado River and California aqueducts.
California’s vast water supply system still relies on these monumental aqueducts.(ABC Weather: Kate Doyle)

The Colorado River Aqueduct was completed in 1941 before work began on the massive state water project in the late 1950s.

The crowning achievement of the State Water Project is the 444-mile (714 km) California Aqueduct – that’s roughly the distance between Sydney and Melbourne as the crow flies.

However, with all this infrastructure, the state is still struggling to provide enough water to its inhabitants.

Map of the United States showing that most of the western United States is currently under drought conditions.
The current extent of the drought extends much further than in the 2010s.(Provided: National Drought Mitigation Center)

Water levels in Colorado River reservoirs are now so low that the abandoned remains of decades-old murders have been exposed.

Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the United States, held back by the Hoover Dam, is now the lowest since it was first filled in 1937.

But it was dwindling supplies from the State Water Project that triggered the latest round of water restrictions in Southern California.

Over the past three years, the program has delivered only 60% of the lowest three-year deliveries previously forecast, less than 20% of its average deliveries, prompting the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to to announce :

“We just don’t have enough water to meet normal demand this year.

“This drought is severe and one of the most alarming challenges our region has ever faced.”

The future of water

California’s water story is an epic saga of humans making tools to let them fly in the face of natural constraints. A pride that has largely dissipated.

But it also shows that there is only a limited time to go around the edges of the sun.

Illustration: green lake surrounded by palm trees
Mulholland Lake in Los Angeles is a permanent testament to the man who brought water to the desert city.(ABC Weather: Kate Doyle)

Australia may be going through a wet phase, but dry weather will return.

With climate change eating away at any certainty we have about our water supply, it will take ingenuity, rethinking how we use our water and a tough look at where we choose to live, for us make sure we don’t run out of water.

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