To the west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in California’s vast, dry San Joaquin Valley, a catastrophe is unfolding. Drought-stricken growers, deprived of surface water for irrigation, are pumping ancient aquifers at a rate that will eventually extinguish them forever, should the water shortage persist. About 120 miles away, on the opposite side of the snow-starved mountain range, sits the Owens Valley. Here, the drought is merely an aggravating factor in a water crisis that began more than a century ago. In 1913, William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power completed the aqueduct that tapped the river that once irrigated the high desert basin and diverted it to the citrus groves of the San Fernando Valley, 200 miles to the south. Then in 1970, the LADWP completed its second aqueduct and began pumping the valley’s groundwater until all but a single major spring had run dry.
As every resident of the Southland must know by now, this month marks the centennial of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. When, in 1913, the valves were first turned and water rushed down the last hillside between the Eastern Sierra and the San Fernando Valley, William Mulholland, the brilliant self-taught engineer who guided the project, and whose career would end when the St. Francis Dam collapsed, famously said, “There it is. Take it.”
A small group of anonymous but rich men already had. And they will again, if they can.
A hundred years ago, these self-styled “civic leaders” cooked up a plan that began by stealing all the water that flowed down the Owens Valley on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. If you’ve seen Chinatown you know this plot. A faked water-shortage scare stampeded L.A. voters into supporting a bond measure that provided funds to purchase ranch and farm properties in the Owens Valley,