On November 5, 1913, William Mulholland, Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (“Aqueduct”), proclaimed at its opening: “There it is. Take it!” Mulholland was referring to the water that would soon spur a period of economic growth for Los Angeles and quench the thirst of over four million people across 464 square miles. The growth of Los Angeles over the past century has demonstrated the success of Mulholland’s Aqueduct. Though this project has been hailed for its creativity and success in achieving the goal of bringing needed water to this region, it also has had significant environmental impacts, especially on the ecosystems around the Owens Valley.
The Aqueduct’s centennial anniversary occurs on November 5, 2013, accompanied with the renovation of the area surrounding the Mulholland Memorial Fountain located in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. Such an event can serve to inspire future innovation by providing a platform to discuss additional water resources as Los Angeles’ need for water continues to mount. Moreover, this centennial celebration offers an opportunity to consider the environmental repercussions from projects similar to the Aqueduct. The goal of all future water-resource development projects should include obtaining water supplies with minimal cost to the environment and the local ecosystems.
In the early twentieth century, Los Angeles was a city at a crossroads in its economic and social development. Without adequate water resources, the potential economic opportunities would not have been fully realized. The solution was to import water from the Owens River, a distant and available water source over two-hundred miles away. Mulholland and many other Los Angeles officials worked under early-twentieth-century principles of utilizing available natural resources for human consumption without significant concern for environmental consequences. They viewed untapped natural resources, such as rivers that flowed freely to oceans, as an inefficient use of resources.
As a result of a number of “questionable” land dealings on behalf of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (“LADWP”), the city obtained considerable land along the Owens River. Owens Valley ranchers contested the project, but with the support of President Roosevelt and the necessary land in hand, the city completed the gravity-fed 233-mile long Aqueduct in five years at a cost of approximately $23 million.
In developing the Aqueduct, the City of Los Angeles undertook numerous measures to maximize the use of the watershed to satisfy the needs of the Los Angeles community. However, this focus on water development overshadowed concerns about environmental impacts. As a result, many environmental issues that subsequently surfaced still linger. The depletion of Owens Lake due to substantial Owens River diversions is one such problem. By 1929, Owens Lake was nearly depleted, leaving a dry lakebed covered in dust. Los Angeles is now taking steps to manage the alkali dust that sporadically blows off the dry lakebed and contributes to the air pollution in the southern Owens Valley. This mineral-laced dust has been recognized as the greatest source of particulate pollution in the country. To ameliorate the harms from the toxic dust storms, Los Angeles constructed a system of gates that steer some water into the original lakebed. The Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program utilized 75,300 acre-feet of water in 2012-13 and may utilize as much as 95,000 acre-feet during the 2013-14 runoff year. This program allows natural regrowth of cottonwood trees and other vegetation and also fosters the return of native animals to the area.
Although Owens Lake still suffers from significant impacts caused by the Aqueduct diversions, the Owens River has been part of one of the largest river restoration efforts in the West. After a dry spell of nearly a century, water is again flowing along a 62-mile stretch of the Owens River. During the 2012-13 runoff year, the Lower Owens River had a minimum flow of forty cfs or greater. Several environmental mitigation measures now in place, including the establishment of a warm-water fishery in a once dry area of the river, help ensure that the surrounding ecosystem is restored and preserved.
Los Angeles again faces a crossroads
The LADWP, the largest municipally owned and operated retail water utility in the country, currently faces immense challenges in securing and utilizing its limited water resources. The southern California coastal plain averages less than fifteen inches of rain annually, and the city must import nearly 85% of its water.
Despite Los Angeles’s commitment to one of the nation’s more intensive water conservation programs, the ever-growing population continually increases demand for water. By the year 2035, water demand is expected to increase to 711,000 acre-feet. Water managers encounter a difficult challenge in developing new water supplies and enhancing the current system’s reliability without initiating new and expensive projects or reigniting litigation over current resources – like the Owens River.
Currently, the majority of Los Angeles’s water is derived from multiple sources: the Aqueduct, the Colorado River Aqueduct, the California Aqueduct, and local groundwater supplies. Historically, these sources have been sufficient to satisfy the city’s needs. However, future projections require the city to identify and implement additional methods to meet the increasing water demand. The LADWP has studied numerous other potential water supplies, such as purchasing the water from foreign areas, recharging groundwater sources, and implementing stormwater recapture projects.
A water recycling and groundwater recharge program could take a larger role in providing necessary water supplies. Groundwater provides a significant source of the city’s current total water supply, and many environmentalists advocate for the use of advanced-treated recycled water to both meet increasing demand and also aid groundwater replenishment. Similarly, the LADWP has been collaborating with other agencies to improve stormwater capture projects. In doing so, the LADWP has renovated the existing stormwater capture facilities and spread infiltration systems throughout the region to increase the amount of water captured. These projects have the capacity to expand groundwater reliability, water conservation, water quality, and flood control, while also helping to meet Los Angeles’ looming water demands.
Los Angeles’ economic development and vitality is dependent upon reliable water supplies. In the face of an increasing demand for water, LADWP is dedicated to identifying additional water sources to meet those future needs. Many environmental advocates are cautiously optimistic about Los Angeles’ heightened environmental mindfulness with future water development. The Aqueduct’s centennial anniversary provides an opportunity for LADWP officials to further demonstrate a commitment to balancing the needs of a thirsty region with conserving the environment. While still echoing the words of William Mulholland – “There it is. Take it!” – Los Angeles should now “take” the opportunity to combine past grievances and innovations with new methods to obtain water in an environmentally conscious manner.
Antonio Rossmann & Michael J. Steel, Forging the New Water Law: Public Regulation of “Proprietary” Groundwater Rights, 33 Hastings L.J. 903 (1982).
L.A. Aqueduct Centennial 2013, Los Angeles Department of Water & Power http://www.laaqueduct100.com/facts-milestones/evolution-of-thinking-about-water-resources/ (last visited Oct. 6, 2013).
Los Angeles Aqueduct, Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, https://www.ladwp.com/ladwp/faces/ladwp/aboutus/a-water/a-w-losangelesaqueduct?_adf.ctrl-state=omtazle6w_17&_afrLoop=206802589898387 (last visited October 6, 2013).
Randal C. Archibold, A Century Later, Los Angeles Atones for Water Sins, N.Y. Times. (Jan. 1, 2007), http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/01/us/01water.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&.
William L. Kahrl, Part II the Politics of California Water: Owens Valley and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 1900-1927, 6 Hastings W.-Nw. J.Envtl. L. & Pol’y 255 (2000).
The title picture is covered by the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. This picture is attributed to the City of Los Angeles, and the use of this picture does not suggest the City of Los Angeles endorses this blog.