The Los Angeles Aqueduct Turns 100, Or The Mules That Built LA

The Los Angeles Aqueduct Turns 100, Or The Mules That Built LA

Wicked dust storms spun through Newhall Pass during the centennial celebration of the Los Angeles Aqueduct on Tuesday. The winds shuddered against the tent that held hundreds of LADWP workers and sent blinding poofs of dirt into the faces of the civic dignitaries seated onstage. It was a rather ominous sign.

Although the mood was jovial at the birthday party — and it was very much a party, with cake and pennants and a big brass band — everyone, even the actors dressed up in 1913 garb participating in the historic re-enactment, was honest about the aqueduct’s dubious distinction. They spoke of an engineering feat that, while fate-sealing for one little town, had quite literally sucked another part of the state dry.

“President Theodore Roosevelt” takes the stage at the aqueduct’s ceremony just before “William Mullholland”.

In a way, with these long-dead personalities brought back to life, it was like the leaders of Los Angeles Past had returned to give advice to the leaders of Los Angeles Present, a kind of infrastructural Christmas Carol: Former L.A. mayor “Frederick Eaton” introduced the city’s current Mayor Eric Garcetti; Los Angeles Times publisher “Harry Chandler” introduced his great-great-grandson Harry B. Chandler.

No one shied away from addressing the aqueduct’s complicated history and perhaps more troublesome future. Taking the stage after a quite convincing actor portrayed her great-grandfather William Mulholland, Christine Mulholland might have said it best: “There is no more water.”

It was a far cry from her great-grandfather’s oddly eloquent statement uttered at the aqueduct’s opening — “There it is. Take it!” — which “William Mulholland” did recite as the gates were dramatically cranked open at exactly 1:30 p.m., just as they were 100 years ago.

40,000 people attended the opening of the aqueduct in 1913, many of them taking a special train from downtown Los Angeles for $US1.

A century later, the aqueduct remains a modern marvel, with its water making a 233-mile journey south from the Owens Valley powered only by gravity. The arrival of this long-distance lifeblood more or less marks the beginning of the rise of an arid city and its transformation into a global superpower. (A second aqueduct that runs more or less parallel to it was opened in 1970.)

Yet this gift of seemingly boundless abundance came at great cost to a large region of the Eastern Sierras, an area that has been environmentally and economically devastated so that L.A. could boom.

Water comes gushing down the aqueduct at the The Cascades before being treated across the 5 Freeway.

The magnitude of this undertaking didn’t fully hit me until I stood at the edge of The Cascades, the southern terminus of the aqueduct, a site not normally open to the public. To say that I could smell the Sierras in the water might be an exaggeration, but that’s exactly how it felt as the rush of cool humidity stairstepped gently but urgently down the hillside.

Instantly, the air was transformed, the fine mist creating a microclimate around us, which, on this tinder-dry day under relentless November sunshine, felt very much like cause for celebration.

An LADWP employee watches the proceedings as the dignitaries are photographed at far right.

The LADWP has been working to make things right in the Owens Valley, like restoring the natural water level to the siphoned-off Owens Lake. And there are some changes here at home: LADWP will pay you up to $US2 per square foot to replace your lawn with drought-tolerant plants. After all, the city could very well be sitting on a quick-fix of its own, simply by redesigning its hardscape to be more permeable.

But, as I stood there, looking at the politicians and the engineers and the reporters from the local news, I wondered: How many of us had actually taken steps to make sure that water, incongruously gushing out of a hillside, isn’t being wasted?

Meanwhile, for those of us who knew where to look at just the right moment, one could see the unsung heroes of the aqueduct’s construction watching over the proceedings from high in the foothills. They did not attend the ceremony, and were mentioned only briefly in the morning’s remarks. Just before 1pm, 100 mules gathered on a hillside above The Cascades.

And, in a strange way, the presence of these animals represents the next 100 years of the aqueduct’s destiny.

Called the “most noteworthy pipe in the United States”, this section of the aqueduct was hauled into a canyon in 26-ton sections by mules.

In the early 1900s, engineers were enthusiastic about using new Caterpillar traction trailers, hulking steam-powered engines which seemed to be a game-changing technology for the project. But the parched, treacherous land began to ravage the Caterpillars, and their machinery became clogged with dirt and rocks, leading to exorbitant maintenance costs.

Mules, on the other hand, were undoubtably suited to both the terrain and the climate, and offered a reliable, affordable alternative to the machines, which were soon abandoned. A famous 52-mule team in the Mojave’s Jawbone Canyon carried 10m sections of pipe that weighed 24 tonnes apiece.

Several of the 100 mules and donkeys that traced most of the aqueduct’s 230-mile route.

A project called One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct (as well as their wranglers and backup vehicles) had spent the last 27 days winding its way through the Eastern Sierras and Mojave Desert to LA. Part parade, part performance art, the 100 Mules project hoped not only to bring attention to this forgotten chapter of aqueduct history, but also to connect Angelenos — many of whom do not know that the water coming out of their tap is piped in from 320km away — to their far-flung water supply, says Lauren Bon, the artist behind 100 Mules.

For over a decade, Bon’s Metabolic Studio has been active up and down California with projects addressing LA’s water, from a giant waterwheel proposed for the LA River to a film that not only traces the departure of water from the Owens Valley but also explores the legacy of the silver mined there (which was used to make film stock, and was thus responsible for LA’s fate in a whole other way).

“We want to be mindful of the entire watershed,” said Bon, after the mules had settled in for the night at Stetson Ranch, about 2km away from The Cascades. This meant getting LADWP’s permission to walk on the aqueduct’s actual infrastructure — the lids and tunnels and pipes — for most of the 370km, with the animals that had carved this path.

Metabolic Studio’s Lauren Bon, third from right, talks about the 100 Mules project with wranglers and Matt Coolidge, second from right, of the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

Standing with her fellow mule wranglers from the McGee Creek Pack Station near the aqueduct’s intake, whose mules are usually working to transport tools to Forest Service workers and support backcountry campers, Bon lamented that while the journey was a life-changing experience, it had made her melancholy. “I feel much sadder now having walked the entire route because I’m now aware of the cost of exporting water from one watershed to another, and the lives lost — lost across all species,” she said. “I would like to do this walk again in 100 years when we’re not moving water around.”

As the wranglers industriously folded trail blankets and erected their tents, I walked the perimeter of the ranch, pausing at the south end, where the mules looked out over panoramic views of the entire San Fernando Valley. That’s when the symmetry of the exchange occurred to me: One valley was sacrificed for another. The Owens Valley died so this Valley might live — “for the good of the nation,” as fake Teddy Roosevelt had said earlier that day.

For all its monumental accomplishments, the practice of ladling our water from sources halfway across the state is not a sustainable model, and Bon’s vision that it will not last another 100 years is by far the likeliest scenario. But she is also right that what most Angelenos need is this kind of perspective to help them change their behaviour.

The mules will wind their way over mountain passes and equestrian trails over the next few days, appearing at several public events where their pilgrimage is certain to get people thinking. The Cascades will also hold a rare open house, allowing local residents to get up close and personal with their water system in action. I think that seeing these systems at work can make a difference. 40,000 Angelenos came out for the aqueduct’s opening in 1913 in a show of civic pride and boosterism. If at least as many of today’s Angelenos engaged with the reality of our water crisis, it would be a small but important step in the right direction.

The pageantry of the costumes and cake aside, it did feel like the aqueduct’s anniversary represented a massive pivot in the water history of the city. In his speech, Mayor Eric Garcetti even suggested a new catchphrase, instead of the now-empty “There it is, take it”: “There it is: Conserve it, respect it and share it.”

Maybe that line will be uttered by an actor portraying Garcetti in 2113, on the 100th anniversary of the moment Angelenos got serious about our water situation.

Historical photos courtesy LADWP; thanks to the Center for Land Use Interpretation for the excellent field trip to the aqueduct celebration.