The L.A. Aqueduct

My parents used to have a condo in the ski town of Mammoth Lakes, California, about five hours’ drive north of L.A. in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We sold it when I was maybe eleven or twelve, and until recently, I hadn’t been back to Mammoth. My dad and I took a road trip couple weeks ago, and we drove through Mammoth, even passing by our old condo. That drive was like a five-hour trip down memory lane, and as we made the trip I was amazed by the bleak, flat landscape, vast stretches of high desert, shrubs, and plains with barely any towns or water to speak of.

When asked to write about a local water feature, I had to think for a bit. Other than the obvious exception of the ocean, Los Angeles County is dry as a bone. There’s the L.A. River, which is little more than a concrete drainage ditch with an inch-deep trickle of water running through it. There’s the Ballona Wetlands, a tiny tidal marsh which has only survived because of its status as a nature preserve. That’s all that came to mind, until I remembered what my dad had told me about all that dry empty land we drove through to get to Mammoth.

Much of that land is known as the Owens Valley, which once had a promising future as a prosperous farming community. However, in the early 1900s, the city of L.A. realized that it was growing far too quickly for its limited water supply, and we turned north, to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Our Department of Water and Power constructed a massive aqueduct which began near Mono Lake and stretched to the northern edge of L.A., irrigating the rapidly growing city. The aqueduct was arguably the inception of this city as we know it, but it drained the Owens Valley of its water, caused the Owens Lake to dry up and turn into a salt flat, and prevented the development of the region’s fledgeling communities.

Los Angeles and the Netherlands share something in common: they’re man-made. But while the Dutch pulled their country up out of the sea, creating dry land from wet swamps, Los Angeles did the opposite. We turned a dry desert into arable farmland, using marvels of engineering to create urban sprawl out of unusable land just like the Dutch. Both incorporated impressive water management infrastructure and bureaucracy, using a system of canals to feed water towards a useful purpose. The towns of the Owens Valley which my dad and I drove through on the way to Mammoth have never fully forgiven this city for its theft of their water. We created an environmental disaster, damaging the fragile ecology of the Sierra’s lakes, and kicked off a political struggle over water rights which we were too powerful to lose. Unlike the Dutch, whose waterworks were constructed over centuries by various communities, our aqueducts were built and expanded over the course of a few decades with the interests of one group in mind at the expense of another. But despite these differences, it fascinates me to think that Los Angeles and the Netherlands, outwardly completely unalike, were both built from barren land to become some of the most heavily urbanized places in the world.

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5 thoughts on “The L.A. Aqueduct

    1. I have! It’s been awhile but I loved the movie and I think I’d have a better understanding now that I know more about the “water wars.”

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  1. This was a very interesting post. I have heard many stories about the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and reading your personal take about those stories gave me a different perspective than that which I’ve grown accustomed to. Your comparison of Los Angeles to Amsterdam was very interesting to me. You contrasted the terraforming of the two cities very well, and the writing flowed smoothly, seeming as if the water from the swampy Netherlands flowed directly into the deserts of California. Well done.

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  2. I enjoyed your post a lot. I had spent four years in LA but never had an opportunity to learn about this. Your post informed me a lot on the background story of the LA aqueduct and how LA compared to the Netherlands. The water features of the Netherlands and LA are very different. They are two opposite in terms of the quantity of water each land possessed. This resulted in unique issues each place faced. One had to obtain water from elsewhere while the other concerned about flooding. But like you concluded, the two places eventually converged on urbanization and faced similar struggles in the course of development.

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  3. spmaxm,

    I really enjoyed your post. I have seen the LA aqueducts in several movies and your historical overview of their creation was really interesting. You also brought up a great point about the effects of dams and river reconfiguration on communities and the environment. Some communities lose and some win. However, if it is well done, everyone can benefit. In Holland, it seems like the projects benefit all of society. It sounds like the recent aqueducts were made with this in mind as well.

    -Zach

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