WATER, CONSERVATION,
AND AGRICULTURE
CHAPTER 29

The new wave of migration into the state, spurred on by the automobile, could not have been supported without water. From 1900 onward, California’s cities and counties spent millions of dollars on new dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts to conserve and deliver that precious commodity.

In semi-arid southern California, farmers welcomed the unique irrigation experiments of a Canadian engineer, George Chaffey, who successfully diverted streams, created artificial lakes, and stored subsurface water efficiently. A growing and thirsty Los Angeles, located amid a dry belt of expanding suburbs, was dependent upon the meager Los Angeles River (an uncertain underground stream) and a shrinking water table. By 1904, its reservoirs were barely able to take in enough water to equal their outflow. At this point the city’s chief engineer, William Mulholland, argued that the city could no longer rely upon the Los Angeles River as its main water source. He recommended that an attempt be made to tap the distant Owens River in the southern Sierra range.

A bond issue was subsequently put on the ballot to provide construction of a $25 million aqueduct that would traverse the 238 miles from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. By 1908, construction of a pipe and flume system across the Mojave Desert, to catch the runoff from the melted snow in the southern Sierra range, began. Utilizing several thousand workers, Mulholland completed his complex network of tunnels and trenches in less than five years. Although it was a highly acclaimed feat of engineering, controversy soon arose. Violent criticisms of Mulholland came from ranchers and farmers forced to evacuate their Owens Valley homes under threat of eviction. This amounted to a form of eminent domain. Recreationists who loved to fish in the valley joined naturalists in mounting a strong protest.

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