March 20, 2006

Water King's Legacy

Generations after William Mulholland's birth, his lessons still resonate

by Jennifer Finley | BC WATER NEWS

Mulholland, 1924 (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Herald Examiner)

More than 150 years since William Mulholland's birth, his legendary works continue to have profound effects. 

Born Sept. 11, 1855, in Belfast, Ireland, he emigrated to the United States at age 22. During a 40-year career, he shaped the future of Southern California's water system and became known as the man who brought Los Angeles to life.

Mulholland started his career as a ditch digger for the Los Angeles City Water Co. in 1878 and rose through the ranks to become superintendent by the time he was 31. Among his accomplishments, he proposed, designed and supervised the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. He also played a key role in the development of the Colorado Aqueduct, the Hoover Dam, the St. Francis Dam, and even influenced the design of the Panama Canal.

He also is credited as being the inspiration for the creation of both the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Unfortunately, Mulholland is most often remembered for the St. Francis Dam collapse in 1928, which marked the end of his career. The lessons learned from this tragedy continue to serve today as warnings for the present condition of California's levees and dams. As the parched states in the West continue to battle the drought, it may help to remember the creativity and forethought of the man who successfully resolved that issue long ago.

Los Angeles Aqueduct

The 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct brings water from Owens River north of the city to the San Fernando Valley and was the world's longest at the time of its creation. In 1904, Mulholland was concerned about the exploding population of Los Angeles and was determined that more than doubling the minimum flow of the Los Angeles River would be necessary to meet the city's needs.

Los Angeles Aqueduct (Photo courtesy of LADWP)
Los Angeles Aqueduct

Local groundwater resources were limited and were quickly being depleted by agriculture. Mullholland knew that he would have to go elsewhere to find the new flow. Los Angeles Mayor Fred Eaton and U.S. Reclamation Service engineer J.B. Lippincott encouraged Mulholland to consider Owens River as a source. The river was a prime candidate because of the natural direction of its course toward Los Angeles, so Mulholland began to design a system of aqueducts and reservoirs that could transport the water using only the flow of gravity.

In 1907, the voters of Los Angeles endorsed the project and approved a $23 million bond issue. Construction began in 1908, bringing workers from across the globe to join in what would become a record-breaking venture. The massive project required close to 4,000 workers and included the construction of 164 tunnels. The first flow of Owens River water made its way to the San Fernando Valley reservoir Nov. 5, 1913.

The water brought forth great development as dry land was turned into flourishing farms and residential areas; however, many Owens Valley residents protested violently and a dispute ensued. (This feud is rumored to have been the inspiration for the film "Chinatown.") Because of the unprecedented growth in the area, Mulholland would be searching for water again 10 years later.

Colorado River Aqueduct

In the late '20s, as the drought worsened and water demands grew in Southern California, Mulholland began a series of surveys to determine the best way to bring water from the Colorado River to the Los Angeles area. His answer was to construct the Colorado River Aqueduct.

The eight-year project (1933-41) would bring water 300 miles from Arizona to the West Coast and became the largest employment opportunity in Southern California during the Great Depression. The aqueduct project employed more than 35,000 people during this period.

In 1925, the LADWP was established and a $2 million bond was passed to pay for engineering of the project. In 1928, MWD was officially created by the state Legislature to construct the aqueduct, which was designed and built under the direction of MWD Chief Engineer Frank E. Weymouth.

A 242-mile network of pumping plants, reservoirs and canals was constructed to bring water stored behind Parker Dam near Lake Havasu City, Ariz., via the Colorado River. The flow crosses the Mojave Desert, makes its way between several mountain ranges, streams through the Coachella Valley and ends up at Lake Mathews in Riverside County. From there, the water is distributed to multiple communities in Southern California.

Colorado River Aqueduct (Photo courtesy of California Farm Water Coalition)
Colorado River Aqueduct

A closer look at the aqueduct reveals some amazing statistics:

      • 2 reservoirs
      • 5 pumping plants
      • 92 miles of tunnels
      • 63 miles of concrete canals
      • 55 miles of concrete conduits
      • 144 siphons totaling 29 miles

An engineering marvel, the aqueduct was recognized in 1992 by the ASCE as one of the seven "wonders" of the American engineering world. The aqueduct continues to be operated by the MWD and serves as one of the primary sources of drinking water in southern California.

Hoover Dam (Photo courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)
 Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam

In 1929, President Herbert Hoover signed the Boulder Canyon Act, addressing water supply, flood control and energy production for the three states that form the lower Colorado River basin. This project's primary feature was the construction of the world's largest dam in Black Canyon.

Completed in 1935, Hoover Dam would also serve as the key element in the country's first multipurpose reclamation project. Again, the LADWP was instrumental in securing the necessary federal funding by guaranteeing Los Angeles' power purchases against the federal costs.

St. Francis Dam

Each spring, Californians remember the tragedy of the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928. The dam gave way on the eve of March 12th, just minutes before midnight, creating a treacherous wall of water that swept away more than 500 lives in the darkness. At its peak, the wave of more than 12 billion gallons of water was reportedly 78 feet high and flowed across 50 miles through the Santa Clara Valley before entering the Pacific Ocean somewhere between Oxnard and Ventura. Damage estimates exceeded $20 million, with destruction of structures and homes, bridges and railways, crops, orchards and livestock.

The failure of the dam led to Mulholland's retirement from the LADWP and more or less ended his career. He had visited the dam the day before the break and noticed some leakage, but did not think it was anything out of the ordinary. At the inquest, the jury found that the disaster was caused by the failure of weak rock formations under the dam. In essence, Mulholland was not criminally liable, but he did make serious errors. No criminal charges were brought, but he and the LADWP shouldered the blame for the incident.

St. Francis Dam, taken just after the 1928 disaster (Photo courtesy of California State University, Long Beach)
St. Francis Dam, taken just after the 1928 disaster

As its chief designer, Mulholland bravely took full responsibility for the tragedy, saying, "If there is an error of human judgment, I am the human." He lived in isolation for the rest of his life and died in 1935 at age 79. In recent years, a study indicated that given the geological knowledge of the time, Mulholland could not have prevented the accident. Part of the dam had been anchored to an ancient landslide that was impossible to detect at the time.

The second aqueduct

Several decades later, a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1963 allocated Arizona more water from the Colorado River and reduced MWDs portion by more than 50 percent. The district turned to the eastern Sierra for more water and began construction of a second aqueduct. Completed in 1970, it transports water from Haiwee Reservoir to the Los Angeles area and supplied an additional 50 percent capacity to the existing water system. The price tag for this project: a mere $89 million.

The legend of William Mulholland brings mixed responses from California residents. Although he was a controversial figure, Los Angeles honored him by attaching his name to one California's most scenic highways: Mulholland Drive.


California Farm Water Coalition

Los Angeles Aqueduct

Los Angeles Department of Water & Power

Metropolitan Water District

National Public Radio: The St. Francis Dam Disaster

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation: Hoover Dam


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