L.A. Aqueduct’s Centennial Marks 100 Years of Eastern Sierra Water

One hundred years after William Mulholland reportedly said “There it is, take it,” Los Angeles officials on Tuesday marked the centennial of the completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, an engineering feat that made possible the Southern California we know today.

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Owens Valley water courses down the Cascades at the official opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct on Nov. 5, 1913. (Courtesy: Los Angeles Times)

The aqueduct, bringing Eastern Sierra water more than 230 miles to Los Angeles from the Owens Valley, opened on Nov. 5, 1913 — a seminal moment in L.A. history.

The brainchild of city engineer Mulholland, the aqueduct has been marked by controversy since before it was completed, with the California water wars becoming legend.

Completely powered by gravity, the aqueduct brought clean mountain water to arid Los Angeles, allowing the city to grow into a major metropolis.

Before the aqueduct, the city had primarily gotten its water from the flood-prone, unreliable and often polluted Los Angeles River. The city’s population exploded after the aqueduct water arrived.

An engineering marvel of its day, the aqueduct prompted generations to resent the big-footed Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s presence in the Owens Valley, where agriculture withered as water moved south.

The aqueduct was sabotaged multiple times in its 100-year history. Groundwater pumping in the valley further infuriated local residents, who saw their wells dry up.

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At a ceremony Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, at the First Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, LADWP sent water from the gates, reenacting the opening of the aqueduct 100 years before. (Credit: KTLA)

The city built a second aqueduct reaching farther north in the 1970s, prompting fresh outrage — and a series of lawsuits.

In recent years, LADWP was forced under court order and state law to begin “rewatering” Owens Lake, which had long since turned to a discolored salty pond, prompting dust storms and chronic air pollution in the valley.

The city-owned utility also recently began restoring a 62-mile stretch of the Owens River, creating new habitat for wildlife — and a route for kayakers and canoers in a once-dry riverbed.

The aqueduct’s centennial was celebrated Tuesday at LADWP’s headquarters in downtown L.A., including a live broadcast re-enacting the 1913 dedication of the the Cascades in Sylmar, where drivers on the 5 Freeway can still see water tumbling down the aqueduct’s terminus just as Angelenos first did a century ago.