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A Brief History of the Los Angeles Water Supply
-or- How a Desert Town with No Water Maintains a Population of 9 Million +
Whenever you fill a water bottle, take a shower, or brew your own kombucha in Los Angeles, have you ever wondered where that water comes from?
Answer: One of three sources — the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, the Colorado River, or the Eastern Sierra.
You might have noticed that none of those sources are particularly close to Los Angeles, and you’d be right. Less than 10% of LA’s water lands in the area naturally.
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But wait, what about the LA River? There’s water in there and surely with some filtering and UV cleansing and chemical treatment and reverse osmosis and finally a Brita filter in your fridge it should be drinkable, right?
While yes, the LA River remains shockingly un-polluted (and is actually quite beautiful in spots) it unfortunately supplies a whopping zero percent of the city’s water. We don’t even water our plants with it, much less shower with it or drink it.
In 1938, the City decided to lock the river in place with cement. There is no recapture system, purification system, nothing; just a concrete slide guiding it to the ocean whenever it rains.
Flooding aside, water scarcity was a limiting factor to growth in Southern California. By 1900, the population was nearing the maximum that could be sustained by the natural water supply. Water was running out.
Instead of taking it as a divine sign from the lord that no more people should move to Los Angeles, however, voters decided it was actually a divine sign to begin construction on a 233 mile long, $24.5 million cement aqueduct pulling water from the Eastern Sierra so they could keep partying in the sun.
I’m going to repeat that for emphasis: a $24.5 million ($724.5 million in today’s currency) 233 mile cement river stealing water from the Eastern Sierra Nevada and bringing it to Los Angeles. If you think politics are wild today, imagine the blurb in the 1905 voter guide trying to convince voters to go for this one2.
Anyway, the Los Angeles Aqueduct effectively eliminated the Owens Valley as a viable farming community and eventually devastated the Owens Lake ecosystem. If you’ve ever driven up the 395 toward Mammoth Lakes, you’ll notice a significant lack of agricultural land or large development of any kind.
As you might imagine, residents of those areas were pissed. Many of them still are today.
But Los Angeles wasn’t done. Oh no, LA was far from finished.
Twenty years after building the first aqueduct, voters realized they didn’t make their 233 mile human made river long enough, and they were running out of water yet again.
Not to worry! They simply got another bond for even more money and added an additional 105 miles of cement water highway to steal even more water. This solidified the LA Aqueduct as the single largest piece of municipal infrastructure privately owned by a single city.
This new aqueduct supplied Los Angeles with enough water to sustain its path of exponential growth. More than enough, in fact. So much water that in 1959, the California State Water Rights Board notified the City of Los Angeles they would “lose rights to the water they were permitted for but not appropriating from the Owens River Valley” if they didn’t start using it.
Los Angeles graciously replied, “If there is indeed water in excess of our allotted rights, we are willing to temporarily lend our water rights to communities in the Owens River Valley to restore failing ecosystems and sustain the livelihoods of people living where the water would naturally be flowing.”
No, of course they didn’t say that.
The City of LA doubled down and elected to build another fucking 137 mile aqueduct so they could really open up the taps and extract as much water from the region as possible.
Fortunately for literally everyone, in 1974 California started waking up to the ecological crisis it had created with its water sourcing and dialed it back a little bit. Today, nearly 50% of the Los Angeles Aqueduct’s flow is devoted to ecological resources in Mono and Inyo counties. So that’s good news, at least.
That leaves two other major sources: the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta and the Colorado River. Some water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta gets to Los Angeles via the 444-mile-long California Aqueduct.
Very long and complicated story very short: The California State Water Rights Board divvies up the California Aqueduct across the state. Contrary to some of the picket signs you’ll see driving Highway 5 through the Central Valley, Los Angeles doesn’t get all of it, as much as it would like to.
The rest of Los Angeles’ water comes from the Colorado River. Every year California is allowed to take 1.4 trillion gallons from the Colorado—most of which becomes LA’s drinking water. Every year, California (again, mostly LA) blows past that limit by about 200 billion gallons.
The federal government has kindly asked them to not, Los Angeles has shrugged and said sorry, and that’s basically where that’s at.
To make matters worse, at least one primary intake point on the California Aqueduct is subject to shut down for up to two years if it is struck by an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 or greater. So if you’re like me and don’t like sleeping easy at night, just ponder a potential future where The Big One is followed by 9 million brunch-going Angelenos running out of water for two years.
Anyway, if you’re looking for takeaways they are:
the only reason Los Angeles has any water is because we take it from very far away
the LA River is great for flood control and almost nothing else and
Henry Huntington is probably not someone you want to look up to.
I, for one, am glad I have water to drink. But if we ever get the chance to vote on yet another extension of the LA Aqueduct, I hope to land on the right side of history by politely voting no.
The Great Flood of 1862 actually covered the whole state with water after a storm dumped 10 feet of water across the west coast over the course of 43 days. Flooding extended as far east as Utah and Idaho. It was, and still is described as the worst disaster to ever strike California.
Henry Huntington (the super super rich guy with the library & art collection in Pasadena) and his buddies including Mulholland and Eaton (basically all the rich guys 90% of LA streets are named after) bought tons of land in the San Fernando Valley (at the time, a veritable wasteland) allegedly based on inside knowledge that the Los Angeles aqueduct would soon irrigate it and encourage development. They made a movie about it. I guess a platform of water theft, insider trading, and catastrophic irreversible ecological disaster was as big a hit back then as it seems to be today.