There it went.
As Los Angeles speeds into its next century of water history, it has put the Los Angeles Aqueduct squarely in the rearview mirror.
Looking forward to the century coming after the L.A. Aqueduct era, city leaders see big ideas and big initiatives: cleaning and pumping water from the San Fernando Valley aquifer, capturing rainfall and run-off on a massive scale, re-greening the concrete gully that is the Los Angeles River, recycling and reusing millions of gallons of “wastewater,” and digging up the concrete and asphalt that encases entire neighborhoods to create a more natural, “water-wise” urban landscape.
Those are massive, cutting-edge projects with massive costs and massive potential to create more localized, more secure water supplies.
And what about the famed Los Angeles Aqueduct, which officially turned 100, on Nov. 5, 2013, and is Los Angeles’ first and foremost massive water project? Based on the speeches marking the birthday of the aqueduct, the whole 233-mile-long system has been relegated to the routine.
The aqueduct’s future lies in the non-glamorous realm of “continued maintenance and efficient operation.”
There were the routine pledges to continue completing court imposed obligations for dust control on the Owens Dry Lake and other environmental mitigation measures from Mono Lake through Inyo County.
But water used on those environmental endeavors has reduced the amount flowing to Los Angeles, which is helping push the “new era” water agenda.
Although the L.A. Aqueduct is still the “cornerstone” of the city’s water system, it’s no longer the bright and shiny star of the water show in a city that lives up to its Hollywood hype and the adage, “what have you done for me lately?”
Indeed, the actors in period dress playing the roles of the L.A. stars that conceived, embraced, built and profited from the L.A. Aqueduct – William Mulholland, Fred Eaton, Harry Chandler, Whistling Dick and Teddy Roosevelt – reinforced the theme that, in 2013, the Los Angeles Aqueduct is history.
A great and glorious chapter in L.A.’s history, but still history.
And history that comes with the perfect catch phrase – “There it is. Take it,” uttered by Chief Aqueduct Engineer Mulholland in 1913 when Owens River water made its dramatic entrance into L.A. by crashing down the Cascades to the applause of 40,000 thirsty Angelenos.
Mulholland’s gravity-fed aqueduct was an engineering marvel, and the water it delivered created the modern city of Los Angeles. And that history repeated itself by becoming the template for the era of huge water projects in California and the West.
But Mulholland and his aqueduct are history, nonetheless, and it sounds like their time has passed, as far as today’s city leaders are concerned.
Not so the two dozen Owens Valley residents who spent the aqueduct’s birthday handing out brochures in front of LADWP’s downtown headquarters. They also called for a different future, even though one of the group’s signs stated, “There it is. Take it back.” The work of the Owens Valley Committee, the brochures noted no one can change history, but “we want to create a better guture,” by limiting groundwater pumping, increasing water for irrigation and revising the Inyo-LA Long-Term Water Agreement.
The L.A. politicians and officials under the big circus tent at the Cascades (make your own joke), did not focus on the state of relations with the Owens Valley. Instead, they took the stage to declare a new water era was upon the city, and its focus would be within the city’s urban boundaries, not the Eastern Sierra.
After acknowledging that the L.A. Aqueduct had been “critical to the city’s history,” City Councilman Felipe Fuentes was the first to utter the words “new era.” His take on Mulholland’s famous phrase described what that era will bring: “There it is. Protect it, preserve it, reuse it.”
The “legacy” guests also looked to the future after recounting their links to the city’s watery past.
Christine Mulholland, the garrulous great-granddaughter of William Mulholland, was more direct: “There is no more water” for Los Angeles to get its hands on, she noted. The city has already tapped the Eastern Sierra, the Colorado River and Northern California for water. She said today, “the challenge is to educate the next generation to understand where their water comes from, the cost to get it, to treat it, to deliver it. My great-grandfather once said, ‘Enjoy the water, but never waste it.’”
Harry Brant Chandler told how his great-grandfather, Harry, joined L.A. Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, in promoting the first aqueduct, the completion of which helped mightily in turning the pair’s holdings of San Fernando Valley farmland into extremely valuable real estate. The younger Chandler is a writer and is knee-deep in the ambitious political and engineering effort to take the L.A. River out of its concrete shackles and restore it to its natural channel. His take on the famous line: “When it rains, look to the heavens and say, there it is. Take it.”
Getting more mileage and usage out of the 15 inches of rainwater that falls on L.A. annually is one of the four areas LADWP will focus on in the future as it looks to expand its water supplies, said LADWP General Manager Ron Nichols. Improving rainwater and storm water capture, additional conservation measures, using more recycled water (treated wastewater that can be used for irrigation, etc.), and pumping more groundwater from the L.A. Basin will be the prime sources of “new” water for the city, Nichols said.
Los Angeles is the most water-efficient big city in the nation, with per capita water use at a little more than 200 gallons a day, he said, which is why the city consumes the same amount of water today as it did 30 years ago, despite adding more than a million residents. Next up is reducing outdoor water use, which consumes 40 percent of all water used. A larger project will be mapping, pumping and treating groundwater, much of which has been contaminated. The city has rights to pump 87,000 acre-feet of groundwater in the San Fernando Valley, but only pumps a fraction of that total because of contamination. More wells and treatment plants are planned that will increase the use of that groundwater.
By 2025, those programs should allow LADWP to reduce by half the amount of water it gets from the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers. Those future plans make the water from the Owens Valley more important than ever, he noted, since it continues to be “the cornerstone” of the city’s water supplies.
Mayor Eric Garcetti looked to history to prepare for the future. In 1900, “something radical” had to be done to supply water to the growing city. That “something” was building the L.A. Aqueduct, which changed the course of a river and the course of the city’s history. Today, with 4 million souls in Los Angeles and 12 million in the metro area, the city is embarking on a new era, but again, “something radical must be done,” he said. The radical action is not “a new call” to undertake a massive project like the aqueduct, but rather the determination to “do what Mulholland said, to preserve, protect and manage” the city’s current supplies.
Garcetti also updated the phrase of the day: “I say to you today: Here it still is. Let us treasure it. Let us conserve it. Let us share it. It is our legacy. It is our right. But it is also our responsibility.”
With that, “Mr. Mulholland,” put on his trademark homburg hat, told the crowd to come to the base of the Cascades. At the foot of the concrete channel, Mulholland checked his watch and at 1:20 p.m., almost 100 years to the minute since the first Owens River water hit L.A., he waved a white flag which signaled the four men to crank the gates and turn the water into the Cascade. About 300 people lined both sides of the channel and clustered at the bottom. “Wait for it, wait for it,” Mulholland said. A wave of churning white water finally came around the corner into view, to the shout of “There it is. Take it!” and the whirl and click of camera phones. Within minutes the 1913 cascade was churning with water, and then water was sent scooting down the longer flume from the “second barrel” of the aqueduct, completed in 1970, creating two links to a monumental past that likely won’t be repeated again.
Later that day, Garcetti proved he was a 21st Century mayor when he Tweeted a photo of the cascade, which he punctuated with the words, “There it is. Conserve it.”