THE LOS ANGELES AQUEDUCT
BY Bonnie Ketterl Kane
As the population of Southern California increased so did the need for water. The drought situations of the 1880's and 1890's brought about schemes to move water from Northern California where water was abundant and often causing flooding. One of the earliest studies was to move water from the sources in the Frazier Mountain/Antelope Valley areas to the south.
By the early 1900's Fred Eaton, the ex-mayor of Los Angeles , and William Mulholland of the Los Angeles Water Works devised a plan to move water from the Owens Valley , on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains , to the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles . The people of the Owens Valley thought the two men were in their area to do business in regard to a proposed government dam on the Owens River . Instead the two men and their partners began purchasing land and water rights and built the infamous Los Angeles Aqueduct. The Los Angeles investors purchased 130,000 acres of land and ended up owning 85 percent of all the property in the Owens Valley .
Fifty-seven construction camps with water, power and telephones were built. The first phase of construction began in 1907. It was a 27,000 foot tunnel 250 feet down, under Elizabeth Lake , through solid granite. It was estimated it would take five years but it was accomplished in 40 months. The Fairmont Reservoir was built at the north end of the tunnel. Both are still in use today.
The “ Aqueduct Falls ” into the San Fernando Valley was opened in November of 1913 with some 25,000 people looking on. Mullholland was already looking for additional sources of water and ran another aqueduct beside the first one with a new reservoir in San Francisquito Canyon. The San Francis Dam was completed in March of 1926 and sadly failed just two years later – in March of 1928. It was said that the wall of water and debris was still some 40 feet high when it reached the ocean and that between 400-600 people died – the worst man-made disaster in California history.
The “Great Depression” and the Second World War delayed the developing plans to bring water down from the Feather River , the Sacramento River 's main tributary, on the western side of the Sierra Mountains . The project began locally in 1955 with the drilling of exploratory holes where plans were being made to build the largest pumping plant to run the water through and over the Tehachapi Mountains . Water Districts were formed all over the Southern San Joaquin Valley to purchase and distribute the water.
The population in the local communities exploded with the workers and their families causing housing, water and school problems. The local newspaper carried an angry editorial especially because none of the water going through the aqueduct could be used locally. A cement plant was established east of Gorman to provide concrete for the aqueducts, plants, tunnels and dams along the southern route – as well as the eight-lane Interstate highway being built at the same time. When the aqueduct leaves the Tehachapi Mountains , the “East Branch” splits and goes to Silverwood Reservoir in the San Bernardino Mountains and Lake Perris in Riverside County . The West Branch heads over to Quail Lake , Pyramid Lake and down to the Castaic Reservoir with a Hydro Power Plant between Pyramid and Castaic.