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How LA's water gets from the Eastern Sierras to your cup

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KPCC's Meghan McCarty travels to the Eastern Sierras to trace the origin of LA's water and to explain how it makes it from a natural spring to your tap.

LA Aqueduct anniversary series 2013This story is part of KPCC's weeklong series exploring the history of the L.A. Aqueduct and looking at the future of L.A.'s water resources. View the whole series

The Owens Valley is a vast moonscape of high desert that seems to go on forever. After driving for nearly five hours from Los Angeles, I finally make it to Big Springs campground at Inyo National Forest at 7,000 feet above sea level, not far from Mammoth Lake.    

This is the source. There's a rush of water in this volcanic creek bed and it's just rushing downstream into the Owens River where it will eventually make its way to Los Angeles. But before it does, this flow of water must be diverted from its natural river channel into an artificial conveyance system: the aqueduct. That happens about 30 miles south of Bishop. 

RELATED: Check out KPCC's LA Aqueduct at 100 series

At this point it looks like a river with a natural bottom with some manmade rock sides, but at some point it changes into concrete section. Then all the water is in enclosed tunnel or pipe sections that go all the way to L.A.

The aqueduct operates on a very simply principle: Gravity. 

"There's no pumping. It's all gravity fed," said Jim Yanotta, who manages the Aqueduct for Los Angeles Dept. Water and Power. "Mulholland and the engineers back then found a location at about 4,000 foot elevation. It's about 238 miles with a constant fall or a gradual fall. It allowed us to deliver this water to the San Fernando Valley which is 1,500 feet above sea level."

Depending on water levels, it takes anywhere between five days and three months for the water that originates in the Owens River to make it to L.A. via the aqueduct. When it finally arrives it's got to be cleaned up.  

"It's picked up sediments you know it runs through the eastern Sierra it picks up glacial silt," said Richard Harasick, assistant director of water operations for the LADWP. "That sediment tends to be hideout for virus and bacteria and so when you clean the water you remove that sediment and clean out those undesirable products as well."

After a 500-mile drive, a little too much trail mix and way too many replays of TLC, a cool sip of water really hits the spot. 

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