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Why building the LA Aqueduct was the city's 'original sin'

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UCLA historian Jon Christensen explains how crucial the LA Aqueduct was in building the city's identity, but that it was also done at a great cost to the Owens River Valley and its residents.

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

November 5th marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a huge civil engineering feat that brings water some 300 miles from the Eastern Sierra Nevadas all the way to L.A.

The water it brought paved the way for the then-small city of 100,000 to grow into the giant metropolis it is today. On the day the aqueduct opened in 1913, chief engineer William Mulholland proudly proclaimed "There it is, take it," water was released into the San Fernando Valley. 

RELATED: Timeline: The Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

A Martinez visited the aqueduct terminus at the north end of the San Fernando Valley with UCLA historian Jon Christensen, who is also the editor of Boom Magazine. He explains why the project was so important to building L.A.'s identity, but that it was also done at a great cost to the Owens River Valley residents. 

Interview Highlights:

On how the aqueduct was crucial to building L.A.'s identity:
"Without this aqueduct, Los Angeles, as we know it, would not be here.  The L.A. Aqueduct is really original sin and signal achievement for Los Angeles, for the American West, for the history of water in the West, for really the history of our modern hydraulic society. It’s so wrapped up in the history and culture and environment and engineering and building of the city, that’s really central to our identity. I think what’s really interesting is this 100 anniversary has given us the occasion to reflect on that history and then also think about where we’re going."

On why he thinks it was L.A.'s 'original sin':
"The water grab, as some people call it, of Los Angeles going 100 miles to a rural community and taking that water and bringing it to the city. It's seen by many people as the original sin of the American west, as these cities going to remote areas and taking their water."
On why it was necessary to sustain L.A.:
It was a booming city. It was less than a couple hundred thousand people. So, by the time this water began flowing here, Los Angeles was already more than 400,000 people, and it continued to boom. So, it was a city that had broken the bounds of its early existence as a pueblo – as this 19th century agricultural town – and was becoming a modern city. It was struggling with where it was going to get the water to be able to provide the people who were already there, the people who were coming and this vision for a great city.

On William Mulholland's meteoric rise to power:
"He had started out as a ditch tender and had risen to be the chief engineer. He went on to not only build this incredible engineering project, but also to become a leader who could persuade the people of this vision for the future. It needed investment of the people of Los Angeles, who passed numerous bonds to fund the building of the aqueduct...about $23 million. It was done under time, finished 23 months early and on budget. Something we really have trouble understanding these days."

On the meaning behind Mulholland's line "There it is, take it" on the aqueduct's opening day: 
"That phrase really also embodies that hubris that we find troubling these days. The presumption that there it is, we can take it. We can use the environment in whatever ways we need to. It’s ours for the taking. The book critic for the LA Times, David Ulin, has a wonderful essay in which he says, “There it is; take it,” should be the motto for L.A. 

"It should be on the doors of all the police cars and the Department of Water and Power. That we should own it, and that this is really the spirit that made L.A. and we should embrace the complexity of all of that. I think there is something to be said for that. We have this complicated, troubled history. But, as we come to terms with it, if we could embrace that and the changes that we can make for the new century. The opportunities for the future are also there for our taking."

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