Bringing water to the arid Southwest: William Mulholland as exemplar of success and failure

StandifordThroughout human history the American Southwest has been a land where the manipulation of water has allowed the deserts to bloom and support highly concentrated urban areas. Pre-discovery societies succeeded in creating concentrated hydrological societies that survived for long periods of time before over-reaching their capabilities, but the American achievements since the latter part of the nineteenth century have been much grander in scale, both in the technical manipulation of water supplies and in the grandeur of the civilization that has emerged.

The list of cities that manifest this American achievement includes Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Francisco, greater Los Angeles, and San Diego. The greatest splendor, of course, is exhibited by Los Angeles and the cluster of cities that revolve around this urban core.

Although many people participated in the development of the modern American Southwest, William Mulholland stands out. In his biography of this heroic figure, Les Standiford recounts the details of Mulholland’s achievement, but also portrays the tragic possibilities that accompany greatness.

Mulholland spent his entire career working for the Los Angeles Water Company, beginning as a laborer in the late 1880s, soon becoming superintendent. With the city’s population reaching 9,000, he recognized the potential for growth and quickly became convinced that this potential could only be realized if the city could find resources for a vastly increased water supply.

The source that quickly came into view was the Owens Valley more than 200 miles distant in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mulholland concluded that rights to the water could be secured and that an aqueduct could be built that would transport this perpetual stream of water down to the city of Los Angeles, thus assuring its growth far into the future. His clarity of vision, engineering acumen, and political skills enabled him to launch this almost unimaginable project.

On November 5, 1913, following ceremonies at a place called the Cascade, below the Newhall Pass, the wheels were turned that allowed the Sierra water to flow into the city’s water supply system.

The project was never without controversy, which continued after its completion. People in and around Los Angeles, some in high places, opposed the project from the very beginning. Others lived in the towns and cities of the Owens Valley that had been radically changed by all of the real estate, financial, political, and environmental factors that had been involved. This continuing distress, of course, dimmed the sense of achievement that Mulholland and his colleagues could enjoy.

None of this could have prepared them, however, for the disaster that happened during the night of March 12, 1928. Two years earlier the 195-foot high St. Francis Dam had been completed as part of an auxiliary storage system for the water coming from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. The selection of the site for this dam and many of its engineering specifications had been provided by Mulholland himself. After the dam’s completion, he concluded that it was safe despite certain disquieting factors that the operations staff called to his attention.

The dam collapsed, sending a torrent of 12.5 billion gallons of water cascading through San Francisquito Canyon. Some 450 people lost their lives, “a disaster outdone in California history only by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake” (7). This dam’s collapse “is considered to be among the world civil engineering disasters in US history” (245).

In public hearings following the disaster, “Civil Engineer Mulholland was a pitiable figure,” according to some reports. “Questioning had hardly begun when he broke in with the remark, ‘On an occasion like this, I envy the dead’” (247–8).

The jury agreed that there had been serious mistakes by the Los Angeles Water Board and Mulholland himself, but found no evidence of criminal intent and no criminal prosecution took place. He continued working for the water bureau, but retired early in 1929. His remaining years were marked by diminished capabilities and he died on July 22, 1935.

Standiford notes that Mulholland could easily be described as a workaholic, and remembrances of his family seem to confirm that judgment. He then tempers that judgment by saying that “it was not a simple issue in Mulholland’s case. In his eyes, he had been blessed with the opportunity to do work that he loved. If some men dreamed of being free of their work, he looked forward to doing his” (210).

Although the manipulation of water in the desert Southwest has continued for nearly a century since the disaster that concluded Mulholland’s career, signs are pointing to a crisis that threatens the entire system and the civilization that it has supported. Like Mulholland, we have enjoyed this era of great achievements. Could it be that we now need to learn how to face disaster?

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles, by Les Standiford (New York: Collins, 2015). Standiford has written twenty books and novels and is director of the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.

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