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The Waters Flowed: 'There It Is. Take It.'

STORIES THAT SHAPED THE CENTURY / From the Pages of the Los Angeles Times

October 03, 1999|KEVIN RODERICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As roadside landmarks go in Los Angeles, the cascade of rolling whitewater beside the Golden State Freeway is a bona fide beauty. In plain view of millions of drivers, a mysterious cave mouth spills a stream of cool water that turns to froth as it tumbles into the San Fernando Valley.

The afternoon when the cascade flowed for the first time was the birthday of the Los Angeles we know. Everyone who gathered to watch in the dust on a remote hillside five miles west of San Fernando knew something big was afoot.

"As all roads led to Rome, so all roads led yesterday to San Fernando," The Times reported. Church women served frankfurters and lemonade to a crowd the paper estimated at 40,000, which in 1913 would have been the largest assemblage ever in Southern California.

This moment was, The Times reported, "the culmination of a project daringly conceived, boldly executed and successfully completed." The payoff, said the paper, was no less than "the assurance of metropolitan grandeur and future prosperity such as but a few cities of the world can hope to attain."

The subject of this hyperbole was cool, clean Sierra Nevada mountain water, ready to be delivered to a drought-weary city through 230 miles of steel pipe, open culverts and tunnels bored through hard granite. The Los Angeles Aqueduct took five years to build and was the longest such conveyance in the world--and it enabled the city to exist and grow.

A true engineering marvel, the aqueduct operates by using gravity. The water is collected from the Owens River at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. The cascade in Sylmar delivers the water at closer to 1,000 feet. The momentum gathered as the water plunges through the Mojave Desert is enough to take it over mountain ranges and through canyons. The scheme is so efficient that along the way it generates electric power for sale.

The only significant alterations are a second cascade--higher and more functional than the classic original--and a steel pipe that at times diverts the flow into a power plant. The aqueduct supplies the bulk of the city's water.

*

The hero of the day on Nov. 5, 1913, was William Mulholland, a Belfast-born runaway who began his career as a ditch tender. A self-taught man, he read voraciously and rose to be the chief water engineer for the city of Los Angeles--and probably its most admired citizen. He had earlier devised a way to tap the underground flow of the Los Angeles River but this aqueduct was his crowning design.

At the dedication ceremony, soprano Ellen Beach Yaw sang, " . . . for God has brought us waters pure." Politicians offered homilies. But the only words that anyone remembered came from 58-year-old Mulholland.

"This is a great event, fraught with the greatest importance to the future prosperity of this city," he began, silencing the gathering. "You have given me an opportunity to create a great public enterprise, and I am here to render my account to you. The aqueduct is completed and it is good. No one knows better than I how much we needed the water. We have the fertile lands and the climate. Only water was needed to make of this region a tremendously rich and productive empire, and now we have it."

With the niceties out of the way, the chief unfurled a large American flag as the signal to open the aqueduct gates. Cannons boomed as all eyes stared up the spillway. For a few painful minutes, nothing happened. Skeptics had called the aqueduct $23-million lunacy at best; at worst, they thought it a get-rich scheme by greedy land speculators. Among those whom they included in their criticism was The Times' owner and editor, Gen. Harrison Gray Otis. When the water did not instantly appear, no doubt some in the assembled crowd wondered: Could it be?

Then it flowed. Photographs show the leading edge of the wave stained black with the accumulated dust of construction. But soon the torrent flowed clean, and as children waded in and frolicked, Mulholland turned to the mayor and choked out his most famous sound bite: "There it is. Take it."

In the distant Owens Valley, which lost its water and eventually its farming culture, nothing was ever the same again.

It was the same for the San Fernando Valley, where a new reservoir drowned the ruins of an historic stagecoach station. When aqueduct work began, the Valley was the world's largest wheat field. Two years after the water flowed, the Valley was annexed to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles had its "glorious mountain river." The desert city would be thirsty no more.

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