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BREAKING UP L.A. | SECESSION SKETCHBOOK

Marital Bliss Just Pipe Dream

Aqueduct: A shared water source joined L.A. and the Valley 89 years ago, and it will keep them linked even if they decide to part ways.

July 18, 2002|JAMES RICCI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here within this land of love

Shall peace forever reign,

For God has sent us waters

pure

That Eden we regain.

*

The nicked wooden stairway leading up to the old cascade head works in Sylmar vibrates with every step Gerald Gewe takes. Gaining the roof of the open-faced shed enclosing the site, he lowers his 6 feet, 7 inches through a small square opening.

Down inside, the big man lays hands on one of two large, cast-iron turn wheels and looks out at the vista.

Before him, the San Fernando Valley is suffused in dusty sunlight all the way to the horizon. Nearby, the Golden State Freeway streams with traffic. Just below, the concrete spillway of the historic cascade curves left down the mountain.

From the freeway, the old cascade seems little more than a concrete oddment halfway up a dry hill. Yet it is the site where Los Angeles and the Valley were ceremoniously betrothed, a place of new historical resonance now that the two entities are contemplating divorce.

Here, at 1:15 p.m. on Nov. 5, 1913, after various potentates speechified and Ellen Beach Yaw sang her song, L.A. water czar William Mulholland gave a signal. Workmen turned the cast-iron wheels, and Los Angeles Aqueduct water flowed down the cascade and into the thirsty Valley for the first time.

The unleashed snowmelt from the distant Eastern Sierra made the union of rural Valley and burgeoning city inevitable. Taking no chances, the L.A. City Council decreed eight days later that any outlying areas wanting the water must annex. When the Valley, most of it, formally came to the altar in 1915, it did so by popular vote, but under this duress all the same.

The perceived high-handedness of mainland L.A. has been irritating Valley residents ever since, and as a result on this Nov. 5--89 years to the day after the head works' gates first opened--city voters will decide whether or not to dissolve the nuptials.

Gerald Gewe (pronounced GAY-vee) is 58 and has worked for the L.A. Department of Water and Power for 27 years. Now the DWP's assistant general manager for water, two decades ago he was in charge of aqueduct operations. It's "the most fun job I ever had."

In that capacity he once got to raise the head works gates himself, turning one of the cast-iron wheels with his own hands, just like those long-departed workmen who responded to the signal from Mulholland, a figure of reverence to history-conscious DWP engineers like Gewe.

As a city employee, Gewe won't offer an opinion on the charged issue of secession. As an engineer, however, he's confident that the water system Mulholland spawned will endure intact no matter if or how the city of L.A. is sundered. "Given the complexity of the system, it would be so expensive to totally separate it that it's not in the cards," he said. "In spite of the politics, the underlying infrastructure was designed to operate as one system."

Eighty-nine years ago, the water that tumbled down the cascade, binding Valley to city, was considered inexhaustible, a delusion dispelled scarcely a decade later as the city's population went about quadrupling during a persistent dry spell.

The betrothal site has changed a great deal over time. In 1922, the DWP built an 8-foot-diameter pipeline that parallels the old cascade down the mountain. Ordinarily, it bears the burden of the water, which comes from the Owens River and three streams that feed Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra.

The water comes at the behest of gravity through 338 miles of open channel and sealed pipeline. It traverses 158 tunnels, the last one of which terminates at the old cascade head works.

At full flow, the water fills the final length of pipeline to the brim and barrels down into the Valley at 450 cubic feet a second to turn the turbines at the San Fernando power plant. The old cascade reenacts its historic role only when the water is diverted to it from the pipeline during maintenance shut-downs at the power plant.

Just to the east of the old cascade, a newer and much longer cascade and pipeline rise up and over Terminal Hill. These are the last leg of the second L.A. Aqueduct, which was completed in 1970 to handle an augmented supply of water from the Mono basin. Water in this pipeline drives turbines at the nearby Foothill power plant.

For the record, during the most recent fiscal year the approximately 211 square miles of the would-be new Valley city consumed enough water to cover itself to a depth of about 25 inches.

About half of that came from the aqueduct, and half from the Valley's other source, the State Water Project, which brings water in from Northern California. The split in supply is the result of DWP operational decisions; if necessary, the aqueduct is still capable of serving all of the Valley's water needs in years of at least normal rainfall.

In this fitfully dry region, any tampering with the arrangements that bring water is bound to create visceral anxiety. Yet, if the current battle over secession has made anything clear, it's that L.A.'s days of water-bullying the Valley are long since over. The state commission refereeing the secession matter has ruled that residents of a Valley city would continue to receive the water they're accustomed to, and at the same rates paid by users in the downsized city of Los Angeles (City Hall continues to maintain that it has the right to raise rates for any water client, if there is reasonable justification for doing so).

After 89 years of city-Valley wedlock, the "waters pure" that first flowed down the old cascade into Ellen Beach Yaw's "land of love," have come to look like what a divorce lawyer might call community property.

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