One hundred years ago, 40,000 people trudged across the semi-arid Los Angeles landscape - over hills and mountains and dirt roads, some paying $1 for train fare - to view the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct at The Cascades in Sylmar. The aqueduct (to be followed later by the California Aqueduct) brought much-needed water from the Owens River and the Owens Valley into the thirsty San Fernando Valley, allowing LA to grow into the mega sprawl it is today, and rendering the Owens Valley the disgruntled, arid community it is today.
One hundred years later, on November 5, the water gates were reopened in a supposedly public ceremony commemorating the centennial of the aqueduct, but you had to know where The Cascades is (I didn't), and since the 5 Freeway now takes up the hillsides where the crowds of thousands once gathered a century ago, there was only room for a couple of hundred people: mostly DWP employees, city officials, historical reenactors, the media, and me.
I was lucky enough to hitch a ride on a bus trip hosted by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and attend the ceremony as an invited guest, getting past the "No Trespassing" signs that usually apply to The Cascades.
While descendants of Mulholland and Eaton gave speeches, and costumed performers reenacted historical songs and speeches (accompanied by an olde timey band)...
...I spotted the 100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct passing by along the ridge on their way to Stetson Ranch (more on that later)...
...and got to get up close to the aqueduct...
...both the more modern 1970s portion of it (technically The Second Los Angeles Aqueduct, which is usually the most visible part when driving by on the freeway)...
...and the original portion, down which the Owens Valley water "cascades" on its way, fed by gravity, to Los Angeles. At first, the channel was more or less empty and dry, a mere trickle running down it, but because of the celebration, we got the rare chance to see "Before" and "After" views of the aqueduct without and with water.
We all waved our pennants and wore our commemorative pins proudly, some hoisting mason-like jars in the air, cameras flashing, the spirit of William Mulholland declaring, "There it is. Take it."
Understandably, many in the Owens Valley - already a valley so deep, it's called "The Land of Little Rain" - feel that their water supply was hijacked. The lack of water probably prevented industrialization of the towns of Bishop, Lone Pine, Big Pine, and throughout the Mono Basin, nestled between Death Valley and the Eastern Sierras, perhaps stunting their growth, leaving the big stuff to LA, which used the water primarily to generate electrical power and for industry and not for, say, agriculture. Los Angeles - and particularly the San Fernando Valley - isn't exactly a lush, green rainforest because of the water we diverted from up north for ourselves. And with decreasing amounts of mountaintop snow melt every year (which is where the Owens River gets its water), and no existing means of collecting the little rainwater we do get, it's still not enough.
The development of Los Angeles is inextricably linked to its water supply, and so to understand LA history, you have to try to understand the LA aqueduct.
For me, still a relative newcomer to LA, I wanted to be a part of that history, as it's happening right now, to be one of those people that our future selves talk about 100 years from now.
I was there.
KCET: A Self-Guided Tour of the Los Angeles Aqueduct
Photo Essay: Zanja Walk Along the Arroyo Seco
Ossining Weir Chamber & Old Croton Aqueduct, Part 1
Feeling a Little Unstable