#MitteWaterStories: Public Water in Los Angeles
As the largest municipal utility in the U.S., the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) serves about four million residents, in addition to upwards of fifty million yearly tourists from around the world.
Founded in 1902, when the area had around 100,000 inhabitants, the city has experienced a plethora of mishaps and controversies, especially as the coastal melting pot coped with drastic population increases and associated logistical concerns.
Although these instances were oftentimes contentious, they served as lessons (and sometimes a blueprint) for urban planning in growing America, especially regarding the transportation of safe tap water to a thriving urban center. The evolution from a small town to one of the most important cities in the world has also produced beneficial results.
In Los Angeles, the saga over water access, safety, and ownership begins about a century before the LADWP came into existence, and follows a rather typical American narrative – spurred by drastic population increases due to immigration and activism from locals, who advocated public control over private ownership. This journey inspired us to take a look at the evolution of public water in Los Angeles over the past two hundred years.
The modern story of Los Angeles begins in 1850, when the city was incorporated as a municipality. At that time, there were just under two thousand inhabitants, and the population slowly increased in the coming decades. In the beginning, residents were obtaining water from groundwater, such as wells, and utilizing a system of open ditches; this was acceptable for agriculture, but due to contamination, it wasn’t safe for public use.
Within a few years of being founded, in 1853, the city council rejected a closed pipe system that would have delivered water directly to homes. As mentioned, it was typical for water distribution to consist of open ditches with pollution concerns (mainly caused by humans), so the political and social leaders of L.A. were forced to come up with another plan.
In an effort to deal with the growing population, the domestic water needs of the city were delivered by bottles in horse-drawn wagons until about 1857, when an unreliable network of underground wooden pipes were proposed, ultimately serving only a handful of homes through private ownership. By the end of 1861, however, excess rainfall destroyed the small system and other schemes and plans were concocted, with less and less support from the general public.
In 1890s, oil was discovered, and that set off a population boom that continues to this day.
It was also during this time that other concerns with the private ownership of water distribution impacted the city, such as the scandal of the Los Angeles City Water Company violating a lease on the Los Angeles River, one of the early water sources for the city.
It was discovered that through secret tunneling, the extraction of 150 times of what the lease allowed occured, furthering distrust. It’s also important to note that between 1850 and 1900, the population increased by over one hundred thousand individuals.
This boom, mixed with the scorn of various failed public water projects, lead the Los Angeles City Water Company to have their contract ended during the summer of 1898. This propelled the city to take control of water management itself at the turn of the century.
In the early 1900s, the Los Angeles River continued be a main source of the city’s water.
With the population steadily increasing, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was founded in 1902 (although electricity was not part of the company until 1917). In 1905, voters approved the L.A. Aqueduct, which delivered water from the Owens River.
Within the first three decades, inspired by access to the aqueduct, the city ballooned from 61 square miles to 440 square miles. The aqueduct construction also proved to be the first major water delivery project in the history of the state, and is important in understanding the sprawling dynamic of the city today. During this era, as groundwater sources such as wells and creeks dried, towns and nearby cities annexed themselves in order to gain access (since the surplus water from Los Angeles could not be sold to surrounding jurisdictions).
The Los Angeles Aqueduct, which was finished in 1913, was controversial as it ultimately destroyed the economy of Owens Valley in eastern California, draining the area of the water needed to sustain local agricultural efforts and rifled up debate over water rights.
At the end of the 1920s, the influx into Los Angeles was still swelling, bringing residents to about one million. And in 1928, disaster struck, in the form of the St. Francis Dam failure. Built between 1924 and 1926, the catastrophic collapse resulted in over 400 deaths about forty miles from Los Angeles in the Sierra Pelona Mountains. As of 2019, the disaster still stands as California’s greatest loss of life, behind the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.
While the Los Angeles Aqueduct was recognized as a historic civil engineering landmark in 1971, the St. Francis Dam incident is considered one of the worst American civil engineering disasters of the twentieth century, showcasing the varied history of public water.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the city (as well as the United States as a whole) saw a new surge in activism, especially regarding contamination and pollution.
In 1983, it was revealed that “dead and deformed waterfowl” was discovered at Kesterson Reservoir (located in the heart of central California), highlighting concerns of selenium-tainted agricultural drainage water and its impact on the overall water system in the state.
In 1986, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (also known as Proposition 65) passed in California, prohibiting discharge of toxic chemicals into state waters, helping to protect consumers from cancer and birth defects.
These instances, including various reports, studies and laws leading into the 1990s, helped to push the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power into a new era of awareness.
At the millennium, the city inched towards four million residents.
According to the LADWP, they supplied about “197 billion gallons of water annually for the City of Los Angeles’ 676,000 residential and business services from 2007 to 2011.”
To keep up with these needs, there are a handful of sources where Los Angeles draws it water, including local groundwater and desalination plants.
Although innovative and consisting of engineering feats, there are still various logistical, health and social concerns from the sources:
Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where fresh water makes a 444-mile long journey through the California Aqueduct (which is concrete-coated) to reach Los Angeles.
One of the negative aspects is that the water travels through California’s Central Valley, which is largely converted for urban and agricultural land uses. The side effect? The water is more likely to be contaminated and in turn needs to be treated before being distributed.
Colorado River, which along with the former, make up about half of the city’s water.
Sierra Nevada Mountains, providing roughly one-third of the water for Los Angeles.
In 2011, the City of Los Angeles’s official cleantech business incubator established to further develop clean technology and conservation in the city, working closely with utility companies to respond to the growing environmental concerns of the era.
Like most areas in the United States, the city is also dealing with various modern safety issues, linked to concerns with the public water supply, the transportation of water to urban areas (such as the four hundred plus miles via the aqueduct to L.A.), contamination from humans and other concerns that add to the failure of U.S. infrastructure over time.
The current average resident in Los Angeles uses about 140 gallons of water daily. You can click here to read the most recent report on L.A.’s Drinking Water Quality.
What do you think is next for the city?
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