The "there it is — take it" moment at Tuesday's reenactment of the Nov . 5, 1913 dedication of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
The months-long civic and media acknowledgement of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and its enduring significance in the city's story came to a celebratory end on Tuesday at the cascades in Sylmar. That was where the civic leaders of the day gathered on Nov. 5, 1913 to open the gates and let Owens Valley water flow into the San Fernando Valley — changing forever both of those places, and in a bigger way Los Angeles and the West. Today there are 15 lanes of freeway, a second cascading waterway and a large diameter pipeline that carries most of the actual water, so the physical site is much different than the dusty hillside seen in the classic black-and-white photos of the ceremony back then. But for a lot of the people I spoke with, the spot had almost a mythic lure. There was no way they would miss Tuesday's invitation-only event.
Like many who grew up in LA, I had considered the cascades beside San Fernando Road a landmark of my life. As children, whenever we passed by we put down the car windows to listen for the rush of water. I still look for whitewater spilling down the two channels just about every time I pass the spot; usually they are dry, since most of the water now is directed down penstock to generate electricity. I had studied the story of the aqueduct and the cascades as a journalist, and looked in many times from outside the fence, but until Tuesday I had never been inside. Others I stood with and talked to on Tuesday reported the same calling to come witness the reenactment that the Department of Water and Power put on. I ran into reporters and City Hall aides who wanted to come to better understand what these months of local navel-gazing were all about.
Actors portrayed key players in the water story such as chief water engineer William Mulholland. At least a dozen of his descendants were in the audience. Christine Mulholland, the chief's great-granddaughter, took to the microphone and said laughing that "it's about good god-damned time" she got to talk to her famous ancestor. She too drove past the cascades in the back of a station wagon: "I remember Daddy pointing out this cascade, and saying, ‘There’s Grandpa’s waterfall’,” she said. Harry Chandler, the writer, artist and LA River activist, represented the family of his great-grandfather, the onetime LA Times patriarch Harrison Gray Otis, who attended the ceremony in 1913 and used the water that came down the original cascade to lubricate the subdividing of a vast swath of the San Fernando Valley. There was a representative of Fred Eaton, the former mayor of Los Angeles who spearheaded the acquisition of water rights to the distant Owens River. [See Fred Eaton: A Second Look today at Native Intelligence.]
Mayor Eric Garcetti delivered a nod to the importance of the aqueduct in allowing today's Los Angeles to be built, but he said LA is in a new water era. "In a span of a century, we have not only changed the course of water, but of history itself,” Garcetti said. “So as we might have said in the past, ‘Here it is. Take it!’ I say to you today: Here it still is. Let us treasure it. Let us conserve it. Let us share it. It is our legacy. It is our right. But it is also our responsibility." To summarize with a twist on Mulholland's most-quoted quip from the 1913 ceremony, Garcetti tweeted: "There it is. Conserve it."
After the speeches, the actor-Mulholland led a couple of hundred visitors out of the tent through the wind and up to the side of the cascades. The DWP carefully dropped the flow of water through the penstock and opened the gates of the original, 1913 cascade, followed by the higher, later second channel. By the end of the event, both cascades were churning with Owens Valley water fluffed into whitecaps by stones and blocks. The cascades, usually locked behind a fence, will be open for the public to visit for a few days.
Here are some stories on Tuesday's event: LA Times, Daily News, NBC4, KTLA 5. In the Owens Valley, longtime observer Benett Kessler writes: "It’s not a play-acting kind of thing for those in the Eastern Sierra. It’s more like the anniversary of a death."
Here also is some of the best of the media coverage of the anniversary that I haven't gotten around to mentioning yet. First, check out this UCLA video in which our new columnist, Jon Christensen, talks about the aqueduct and the Owens Valley in his role as the editor of Boom: A Journal of California.
KCRW aired a one-hour documentary tonight reported by Madeleine Brand and Saul Gonzalez (and produced by Matt Holzman) at both ends of the aqueduct. I am interviewed about the water's importance in the 20th century story of the San Fernando Valley.
The Los Angeles Times, the most powerful advocate for the aqueduct and imported water a hundred years ago, said in an editorial today that this is a new era. Excerpt:
So the century-old Los Angeles Aqueduct has two stories. One is about ambition, optimism and the construction of a great city; the other is about arrogance and environmental destruction wreaked in the Eastern Sierra and replicated across much of the state.
But there is a third story as well, and it is still being written. Depending on one's point of view, it may be seen as a story of redemption or comeuppance, but in any case it may well be a story of a sustainable future.
Throughout history, those who have lived in arid regions have developed a great respect for water. In Los Angeles, until now, Mulholland's feat allowed us to take water for granted, but that's a luxury we can no longer afford. The centennial of the aqueduct coincides with numerous intertwined discussions about water and our future and presents an opportunity to think and debate. We should take it.
Here's a guide to some of the best of the rest. There's been so much reporting on the aqueduct centenary, I have not been able to keep up with it all.
An aerial tour of the aqueduct by KPCC:
Nathan Masters at Los Angeles Magazine: The War Against the Los Angeles Aqueduct
- Artbound Commemorates the L.A. Aqueduct Anniversary
- A Self-Guided Tour of the Los Angeles Aqueduct
- A Road Trip Along the Aqueduct in 1915
- The Mulholland Memorial Fountain: A Grand Monument to a Man and Water
Emily Green: When shorelines denote dustbowls