The Story of L.A.'s Insatiable Thirst for Water

Mulholland began looking throughout Southern California for an alternative supply of freshwater, but it was Fred Eaton who came up with a solution. On a camping trip to the Sierra in the early 1890s, Eaton had gazed down upon Owens Lake and thought about all the freshwater flowing into it and going to waste. Yes, Los Angeles was some 200 miles away, but it was all downhill. All one would have to do to move it to the city was dig some canals, lay some pipe and let gravity do the rest. Furthermore, he realized, several streams flowing out of the Sierra could be used to generate hydroelectric power. Imagine, a 200-plus-mile aqueduct running downhill to L.A. and “free” power to boot! Over the next two decades, as his civic interest joined his personal financial interests, Eaton grew increasingly evangelical about Owens Valley water.

In September 1904, he took Mulholland to Owens Valley with only “a mule team, a buckboard, and a demijohn of whiskey,” Mulholland later recalled. Despite the hooch, it was the water and not the whiskey that made a believer out of Mulholland. He readily endorsed Eaton’s proposal to build an aqueduct. Eaton, meanwhile, was buying water options from Owens Valley ranchers and farmers whose pastures bordered the river, without disclosing the city’s plan. He also purchased a 23,000-acre cattle ranch in Long Valley, most of which he hoped to sell to the city, at a tidy profit, for use as an aqueduct reservoir.

Mark Wheeler, in his 2002 Smithsonian feature on the history of Los Angeles and the water that helped it grow. Read more on California in the Longreads Archive.

***

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We need your help to get to 5,000 Longreads Members.

Join Longreads now and help us keep going.