The controversies over land and water have been present in California since the arrival of the Spanish missions as explained by James J. Rawls in his lecture “California’s greatest thirst: A glance at the contentious history of California’s water”. In that lecture Rawls explains how the Native Americans living in California “believed that all of nature, including water, was interconnected and suffused with a sacred power” therefore they respected all natural resources as something sacred. When Europeans, and in particular the Spanish, arrived in California they brought their cultural perception of nature with them which was drastically different from that of the Native Americans. Spaniards regarded nature and its resources including water “as a gift from divine providence that was theirs to subdue and exploit” (1).
Later on with the discovery of Gold in California and the development of Hydraulic mining another dispute over water and land arose. Hydraulic mining required the construction of dams, diverting of rivers, destruction of hills to wash the Gold they contained and then the dumping of earth and gravel from those hills into the rivers. This practice would cause the destruction of riverbeds and the subsequent flooding of farms located near the rivers where the debris was dumped. As a consequence farmers filed a legal protest against the practice of dumping debris into the rivers and a U.S. circuit court outlawed this practice in 1884 (2).
Another controversy came about in the late 1800’s as a consequence of California’s first legislature having adopted the common law of England in the 1850’s. This law encouraged the monopolization of water by landowners whose lands were bordering the streams of water. One example is Miller and Lux’s company which owned riverbank lands along the San Joaquin river allowing them to have almost full control of the river’s waters. This monopoly became quite unpopular and in 1887 California’s legislature passed the “Wright Irrigation Act” “which authorized the establishment of irrigation districts” 8 having the power “to overcome riparian rights” (3).
Other controversies over water at the beginning of the 20th century were the Hetch Hetchy Controversy and the Federally funded projects for Boulder Cannyon Dam (or Hoover Dam) and the Central Valley Irrigation project. The Hetch Hetchy project for instance caused a clash between the conservationists, led by John Muir, and the City of San Francisco; as the latter fought for the construction of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy valley that would eventually supply water to the City of San Francisco.
Mulholland’s life and work was also part of these controversies. Before Mulholland’s arrival to Los Angeles the water system of the city was the one it had inherited from its Spanish founders: a system of ditches, “zanjas”, that distributed water from the Los Angeles River to the farms and houses that were part of the city. The water rights belonged to the city during the Spanish period and also in the early American period. Later on in the late 1860’s the city of Los Angeles, through a thirty-year lease contract, almost completely lost those rights to the privately owned Los Angeles City Water Company, an agreement that “Mulholland would later call an act of “civil idiocy”” (4).
It is under the above circumstances that Mulholland, in 1876, first arrived in Los Angeles, a city of barely 9,000 inhabitants (5).
In 1978 William Mulholland started to work for the Los Angeles Water Company tending the main ditch or Zanja Madre, which at the time was the main source of domestic water for the city. During the years that he worked as a “zanjero” he lived in a “shack”, as he described it, near the present day Mulholland Fountain and earnedg $1.50 a day. During the same period he also educated himself in the public Library in topics such as geology, hydraulics and engineering. His granddaughter wrote in her book, “William Mulholland and the rise of Los Angeles”, about him being a dedicated reader who once said: “Damn a man who doesn’t read books”. As he studied and worked hard he got to meet influential people like William Hayes Perry. He also developed a friendship with Fred Eaton from the engineering staff and these circumstances allowed him to advance his career within the Los Angeles City Water Company. In 1886, 8 years after starting his work as a ditch tender, at the age of 31, William Mulholland became the superintendent of the Los Angeles city Water Company (5).
At the end of the 19th century the Company Mulholland was working for, as Superintendent, was the focus of a municipal controversy. The Los Angeles Water Company basically had a Monopoly of the water supply to the city and the Angelinos at the time wanted a water system capable of giving pure and abundant water at fair prices. This would eventually lead the city of Los Angeles to take back ownership of the water system in 1902. That year city of Los Angeles bought out the company and Mulholland became the first superintendent and chief engineer of the city’s Bureau of Water Works and Supply (5).
Between 1900 & 1905 the population of Los Angeles grew from 100,000 to more than 200,000 inhabitants and the Angelinos were afraid that the Los Angeles River would soon not have enough water for the fast growing population. Mulholland needed to find a new water supply and, under the advice of his old friend Fred Eaton, he set his eyes on the waters of the Owens River. He would eventually direct the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile project that would carry the waters from the Owens Valley to the city. In doing so, the interest of the city for the water conflicted with the interest of the farmers in Owens valley and Mulholland “became the focus of a controversy that has never died” (6).
(1) “California’s greatest thirst: A glance at the contentious history of California’s water” a lecture by James J. Rawls at the Bancroft Library Broadcast on KQED Radio (FM 88.5) on August 7, 2003.
(2) California an Interpretive History, by James J. Rawls and Walton Bean, p. 208
(3) California an Interpretive History, by James J. Rawls and Walton Bean, p. 208-209
(4) “William Mulholland and the rise of Los Angeles” by Catherine Mulholland, p. 21
(5) “William Mulholland and the rise of Los Angeles” by Catherine Mulholland.
(6) “William Mulholland and the rise of Los Angeles” by Catherine Mulholland, p. xiii