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Digital History ID 3156


William Mulholland

His life inspired the movie, Chinatown, a fictional tale of the intrigue and corruption surrounding Los Angeles quest for water resources. An Irish immigrant and a self-taught hydraulic engineer, William Mulholland (1855-1935) became superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Department in the early 1900s.

He took on the task of bringing water to a city that was depleting its only source, the Los Angeles River. Secretly, Los Angeles bought up the water rights to the Owens River in a valley 233 miles north of the city. He supervised the construction of an aqueduct that brought water from the Owens River across the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles. For five years, in 110-degree heat, men labored to create an aqueduct twice the width of Massachusetts.

A second aqueduct was built, sucking the Owens Valley dry. Ranchers in the valley attempted to dynamite the aqueduct ,and soldiers and police officers had to be brought in to protect it.

As part of the project, Mulholland built the San Francisquito Dam, which collapsed in 1928, unleashing a 200-foot wall of water that killed 200 people. He was not prosecuted, but the disaster was judged to be his fault, and he resigned his position. But the process of building aqueducts continued. Today, Los Angeles draws its water from as far as 600 miles away.

John Wesley Powell

As an explorer, anthropologist, geologist, and geographer, John Wesley Powell was post-Civil War America's leading student of the Far West. Even though he lost an arm at the battle of Shilo, he became the first American citizen to navigate a thousand miles of the Colorado River from Wyoming through the Grand Canyon. He also spent considerable time among the Indian peoples of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Convinced that these cultures deserved study and understanding, he founded and served as director of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology.

Powell was convinced that the federal government needed to inventory the West's natural resources and develop the region in an orderly, democratic, and balanced manner. He convinced the federal government to create the U.S. Geological Survey in 1879, and served as the survey's director from 1881 until 1894. Powell understood that the distinctive feature of the Far West was its limited water supply and that one of the most important questions the West faced was how to properly allocate this scarce resource. His Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States was the first government study to examine such environmental issues as how to fairly apportion water resources, regulate grazing, manage forests, and prevent unbridled exploitation of the nation's rangelands.



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