William Mulholland

Irish ditch digger turned Los Angeles water manager. The man who in 1913 completed the 232-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct between Owens Lake in the Eastern Sierra and Southern California lied and cheated for the water to fill it.

Reconnoitering possible sources for water for a Los Angeles that by the 1890s was already running out of native water, Mulholland sent an agent posing as an employee for the US Bureau of Reclamation into a high Sierra farm community. Farmers working the land along Owens River and Lake took his arrival to mean federal assistance was coming to irrigate their alfalfa fields.

In the course of making off with Owens Lake water, after securing key farm leases, Mulholland’s nascent Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had to briefly go into the cattle business. Today the cows are gone and modern Los Angeles gets about a third of its water from what is now no longer Owens Lake but Owens Valley.

Los Angeles sucked the lake dry, and after it did that, it started pumping the groundwater. The dehydrated lake bed then became the source of dust storms so severe that they closed airports and filled emergency rooms with asthmatic children. Eventually, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Owens Valley was the worst source of “particulate pollution” in the country. Los Angeles has only recently reduced its pumping there and has yet to complete remediation.

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