Reservoir Docs: Taking “Little Journeys Into Water and Power Land” with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, August 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The news that federal officials have declared, for the first time, an official water shortage at Lake Mead, the enormous reservoir created by building Hoover Dam along the Colorado River, comes as governors of ten western states have appealed to the national government for disaster aid because of drought. With a Department of the Interior official stating “we are seeing the effects of climate change” and “that trend may continue,” the situation is, along with major wildfires and other effects, truly sobering.

This revelation makes tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings particularly relevant as the sense of optimism for much of the 20th century that greater Los Angeles could get all the water it would ever need from distant sources like the Colorado River, Sacramento River Delta and the Owens Valley of eastern California has recently become a feeling of foreboding about the future.

Los Angeles Times, 2 December 1906.

This artifact is a little pamphlet, with the accompanying mailing envelope, comprising “Trip No. 5” of “Little Journeys into Water and Power Land,” published in August 1929 by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (best known today by its initials of DWP) and which was produced to educate children about the complex infrastructure comprising the Los Angeles Aqueduct and other elements of the city’s water and electric service system.

The pocket-sized publication, which even has printed holes for the owner to punch out for binding with string, takes the young reader to two of the reservoirs used at either end of the over 200-mile wonder of water delivery that is the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and which was officially opened in November 1913. The document begins with the fact that, in summer, Angelenos used some 225 million gallons of water daily with the DWP responsible for meeting the demand.

Times, 13 August 1911.

It continued that to provide this magnitude of the life-giving fluid, the department owned 28 reservoirs on the long line of the Aqueduct and in the Los Angeles area, with these filled from the snow melt and rainfall running off the eastern elevations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains “in readiness for the heavy summer months.” The brochure then asked, “would it not be interesting to take a little journey to a few of these great water storage basins?

The two in Trip Number 5 included “the largest and most distant reservoir of the entire system,” which is the Haiwee complex, comprising north and south reservoirs at the southern end of the Owens Valley, not quite 25 miles south of Lone Pine and about 180 miles from Los Angeles. This sparsely populated area once was the focus of a silver mining boom in the mountains to the east separating the valley from the infamous Death Valley (F.P.F. Temple owned a water and mining company at Cerro Gordo and was the first president of a railroad company intending to build a line from Los Angeles and the Inyo County seat of Independence.)

Los Angeles Record, 20 March 1912.

While there were farmers and ranchers using the copious runoff from the Sierras, Los Angeles officials like former mayor Fred Eaton and water department chief engineer William Mulholland thirstily coveted the water sources so that the Angel City and environs could continue the virtually untrammeled growth experienced since the famed Boom of the 1880s (peaking during the mayoral term in 1887 and 1888 of William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman.)

Then, there was the Lower Franklin Canyon Reservoir identified as “one of the smaller basins” and nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains above the exclusive residential (including many film stars and executives) enclave of Beverly Hills. The document noted that “from this reservoir the water passes directly into the distributing system—a gigantic underground network including more than 3,300 miles of water mains” serving large swaths of Los Angeles’ west and southwest sections.

Los Angeles Municipal News, 26 June 1912.

Notably, the origin of Franklin Canyon’s name is largely elusive, though there are sources that observe that it appears as early as an 1888 map of the area. A search in local newspapers found that the earliest reference was for the sale of land there in 1911, though this may be a function of the fact that westside development was only just starting to move into that area—the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel, for example, opened in a very bucolic setting in 1912.

That same year, oil magnate Edward L. Doheny, who developed the Los Angeles Field with partner Charles Canfield in 1892 and then Orange County’s first field at the Olinda Ranch five years later, purchased a large portion of Franklin Canyon. While he may have harbored hopes that petroleum might be found there, he had a different kind of windfall when he very quickly sold a large portion to the City of Los Angeles for the upper and lower reservoir system, while keeping land at the mouth of the canyon for a retreat, including a house built by his family in 1935, the year the tycoon died.

Burbank Review, 4 October 1913.

Franklin Canyon was an obvious place for the pair of reservoirs, as a pipe could be constructed almost directly south and east from the Cascades, where the Aqueduct entered the northeastern corner of the San Fernando Valley, and through the Santa Monica Mountains to the location. From there, distribution could be had to those parts of Los Angeles west and southwest of downtown through the “gigantic underground network” mentioned above, with its “more than 3,300 miles of water mains.”

References to the canyon and its reservoirs go back to about spring 1912 as planning was well established and construction looks to have started during that summer. A bond issue specific to the Franklin Canyon project was passed in April 1913 by Los Angeles’ voters and involved $1.5 million, but as part of a much larger package for water delivery and electric power generation.

Times, 19 April 1914.

A pipeline then was constructed from the Lower San Fernando (renamed Van Norman) Dam, which was closed after inherent site problems revealed after the Sylmar earthquake of 1971 could have involved enormous loss of life if the dam had failed, as was quite possible, through about thirteen miles of the San Fernando Valley and through a nearly 3,800 foot long tunnel through the Santa Monicas to the location.

Two reservoirs, a smaller upper one of 50 million gallons storage capacity used for regulating the flow of water and, not quite 6,000 feet away and connected with a 52-inch pipe, the much larger lower one with a capacity of 350 million gallons connected directly to city mains in the plains below and there was a dam as part of the system, along with an electric power generating plan was intended to be sufficient for the city’s needs.

In June 1914, just after Europe became engulfed in the terrible First World War, Mulholland announced that a 52-inch pipeline would connect the tunnel and trunk line so that the line would “bring the drinking water for Los Angeles direct from the aqueduct without allowing it to remainin the Franklin canyon reservoir.”

Times, 23 April 1914.

This meant the upper one, which “will be used principally for regulating the flow of the aqueduct water during the period when the aqueduct power plan[t]s are working at peak load, or when the demand for power is heaviest.” The “Chief,” as he was known in the DWP and beyond, stated:

We shall get the aqueduct water in Los Angeles just as clear and pure as when it leaves the mountains. I am taking every precaution to see that the people of Los Angeles get the aqueduct water as it really should be, and this pipeline is one of these precautions.

There were, however, some notable potential and real constraints. This was an era of heightened political, racial and labor tensions and the anti-union Los Angeles Times was particularly and acutely sensitive to these issues, especially after radical labor figures committed a domestic terror bombing on the paper’s headquarters in October 1910.

Los Angeles Express, 28 July 1914.

In its edition of 23 April 1914, the paper reported that “fearing outbreaks in the local Mexican colony, the police yesterday took steps to prevent possible demonstrations.” The claim was that agitators associated with the International Workers of the World (I.W.W. or “The Wobblies”) “had instigated Mexican members to violence” led Los Angeles Police Department Chief and future mayor Charles E. Sebastian and Mayor Henry R. Rose to enact measures, including stationing officers at the Franklin Canyon Reservoir, as well as at San Fernando and Elysian Park.

At the same time and stretching out for months was a court battle between the cities of Beverly Hills, which was incorporated early in 1914, and Los Angeles over the placement of pipes leading out of Franklin Canyon and into the plains. In a nutshell, Beverly Hills sought an injunction to prevent Los Angeles from laying the mains across what would soon be Coldwater Canyon Road (that canyon being immediately east of Franklin) without establishing an agreement to protect the interests of the fledgling metropolis. The matter was resolved and the connection from the lower reservoir to the city mains proceeded apace.

Times, 6 April 1916.

Because of the legal wrangling, Mulholland decided, in late July, to open the lines “without making any public announcement of the fact,” though it was reported because the engineer testified in the court case involving the two cities. He was quoted as saying that “we have the water coming into the city mains direct from the aqueduct, and do not expect to turn it off again unless there is a break in the line.”

Moreover, “the Chief” noted that “the water passes through the pipeline from the tunnel at the head of the Franklin canyon to the foot of the dam, doing away with the necessity for flowing through the reservoir. In this way we shall be getting the water long before the [lower] Franklin canyon reservoir is completed.”

In fact, while experts testifying in a suit against the city by a resident who claimed the direct aqueduct water was contaminated on its long journey to Los Angeles declared that it was clean, there were some further refinements to be made. Because of leaching at the reservoir, the mains were turned off for over two months in the fall and residents were unhappy with the hard water from the Los Angeles River that had to substitute for the Owens River fluid. Interestingly, Mulholland told the Los Angeles Express that, “the consumption of water has dropped down so low because of the cold weather that we have no place to put the river water, which we must continue using or lose our water rights.”

Also during fall 1914, the upper reservoir had to be emptied three times, despite Mulholland’s stated goal of not having to do so, “to insure its thorough cleansing before the water is used for city consumption.” This took place as work on the lower reservoir was being pushed aggressively by the DWP. By spring 1915, the department also began selling water from the trunk line in the San Fernando Valley, with the first sale made to rancher Glen Raddatz of Pacoima (who later was highlighted for having the first water meter in the valley.)

Finally, in April 1916, the Times reported that “the lower Franklin Canyon reservoir was placed in commission yesterday, and aqueduct water is now flowing into it.” As noted above, it was observed that “the water has been allowed to flow into the new reservoir and enter the city mains directly from the dam, instead of being carried around the reservoir in a conduit. While the capacity was some 374 million gallons, the paper concluded with the statement that full capacity was not yet reached because “the work of concreting the dam of the reservoir has not as yet been finished.”

Over a century later, the system is now part of Franklin Canyon Park, comprising over 600 acres purchased by the National Park Service as part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. including an amphiteater, auditorium, nature center, hiking trails, picnic grounds, and the 1935 Doheny house, with the park considered an important waystation for birds navigating the great Pacific Flyway.

With prolonged drought as part of climate change and the consequences likely to be be with us for many years without dramatic changes in greenhouse gas emissions very soon, the question of water supply will become of greater urgency. We can learn from history through artifacts such as this and what they represent and apply these lessons to our future planning and actions.

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