Even with its green lawns and swimming pools, Los Angeles―and Southern California―is a semi-desert. Dropping a major city into this climate with limited water resources seems ridiculous now, but when LA’s population began to boom in the nineteenth century, its leaders believed that the aquifer supplying the city would last.
William Mulholland became the ruthless first superintendent of the then-new Los Angeles Water Department, later the Department of Water and Power (DWP), and later had a famous LA street named after him. In an astonishingly legal and morally bankrupt move, he decided to tap the Owens River, 250 miles away, and bring it to the City of Angels. Eventually, LA drained the Owens Valley dry, but its residents weren’t going down without a fight.
The river ended at Owens Lake, at 4,000-foot elevation. Since LA is at sea level, the water could go mostly downhill under its own power. The US Bureau of Reclamation promised Owens Valley farmers they’d build an irrigation system. Through underhanded, borderline-illegal tactics, Mulholland got the plan nixed.