History of Water

A zanjero of the early pueblo. (Courtesy the Department of Water and Power)When the El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles was founded in 1781, the main source of its water was the Los Angeles River-El Río de la Porciuncula. The first settlers took immediate action to use the waters of the river and constructed a crude diversion system consisting of open zanjas (ditches) (pronounced san-haz). By the 1880s there were 10 zanjas that covered 93 miles. The zanjas served the city until 1902, when they were replaced with a system of underground pipes.

A portion of the Zanja Madre (mother ditch) serves as the main feature of El Pueblo's "History of Water in Los Angeles" exhibit. It was discovered during the construction of the Avila Adobe Annex, which is adjacent to the oldest surviving home in Los Angeles. This unexpected mirror into our city's past provides and ideal setting to tell the story of water in Los Angeles.

This story begins with a crude system of open ditches used to bring water to the pueblo. Additional sources of water and methods of delivery were developed as Los Angeles grew in population and in size. For example, in 1860, the privately-owned Los Angeles Water Works Company constructed the city's first reservoir. Two years later, the use of hollow wooden pipes inaugurated a modern method of delivering water throughout the city.

As the population continued to increase, new sources of water were sought. Fred Eaton, superintendent of the private water company, conceived the idea of bringing water from the Eastern Sierra Nevada. His vision became a reality when the new municipal Water Department, under the leadership of William Mulholland, its first superintendent began construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. This five-year project was completed in 1913. It was believed that this additional source would provide the city with enough water to meet all future needs.

Mulholland soon realized that this supply would not meet the need of the ever-growing city. As a result of his pioneering efforts which began in 1923, a new aqueduct, originating at the Colorado River, was completed in 1941 to serve Los Angels and much of Southern California. A year earlier, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was extended 105 miles northward to the Mono Basin. In 1970, the need of additional water resulted in the building of a second, but smaller aqueduct parallel to the original Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Today, the "History of Water in Los Angeles" is a permanent exhibit located at the Avila Adobe Annex. The exhibit is a joint effort by El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument and the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. It is designed to be viewed during a guided tour so that visitors of all ages can learn how water helped transform a small pueblo into a major metropolis. And while Los Angeles' water supplies in the early 21st century are adequate, the city faces new challenges in preserving and protecting its precious water resources. The assistance of each citizen is needed to meet these challenges. One way to help Los Angeles meet its water needs is through conservation.

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