William Mulholland, a former ditch digger, was successful in initiating the 223-mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct, through sheer determination and guile. It was the first major aqueduct built in America that laid the foundation for subsequent mega-conduits such as the Colorado Aqueduct, which the Metropolitan Department of Water helped realize after Mulholland’s death. Since then, billions of dollars has been spent on more than 2,400 miles of steel and concrete that carry water out of the vast California mountains, valleys and deserts to the cities in California.
Today there are three major aqueducts serve the city of Los Angeles. The California Aqueduct originating from the central valley, the Los Angeles Aqueduct originating from the Owens Valley and the Colorado Aqueduct originating from the Colorado River. Designated storage facilities such as artificial lakes and dams produce electricity, aid in flood-control and double as recreation facilities. The remaining water goes towards the various industries that deal with mining, oil and natural gas production, farming and raising livestock, that are critical to the inhabitants of that region and to the rest of the country, and other parts of the world. While the benefits of such grandeur engineering feats have for decades masked the detriments of such genius, the recent droughts in California once again spotlight the environmental concerns these mega-conduits pose.
An aqueduct footprint across the landscape takes a toll on the ecosystem as its artificial presence cuts through mountain and soil, disturbing the habitat that otherwise would thrive in its absence. Animals, birds and marine life are affected by the physical characteristics of the aqueducts that make them inaccessible or hazardous unlike a natural system like a river or stream. The majority of the length of the aqueducts are exposed to natural and polluted elements. From time to time, human bodies, stolen cars and animal carcasses have been reported to be pulled out of the aqueducts. The exposed sections are prone to evaporation due to the intense sun and to outdated infrastructure. The lack of water due to massive evaporation, either along the aqueduct flow or, from the reservoirs pose a genuine threat towards aquatic and human life due to the high salt deposits. The aqueducts are also vulnerable to earthquakes that continue to ravage California. However, even more perplexing and controversial, is the wastage and pollution of water through industry practice.
The aqueducts provide a life support system to cities and industries who access fresh water via speculative contractual deals provided by the state, also known as paper water. The past century has witnessed the aqueducts deprive towns, farming communities and natural habitats of their life support systems, by diverting and depleting the amounts of clean fresh water needed to sustain them. A major example of this is seen with the Colorado River and its tributaries that serves fresh water to seven states and parts of Mexico. There is a growing resentment from people in Arizona, and some parts of Mexico, due to an increasing amount of the river’s flow being dammed or siphoned by most of the towns and cities in Southern California, leaving their natural systems dry.
Political and environment agreements signed in the recent years may help alleviate some of discontent through regulated flows of water from the tributaries. The severe droughts in the Southwestern region of the United States, on the other hand, may become a major detractor; drawing further, even unwanted, attention towards the aqueducts and their purported usage.