Historic Photos: How Water Flows From the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains to Los Angeles

Melting snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains flows into the California Aqueduct, a sprawling system of canals, tunnels and other waterways before it's used for drinking and irrigation. But decades before that engineering feat began collecting water from the state's giant natural reservoir in the mountains, there was the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Completed in 1913, it's difficult to overstate the water lifeline's importance and its impact on Los Angeles.

Construction began in 1908 and, much like the city to which it provides water, the Aqueduct does things a little differently. Unlike the State Water Project system, which collects water from the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the LA Aqueduct brings water to LA from the eastern side of the 400-mile long mountain range. Relying on gravity instead of pumping stations, the aqueduct spans more than 230 miles from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.

The ambitious project was water superintendent William Mulholland's response to what he saw as a water supply that was woefully inadequate to support more people and industry in Los Angeles. Until the Aqueduct, LA depended on its then-wild river for water. Mulholland, convinced snowmelt from the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains was the answer, presented his plan and voters approved $23 million in construction bonds in 1907.

A dispute over water rights and the land needed for water diversion eventually reached the desk of President Theodore Roosevelt, who cited "the greatest good for the greatest number" in allowing LA's plan to move ahead.

Below, these historic photos show how the Los Angeles Aqueduct was constructed.

25 photos
The search for a water supply that would meet the demands of a Los Angeles on the verge of a population boom led then-water superintendent William Mulholland hundreds of miles beyond the city to the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Snowmelt from the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains flowed into streams that emptied into the dry Owens Valley plain, where it was blocked by a section of lava flow. The challenge for Mulholland, as it is for many designing infrastructure in California, was one of topography.
Mulholland's answer was an aqueduct that brought water from the Owens Valley and through the mountains north of Los Angeles to its thirsty residents. He had predicted LA's population would be almost 260,000 on the day the aqueduct began operation. It actually reached 485,000 by the time water began flowing in 1913.
Diversion gates, seen here in the shadow of snow-blanketed mountains, channel the Owens River into the aqueduct canal for its journey south to Los Angeles.
Water flows through the LA Aqueduct intake.
The LA Aqueduct was completed after five years of construction in 1913. Here, workers are seen constructing a canal. More than 1 million barrels of cement were used to churn out 1.5 million cubic yards of concrete for aqueduct construction.
The northern part of the aqueduct had about 60 miles of open canals, some of which were lined.
Lined channels made up about 37 miles of the 223-mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct, most of which was concrete conduit
One of the most significant features of the aqueduct is known as the Jawbone Siphon. It's an example of the riveted steel pipelines that cross deep and wide canyons along the aqueduct route. Considered one of the most challenging projects, the pressure siphon piping is made up of different diameters to help move water across vast stretches of the canyon.
A team of mules hauls sections of pipe for the Jawbone Siphon in the Mojave Desert.
The steel pipe segments were supported by piers spaced at regular intervals along the aqueduct. Animal teams were used to haul materials to work sites.
Jawbone Siphon stretches for more than 8,000 feet across the Mojave Desert southwest of Red Rock Canyon State Park.
A view of workers constructing the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
This split image shows the Elizabeth Tunnel in 2012 (left) and during construction. Workers bore through 604 in one month, setting a world record for hard rock tunneling. At more than five miles, the longest of the aqueduct's tunnels is about 15 miles west of Lancaster in northern Los Angeles County.
People lined the Newhall Spillway in November 1913 for the dedication of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. During the ceremony, Mulholland said, "This rude platform is an altar, and on it we are here consecrating this water supply and dedicating the Aqueduct to you and your children and your children’s children-for all time. That’s all."
Rows of camp housing provided shelter for workers during construction of the LA Aqueduct.
Workers pose for a picture at one of the many camps that dotted the landscape during construction of the LA Aqueduct. Accident and death figures vary, but the 1916 "Complete Report on Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct," published by the city, placed the number of fatalities at 43.
More than 140 tunnels that added up to more than 40 miles in length were blasted and drilled for the aqueduct system.
Working conditions were extremely difficult, due in large part to the Mojave Desert region's extreme heat during summer and cold temperatures in the winter.
Rail lines, roads and temporary housing were built for the project, most of which spans a remote region northeast of Los Angeles.
The work force, which topped out at about 3,900, received food, housing and medical care.
With snow-covered mountains in the background, workers stand on a dipper dredge used to excavate a section of aqueduct canal.
A view of construction along the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Smoke billows from construction equipment used to shovel mounds of dirt for the bed of a canal.
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