Author Marc Weingarten on L.A.’s original water crisis and the heroic side of William Mulholland

By Bliss Bowen

William Mullholland (right) has been villainized for creating the L.A. Aqueduct (above), but he also pioneered water conservation efforts Photo by Ron Chapple Stock/Thinkstock

William Mullholland (right) has been villainized for creating the L.A. Aqueduct (above), but he also pioneered water conservation efforts
Photo by Ron Chapple Stock/Thinkstock

In his 1949 book “California: The Great Exception,” Carey McWilliams described the Golden State as a “one-legged giant”: “The one leg is climate; the missing leg is weather … it will be interesting to see what happens in California when the rains fail to come.”

Interesting indeed.

McWilliams also condemned the construction of a 238-mile aqueduct carrying water from Owens Valley to a desperately thirsty Los Angeles as “an act of imperialism” accomplished via “fraud and violence” and an “artificial water famine” conjured by avaricious civic wheeler-dealers.

That view, shared by numerous authors, was famously fictionalized in Roman Polanski’s 1974 film “Chinatown.” But in “Thirsty: William Mulholland, California Water, and the Real Chinatown,” published recently by Rare Bird Books, Marc Weingarten discredits notions of any “artificial” drought.

Between 1902 and 1906, L.A.’s population had grown so much, and precipitation so scarce, that low water pressure necessitated service interruption to “hilly sections of town” during peak consumption hours.

In 2016 it reads like a cautionary tale, raising thought-provoking questions about public vs. private utilities, regulatory controls, community infrastructure and who really “owns” water.

“Thirsty” also reassesses the Belfast-born Mulholland, the aqueduct’s widely maligned architect, while colorfully portraying what Weingarten laughingly calls “a golden era of corruption” peopled by the likes of Pasadena businessman and L.A. Mayor Fred Eaton, flagrantly unscrupulous waterworks owner Prudent Beaudry and LA Times operators Harry Chandler and Harrison Otis.

Unlike Les Standiford’s “Water to the Angels,” Weingarten’s engaging treatise was inspired not by curiosity about Mulholland Drive’s namesake but by the dam whose 1928 collapse killed more than 400 people, forever diminishing Mulholland’s once unrivaled stature. Speaking with survivors who were children when the St. Francis dam collapsed and digging through LA Times and Water & Power archives, the Malibu resident says, led him “down the rabbit hole” into L.A. history.

He spoke to The Argonaut from his office on the L.A.-Santa Monica border.

What were you most surprised to learn?

I thought I had a specific point of view about Mulholland and the project, which was sort of the orthodoxy of “Chinatown” and [Marc Reisner’s 1986 book] “Cadillac Desert” and all these other books: that there was this secret cabal, Mulholland was leading and abetting them, he was evil, he stole this water. Then I did a complete 180 because I realized that Mulholland’s intentions, however flawed, were not borne out of a profit motive or to support some shadowy conspiracy. He was trying to do what he thought was best for the city. The problem is that he left Owens Valley in a shambles. … I do lay blame at his feet for the dam collapse. But in terms of stealing water, I don’t buy that.

You write that in 1900 L.A.’s “population had bloomed over the hundred-thousand mark, and trying to provide ample water for everyone was like trying to feed a battalion through an eye dropper.” Did Mulholland and Eaton envision L.A.’s population expanding to anything near its current size?

They had no idea. The city fathers, the railroad companies and then later on the LA Times — all these very powerful advocates, who were really self-interested, promoted the city and people flocked like locusts to the orange sunlight. No one had any idea just how successful they all would be. … Mulholland had to do what he had to do to make it work.

In 1901, you write that L.A. residents used 306 gallons of water per person per day. Were any innovations tried to regulate flow?

Mulholland tried his best. He made everyone install water meters in their house, sort of like Jerry Brown today telling people to not water their lawns. He was really pledging conservation at a very early time, knowing that the supply was finite. … Now, we’re doing a pretty damn good job of conserving our own water. Mulholland would be proud. [Laughs.]

Fred Eaton, Harry Chandler, Harrison Otis, Moses Sherman and others made audacious real estate grabs. Were they motivated by the public good, or clever opportunists?

Opportunists. [Laughs.] I mean, opportunists and then, someone was going to develop this land, if not them. … Were they criminal? Nope. In fact, Chandler is one of the three most important figures in the history of the city. He helped bring Hollywood; he attracted aerospace to L.A.

The book depicts a groundswell of pro-union momentum in 1911, with 25,000 unionists, supporters of Socialist mayoral candidate Job Harriman, singing “Le Marseillaise” from the county jail to Luna Park in Venice. Did that fervor just dissipate after Harriman lost?

The union groundswell certainly built and … [there was] massive union involvement happening here in the ’20s and ’30s. But when Harriman failed, as is the case with these short-term political campaigns — think of the Occupy Wall Street movement; we felt something was going to happen and it sort of dissipated. You need that charismatic leader to pull you through, and when Harriman’s bid collapsed, that groundswell collapsed with it.

Mulholland and Eaton believed passionately in Los Angeles; did they also believe in access to potable water as a human right?

Wow, that’s interesting. I don’t know. Total speculation. Eaton was more into self-gain. Mulholland was more into the public good. They definitely crossed swords at that. But I would say that Mulholland [believed in] an absolute right for L.A. to have water. It’s what he spent his whole life trying to do, really.

Do you think Mulholland’s reputation would have taken as big a hit without “Chinatown”?

It absolutely did a lot of damage; my book or any other book isn’t going to alter that. It’s a pretty powerful myth. The best we can do is chip away at it a little at a time.

What’s your personal opinion of Mulholland? Has history assessed him fairly?

He shouldn’t get off — he’s arrogant, he’s responsible for that dam collapse. But in terms of what happened in Owens Valley, it needed to be done. But the aftermath was handled poorly, negligently. I think he had noble intentions. And I think he loved and wanted the best for this city. His hubris and arrogance hurt him and wound up killing others. So I have a mixed response toward Mulholland. I admire some things he did, and curse other things.