The Water Fight That Inspired ‘Chinatown’

William Mulholland. Photo retrieved from:

“When 95 percent of the water rights along the river were in the hands of Mulholland’s department, an aqueduct some 233 miles long was built to take the water to the city. But because the amount that was flowing to Los Angeles was more than it could use, Owens Valley water soon made the San Fernando Valley bloom and enriched inside investors who were champions of Mulholland’s plans. (The relevant line from the movie, spoken by Jack Nicholson’s character, J.J. Gittes: “Do you have any idea what this land would be worth with a steady water supply? About $30 million more than they paid for it.”)

Eventually Los Angeles incorporated those farmlands into its boundaries. In an effort beginning in 1905, Dr. Libecap reports, the city acquired the land and water rights of 1,167 Owens Valley farms comprising 262,000 acres for about $20.7 million. (The latter figure is the equivalent of more than $220 million today.)

The one serious misjudgement in Mulholland’s plan was his calculation of how fast the newly watered city would outgrow the initial infusion of water. So Mulholland and Los Angeles came back for more of the river in 1926 and 1927, and some local farmers responded by repeatedly blowing up the pipeline. Mulholland then sent dozens of armed guards to protect his aqueduct. Soon, agricultural resistance dissipated. But the legend of injustice persisted.”

Read more: New York Times


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