California Forum

California Sketches: Water flows south, aiding a thirst that is boundless

‘L.A. RIVER VISTA’ Mixed media on vellum
‘L.A. RIVER VISTA’ Mixed media on vellum

Last in a series

The Tehachapi Mountains, viewed from the ascending slash of the Golden State Freeway at 70 mph, is hardly my idea of a beautiful landscape. Rising from the agricultural abundance of the Central Valley, these bleak, brown, steep hillsides are a visual shock.

At the top of the Tehachapis, water pumped from the California Aqueduct descends into the Southland to meet the urban demands of millions of people. It splits into two branches. Surprisingly, most of the water flows east to dry desert communities and only about a third makes its way west to Los Angeles and coastal areas south.

From the headwaters of the Sacramento River at Mount Shasta, through the Delta and the Central Valley, I've followed the water to the Southland. And now, the West Branch of the aqueduct has brought me to the San Fernando Valley – hot, dense and dotted with thousands of swimming pools. The original Los Angeles River starts here. Abundant water inspired settlement by the original peoples and with the advantageous climate has since attracted millions more. Restrained for flood control, the river winds through downtown Los Angeles and flows to the sea.

The Santa Monica Mountains repeat the Tehachapi vistas of drought-tolerant plants, a contrast to what lies south in the Greater Los Angeles basin, my home for 16 years. Hollywood Hills, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, downtown, UCLA and the beach, stunning areas boasting extravagant flowers and gardens, long avenues of trees and lavish lawns, golf courses, parks and ponds. Fan palms, native plants from ancient tropical times that survived on water seepage from faults, are still a ubiquitous icon of paradise.

The William Mulholland Fountain, a memorial to the man who brought water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles in the early 1900s, symbolizes the eternal desire for water in Southern California. It's a tribute to all the visionaries who imagined this paradise. In the fountain, water from Northern California mixes with the Owens River, the Colorado, storms and wells. Water reaches for the sky, cascades over aqua green tiles and recycles again. It represents a powerful and contentious past and a vulnerable future dependent on reclamation and conservation, and threatened with unpredictability. It represents adaptation, innovation and collaboration. The Los Angeles River is just across the street. Its concrete channel is being revitalized with habitat and integrated into the recreational vitality of the region.

The East Branch of the aqueduct delivers water to a million spreading developments, to the Inland Empire, Palmdale, the Mojave Siphon and Devil Canyon power plants, San Bernardino and Riverside, where communities must meet the challenges of the built-in thirst of desert heat. Like the west side of Los Angeles, these water districts are encouraging conservation with rebates and other incentives such as reimbursements for drought- tolerant landscape, mulch and drip.

For five months and 700 miles, I've followed this complex, miraculous water system and aging infrastructure supported by thousands of people charged with making it efficient and safe from flooding, contamination and failures. Mulholland said, "Whoever brings the water brings the people." But even he understood limits. Every Californian must prioritize water as a critical resource. What was a paradise created could easily become a paradise lost.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee