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Between the Mountains and the Sea: The Colorado River Aqueduct

Jeffrey Syken

It’s been humankind’s longest enduring struggle: water – the “elixir of life.” Since ancient times, the problem of providing a safe, reliable water supply has been a major stumbling block in the evolution of the human race. Wars have been fought over it and water-borne diseases, in particular Typhoid Fever, have claimed countless lives. The Romans demonstrated, with their famous aqueducts and distribution systems, that it was possible to tap a distant water source (i.e. a mountain lake) and, via gravity flow and the power of the arch, quench the thirst of an empire. With the urbanization resulting from the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, it became imperative that population centers be provided with water in quantity and free from deadly germs.

A case study of the modern problem can best be found in the arid, yet fertile, southwestern U.S. The City of Los Angeles and its surrounding communities relied on the Los Angeles River and ancient aquifers for their water supply for years. Once sufficient, by the beginning of the 20th century it was becoming all too apparent that these sources were inadequate and unable to sustain the growth of the Los Angeles Basin. William Mulholland - Chief Engineer of the municipal water bureau and self-taught engineer, understood the problem implicitly. So it was that he sought out and found a reliable source of water in the Owens Valley. By 1907, work had begun on the Los Angeles-Owens Valley Aqueduct (a/k/a “Los Angeles Aqueduct”) and, by November 1913, the gravity-fed aqueduct was not only satisfying the water needs of the basin, it was generating clean, reliable hydroelectric power as well.

Perhaps this first aqueduct was too successful for it fostered an unprecedented growth in the basin’s population. Just a decade later, the Los Angeles Aqueduct and dwindling aquifer were inadequate to sustain the basin’s growth and economic well-being. Now, Los Angeles looked to the Colorado River which was, via the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928, being tamed and tapped into by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Mighty Hoover Dam would not only control flooding and generate vast amounts of electricity, it would also provide a reliable source of water to irrigate the fertile Imperial and Coachella Valley/s of southern California (via the All-American Canal). Supplemental to the Colorado River Basin development, the Colorado River Aqueduct (1933-1941) would provide (via a diversion dam, tunnels, conduits, siphons and canals) a significant portion of the river’s flow to thirteen thirsty cities in the basin to meet their water needs, to the tune of one-billion gallons per day.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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