Los Angeles would not exist as the sprawling, highly populated global center it is today were it not for one man. At the turn of the last century, William Mulholland, a civil servant self-educated in the ways of water engineering, all but willed Southern California’s future when he masterminded one of the greatest engineering projects of all time: the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Bringing massive amounts of water south to this day, this monumental achievement was wrapped in controversy from the start, and in our more conservation-oriented age, there is still resentment about how Los Angeles “stole” the water of the central Owens Valley, dooming that rural area to an arid fate. Still, even Mulholland’s critics concede that the colorful Irish immigrant was a visionary who shaped the way that precious water is controlled not only in California, but also throughout the West.
Mulholland’s story has been told before, but perhaps never so compellingly as Les Standiford tells it in Water to the Angels. Newly arrived in California, Mulholland began working for the water department as a well- and ditch-digger, but impressed the company president with his unvarnished candor and knowledge. Mulholland’s single-minded mission was to bring water to L.A., and, unlike many others, he never made a penny from the project beyond his public salary.
Standiford expertly weaves the internecine drama behind the building of the aqueduct with a modern inquiry into its legacy (and even touches upon the movie Chinatown, which used the bones of the story but played fast and loose with the facts). Water to the Angels leaves little doubt that the forward-thinking Mulholland was as original as the city he birthed.