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Mulholland's drive

'Chinatown' is a great movie, but it's not history



I take some issues with the opinion about the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, which has been in overdraft for years (“Connecting the (H20) dots,” Nov. 14). The basin, which was once considered too big to ever run dry, is now showing alarming drops in various areas. And it is, in large part, due to the industrial-sized corporate vineyards that are turning the water into wine and shipping it out of our county.

I’m also disturbed by the dredging up of old myths and misinformation regarding the movie Chinatown and the history of water in Los Angeles and the involvement of my great grandfather, William Mulholland. As the Mulholland family spokesperson, I attended many civic events during this Centennial Year of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, including being on panel discussions at two showings of the film, one at the L.A. Museum of Natural History and another at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. While it is an excellent film, Chinatown is not history.

Mulholland was a poor Irish immigrant who was self educated and rose to become a public servant of the highest level. Los Angeles was outgrowing its only water source, the L.A. River, and as superintendent of the water works, he was tasked with finding new water. He was a strong believer in municipalized utilities and came to work for the city when it bought a private water company he had previously worked for. Fred Eaton, one-time mayor, had been to Owens Valley and seen the sparkling waters from the eastern Sierra run into the saline lake created by an ancient geologic event, and it was his idea to bring the water south.

While the civic boosters sent color glossies back east encouraging more people to come west, a drought that was real—not manufactured—led the city to make the decision to build an aqueduct. Two separate votes to fund the project were approved by high majorities, while congressmen, senators, and President Theodore Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., worked with the Bureau of Reclamation to move the project forward for “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

In the meantime, a group of rich men with some familiar names—Otis, Sherman, Chandler, Whitley, Brant, and others—formed the Los Angeles Farming and Milling Company, purchasing large tracts of the San Fernando Valley in what has been called the San Fernando Land Grab. Mulholland was not involved and said, “Instead of being developed as agricultural lands, the property has been subdivided into town lots and small ‘rich men’s country estates’ at prohibitive values. The capitalists have stolen the unearned increment for the next 20 years.”

With an army of more than 100,000 men, Mulholland, the chief engineer, built an aqueduct that still brings water to Los Angeles, 233 miles, driven only by gravity. He brought the project in under budget and on time and is credited with bringing the resource that allowed the small town to become the world-class metropolis it is today.

There is a lot of good information available to those who are interested in history. But the repetition of myth does nothing to advance our understanding of our past. And for any of us to bury our heads in the sand and believe that current water usage in our county is sustainable is just plain foolish.


Christine Mulholland lives in San Luis Obispo. Send comments to the executive editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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