In the minds of Californians, then, Mulholland’s aqueduct represents a historical pivot; a before-and-after event when farmers lost and the city won; a moment when Los Angeles began to soak the desert with water and populate it with people. The idea that the city is an actual desert disguised by uninhibited water theft has permeated the minds of policy makers and popular culture (i.e. “Chinatown”) for so long that it is hard to rectify the map above with the “genesis myth” of the Owens River Aqueduct. Yet, in the minds of engineers in 1888 (when the population of Los Angeles stood at around 50,000—roughly half the size of Santa Monica today), Los Angeles—particularly West Los Angeles, was anything but a parched landscape. This map, in fact, reveals an incredibly complex series of patchworks containing irrigation lines (both newly constructed and older Rancho era Zanjas), “moist areas,” pipelines, washes, creeks, streams, swamps, rivers, canals, wells, and of course, the large and still wild Los Angeles River.
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