Tag Archives: Los Angeles

March 12, 1928: St. Francis Dam Disaster

Portion of the St. Francis Dam after the catastrophic failure

March 12, 1928: St. Francis Dam gives way in Los Angeles, killing over 500 people. “The St. Francis Dam was a curved concrete gravity dam, built to create a large regulating and storage reservoir as part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. It was located in San Francisquito Canyon, about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, California, approximately 10 miles north of the city of Santa Clarita….

The dam was designed and built between 1924 and 1926 by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, then named the Bureau of Water Works and Supply. The department was under the supervision of its General Manager and Chief Engineer, William Mulholland.

At two and a half minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928 the dam failed catastrophically and the resulting flood killed up to 600 people. The collapse of the St. Francis Dam is considered to be one of the worst American civil engineering failures of the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of life in California’s history, after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and fire. The disaster marked the end of Mulholland’s career….

As the dam collapsed, the reservoir’s 12.4 billion U.S. gallons of water began to surge down San Francisquito Canyon in a dam break wave….”

Five minutes after the collapse, having traveled a distance of one and one-half miles at an average speed of 18 miles per hour, the now 120-foot-high flood wave destroyed the heavy concrete Powerhouse No. 2 and took the lives of 64 of the other 67 workmen and their families who lived nearby. The water traveled south down the canyon and began emptying into the Santa Clara riverbed. The amount of water was too great and caused it quickly to begin overflowing its banks, flooding parts of present-day Valencia and Newhall. The deluge, now 55 ft high, was generally following the course of the river bed west. In doing so, hit and demolished Southern California Edison Saugus substation, leaving the entire Santa Clara River Valley and part of the city of Ventura without power.

At this time, near 1:00 AM, at least four miles of the state’s main north-south highway (now Interstate 5) was under water and a short distance away, near what is presently the area around Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park to State Route 126, the flood was washing away the town of Castaic Junction. At a speed of 12 mph the water continued on and entered the valley. Approximately five miles downstream, near the Ventura and Los Angeles county line, on the flats of the river bank the Edison Company had set up had a temporary construction camp for its 150 man crew. Due to miscommunication and confusion among the Edison personnel, no warning was sent and 84 of them died.”

Guest Commentary: The dam collapse destroyed Mulholland who took the blame for it. However, neither the technology nor geologic understanding at the time existed that would have revealed that one of the dam’s abutments was tied into an ancient landslide. The reservoir saturated that slide and it gave way. The true cause of failure was not known until decades after the collapse. Mulholland went to his grave with the burden of nearly 500 needless deaths for which he felt responsible. (from Byron Buck, 3/12/16)

St. Francis Dam before the failure

Photo: Portion of the St. Francis Dam after the catastrophic failure AND St. Francis Dam before the failure

#TDIWH—February 28, 1895: Los Angeles Sewer System

0228 LA Sewer system aFebruary 28, 1895: Engineering News article. The Sewerage System of Los Angeles, Cal. by Burr Bassell. “The City of Los Angeles is built upon both sides of a torrential stream, called the Los Angeles River, at a point 20 miles from its mouth. The corporate limits of the city may be described as a square, more than five miles on a side, containing 18,597 acres….

The present river channel is dependent upon artificial means for the confinement of its waters. Its bed is 30 ft. higher at the point where it leaves the south charter boundary, than at the southwest corner of the city. This change of channel is probably due to the influence of a tributary, called the Arroyo Seco, which empties its storm-waters laden with sand, gravel and boulders from the mountains on the north into the very center of the city….

The census of 1880 gave a population of 11,183, that of 1890, 50,395. A conservative estimate for 1894 is 70,000.

The first comprehensive plan for sewering the city was prepared in 1887 by Mr. Fred Eaton, M. Am. Soc. C. E., at the time city surveyor. It was designed on the separate system, with an outfall sewer to the sea, via the Centinela Rancho. His estimated cost of the internal system was $533,846, and for an outfall sewer to the ocean by the Centinela route, 11.5 miles in length, $466,154, making a total of $1,000,000.

Mr. Rudolph Hering, M. Am. Soc. C. E., reported favorably on Mr. Eaton’s plans, and stated that the problem of designing a good sewerage system for the city presented no serious difficulties.

Reference: Bassell, Burr, 1895. “The Sewerage System of Los Angeles, Cal.” Engineering News. 33:9(February 28, 1895): 139.

Commentary: This article is remarkable in so many ways. Los Angeles was only 25 square miles and the population was only 70,000! Obviously, the city has grown a bit since the article was written. Incidentally, the article goes on at length to describe other sewering options. The plot plan below represented the preferred option. As near as I can tell, the outfall for this sewer is right about where the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is now located.

Mr. Fred Eaton went on to play an infamous role in Los Angeles water wars. In 1905, Eaton was a central character in the purchase of the Owens Valley lands that formed the basis for the Los Angeles water supply imported from the Eastern Sierras. Eaton’s actions were conducted under the inappropriate cloak of respectability of the U.S. Reclamation Service which has caused hard feelings in the region for the past 100+ years. Rudolph Hering played a role in this project. He has been portrayed many times in this blog including two days ago when we celebrated the anniversary of his birth.

0228 LA Sewer system

#TDIWH—January 13, 1916: Los Angeles Water Supply Purity

0113 LA Aqueduct purity 1916January 13, 1916: Municipal Journal editorial–Purity of Los Angeles Water Supply. “That the construction of the new Los Angeles aqueduct and the reservoirs forming a part of the aqueduct system of water supply for that city has been conducted and terminated in a most creditable way is the opinion of the majority of engineers who are familiar with the work. Some mistakes were made, but their number and importance were small when we consider the magnitude of the work and the unusual conditions to be met.

That the fundamental plan of the supply was wrong, and the water which had been brought more than 250 miles at such enormous cost was not fit to drink, was the startling claim made a few months ago. Few who were well informed took this at all seriously, but the matter was pressed even to the courts, and the satisfactoriness of the supply was demonstrated. Whatever may have been the real inspiration of this attack, it is fortunate for the city and for those responsible for the work that the discussion was promptly carried to a finish and, we hope, has fully satisfied all citizens except the few whom nothing could convince.”

Commentary: Given the controversy surrounding the development of the Los Angeles water supply, it is not surprising that some of the critics would attack the safety of the source. Critics were angry then and a century later many critics are still furious with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for developing the Owens Valley water supply.

0113 Watershed2 LA Aqueduct purity 1916January 13, 1916: Related Article in the Municipal Journal—Sanitary Features of Los Angeles Aqueduct. “Probably few cities of Europe or our own country are so favorably situated to ensure the necessary sanitary conditions and effect the delivery of a pure and potable domestic water supply without artificial treatment, as is the city of Los Angeles, Cal., in the possession of the Los Angeles aqueduct. A sparsely inhabited region as a drainage area, large reservoirs to provide storage and sterilization [sic], and the carrying of the water a long distance through concrete conduits and steel pipe lines, often under heavy pressure, with aeration by falls aggregating 1,600 feet in height-each provides a subject for interesting discussion.

Preceding articles in this journal have discussed the plans of construction of the works, so that it will be necessary here only to state that the streams flowing down the eastern face of the Sierra over a lineal distance of 120 miles are collected and carried southward across the Mojave desert and through the crest of the Coast range to the rim of the San Fernando valley, a distance of 233 miles. Here the aqueduct terminates and the city trunk line, a system complete in itself excepting for its source of supply, carries the water across the San Fernando valley, through the crest of the Santa Monica range, down their southeastern flank and into the city, a distance of 25 miles.

The principal tributary of the aqueduct is the Owens river, which has its rise in the heart of the Sierra Nevada [range] near Yosemite Park at an elevation of 11,000 feet. Within its upper drainage of 444 square miles, comprising the area of Long valley, the district is uninhabited excepting in the summer season by a few campers, and stockmen who seek the valley for its excellent pasturage.”

Reference: Municipal Journal. 1916. 40:2(January 13, 1916): 35-38, 45.

November 5, 1913: Los Angeles Aqueduct is dedicated; 1881: How Croton Water is Wasted

1105 LA AqueductNovember 5, 1913: First Los Angeles Aqueduct is dedicated. “A carnival atmosphere prevailed for the dedication ceremonies at the “Cascades” on November 5, 1913.  The San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce distributed bottles of Owens River water to the 30,000 celebrants who arrived by car, wagon, and buggy.  The Southern Pacific charged $1 for a round trip ticket from Los Angeles to the site of the San Fernando Reservoir near Newhall.  Pennants proclaiming the event sold for 10 cents.

Mulholland rose to begin the ceremonies.  He thanked his assistants and the City of Los Angeles for their loyal support.  His address to the crowd was brief, ‘This rude platform is an altar, and on it we are here consecrating this water supply and dedicating the Aqueduct to you and your children and your children’s children-for all time.’

1105 LA Aqueduct openingHe paused for a moment as if contemplating his words.  Then satisfied, he abruptly said, “That’s all,” and returned to his seat amid a tremendous roar from the crowd….

The program had called for Mulholland to formally turn the Aqueduct over to the Mayor, J.J. Rose, who would accept it on behalf of the people.  However, all semblance of order had been lost.  Mulholland turned to Rose, next to him on the platform, and said, ‘There it is Mr. Mayor.  Take it.’”

New Croton Dam

New Croton Dam

November 5, 1881: Article in Engineering News—How Croton Water is Wasted. “The inspectors of the Department of Public Works are busy searching for houses where water is wasted. Their method is to have a man enter a sewer in the night-time through a man-hole and apply a gauge to the water flowing into the sewers from houses. In cases where the flow is great an inspector is sent to the house the next day to examine the plumbing. When a serious leak is found the water is cut off summarily. In this way a number of houses have been deprived of water within the last few days. The police have been notified to be especially vigilant to prevent the waste or water, and the result of the order has been that several houses have been reported. In one case yesterday the water was cut off from a row of three houses on a police report. The water will not be let on again until the owners or occupants take measures to prevent waste. The officials of the Department of Public Works find the most fault with apartment houses. One of them visited by inspectors had a tank on the top floor containing 3,300 gallons of water. This was filled and emptied twice a day, making the water supply 6,600 gallons a day. Ten families live in the house, so that 660 gallons are used by each family, which is considered an excessive amount. This does not include hot water, which is supplied from boilers in the basement. The officials have no power to limit the supply unless a waste of water can be shown. Some trouble is experienced by the inspectors in gaining admittance to houses in the daytime, as servants object to letting them in while their employers are out.”

Reference:  “How Croton Water is Wasted.” Engineering News. 8 (November 5, 1881): 450-1.

Commentary: Ah, those pesky servants. Seems like a tough way to find water wasters. Universal metering would solve this problem many decades later.

October 15, 1918: First Water Permit Issued to LADWP; 1988: Uranium Leak

0627 Los Angeles Water SupplybOctober 15, 1918:  Date of first water permit issued to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for the Owens Valley water supply. On this date, the California Department of Public Health issued the first water supply permit to LADWP for the Owens Valley water supply, which started operation on November 5, 1913. The permit includes a report authored by Ralph Hilscher who was the Southern Division Engineer at the time. The report catalogues all of the major features of the Owens Valley supply including the physical facilities built to transport the water 233 miles to Los Angeles. In the report is a detailed assessment of the potential sources of contamination of the water supply by human habitation. The report stressed that only 1.5 persons per square mile occupied the Owens Valley aqueduct watershed compared with 132 persons per square mile, which was stated as typical of watersheds in Massachusetts.

Ignored were the potential pathogens from animals such as deer, beavers and cows (Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium parvum). Health authorities simply were not aware at that time of the potential for these pathogen sources to contaminate a water supply and cause disease in humans (zoonotic diseases). A statement in the report makes this point clearly, “It is the consensus of opinion among sanitarians that human waterborne diseases have their origin only in human beings.”

The report recognized the purifying action of the large reservoirs in the Owens Valley system that had extensive detention times, which were instrumental in reducing pathogen concentrations.

Another fact that I was unaware of until I read the report was that the first 24 miles of the aqueduct were earthen-lined and not lined with concrete.

Missing from the report is any mention of the use of chlorine for disinfection. Other literature sources had estimated that chlorination of the LA Aqueduct supply could have taken place as early as 1915. It is clear from the Department of Public Health report that any chlorination of LA water supplies around 1915 must have referred to disinfection of the water from infiltration galleries along the Los Angeles River. One report that I have read (unconfirmed) stated that ammonia was also added at the infiltration galleries to form chloramines. I have still not located a firm date when the Owens Valley supply was chlorinated.

A letter dated December 12, 1924, from Carl Wilson who was the Laboratory Director for the LADWP to C.G. Gillespie of the Bureau of Sanitary Engineering summarized the progress that they had made in applying chlorine to their system. In that letter are two curious statements by Mr. Wilson. First, he only planned to operate chlorinators treating water from the reservoirs during the rainy season because no local runoff would be entering the hillside reservoirs. Second, he did not see the need to determine chlorine residual using the orthotolidine method, but he would do so if required by the Department. It took a long time for sanitary practices to penetrate the operational mindset of all water utilities not just the LADWP. From a paper published in 1935, we know that the entire system was chlorinated by that time with multiple application points in the system.

Read the entire permit for a fascinating view into the thinking of a regulatory agency during the early days of our understanding of watershed protection and maintenance of a water supply that would be free from disease causing microorganisms.

Reference:  Goudey, R.F. “Chlorination of Los Angeles Water Supply.” Am J Public Health Nations Health. 1935 June; 25(6): 730–734. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1558978/ Accessed October 14, 2013.

Credit: Thanks to Susan Brownstein of LADWP for sharing a copy of the permit with me.

Uranium Contaminated Site

Uranium Contaminated Site

October 15, 1988: New York Times headline–U.S., for Decades, Let Uranium Leak at Weapon Plant. “Government officials overseeing a nuclear weapon plant in Ohio knew for decades that they were releasing thousands of tons of radioactive uranium waste into the environment, exposing thousands of workers and residents in the region, a Congressional panel said today.

The Government decided not to spend the money to clean up three major sources of contamination, Energy Department officials said at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. Runoff from the plant carried tons of the waste into drinking water wells in the area and the Great Miami River; leaky pits at the plant, storing waste water containing uranium emissions and other radioactive materials, leaked into the water supplies, and the plant emitted radioactive particles into the air…Fernald’s problems with radioactive emissions have been public knowledge and a source of anxiety and frustration for several years.

But in court documents discussed today at the hearing and reported last week by the Cincinnati papers, Government officials acknowledged for the first time that ”the Government knew full well that the normal operation of the Fernald plant would result in emissions of uranium and other substances” into water supplies and into the atmosphere.”

July 22, 1914: Chlorine and Pet Canary; 1962: Oily Birds; 1935: Mulholland Dies

0722 Pet CanaryJuly 22, 1914: Canary has sore wings. As chlorine began to be used throughout the U.S., some people were convinced that chlorine was bad for them and enlisted the help of their pets’ maladies to prove their point. “[In 1914] A Dunkirk young woman blames the poor condition of her pet canary bird on the chlorine solution in the city water supply. For some time she said the bird did poorly, was dopy as she termed it and had sore wings and refrained from singing. She did much cogitating on the matter and finally came to the conclusion that the city water with the chlorine solution might be the cause of the trouble…After a few days [of using unchlorinated local lake water] the bird grew lively and its sore wings healed.”

Reference: Evening Observer (Dunkirk, New York). “Blames City Water for Bird’s Sickness: Dunkirk Young Woman is Certain that Chlorine Caused Illness of Pet Canary.” July 22, 1914.

0722 oil-covered-birdJuly 22, 1962: Oil Slick is Shroud for Birds (Washington Post). “Oil pollution at sea is a serious issue. Oil tankers at sea, “the dumping of old crankcase oil and the pumping of oily water from bilges” are major causes of the oil pollution. The most widespread cause of death among sea birds is from oil. Insulating air pockets are destroyed which is s a cause of drowning. The seriousness of this issue has been recognized. While it is illegal to dump oil within 50 miles of a coastline, ships continue to do so.”

William Mulholland

William Mulholland

July 22, 1935: Death of William Mulholland. “William Mulholland (September 11, 1855 – July 22, 1935) was the head of a predecessor department to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He was responsible for building the city water infrastructure and providing a water supply that allowed the city to grow into one of the largest in the world. Mulholland supervised the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile (375 km)-long system to move water from Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley. The creation and operation of the aqueduct led to the disputes known as the California Water Wars. In March 1928, his career ended when the St. Francis Dam failed 12 hours after he and his assistant gave it a safety inspection.”

June 30, 1906: Los Angeles Gets Its Way with Water

William Mulholland

William Mulholland

June 30, 1906: Federal Law Gives Los Angeles Owens Valley Water. “[In 1906] The City hired a prestigious team of engineers to examine the feasibility of the project. Their report states, “We find the project admirable in conception and outline and full of promise for the continued prosperity of Los Angeles.” The Board of Water Commissioners appointed William Mulholland, Chief Engineer, Bureau of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

That same year, 1906, the final verdict on the Los Angeles aqueduct was rendered by the highest authority. On May 13th, the City submitted an application for rights of way across federal lands for the purpose of constructing the Aqueduct.

In June, California Senator Frank Flint proposed a bill to grant these rights of way. It easily passed the Senate but ran into trouble in the House of Representatives where Congressman Sylvester Smith of Inyo County had organized an opposition to the bill. His argument was that Los Angeles did not require the water now, but was seeking to acquire it for future needs.

The City planned to include power plants in the project. These power plants would require a constant flow of water. This water would be transmitted by the City but was not required for domestic use. The City’s plan was to sell the water for irrigation. Smith argued that irrigation in Southern California should not take place at the expense of irrigation in the Owens Valley. While Smith negotiated a “no irrigation” compromise, Flint went directly to a higher authority.

His appeal to Theodore Roosevelt met with a sympathetic hearing. Roosevelt, on June 25th, called a meeting of Flint, Secretary of the Interior Ethan A. Hitchcock, Bureau of Forests Commissioner Gifford Pinchot, and Director of the Geological Survey Charles D. Walcott. At the end of that meeting Roosevelt dictated the letter which would end the debate,”…yet it is a hundred or a thousand fold more important to the state and more valuable to the people as a whole if used by the city than if used by the people of the Owens Valley.”

On June 30, 1906 Los Angeles had the law which would permit the dream to become a reality. In 1907, the voters of Los Angeles again gave their overwhelming endorsement to this project, approving a $23 million bond issue for aqueduct construction. The only task that remained was to build it.”

Commentary: And thus the Los Angeles water wars began.