Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Audiobook Review: Water to the Angels

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct and the Rise of Los Angeles (2015)
Written by Les Standiford
Narrated by Robert Fass
Publisher: HarperAudio/Ecco
Run Time: 9 hours 11 minutes

Seldom does one get to read books that directly involve their town, but in the case of Les Standiford's Water to the Angels, my hometown of Santa Clarita plays a strong supporting role. Some cities have canals, rivers or lakes as water sources. Our primary source is a lake, but the Los Angeles Aqueduct traverses our hills and valleys as it snakes its way to the big city to our south.

The high school I went to sits next to the aqueduct, or as students called it, "The Pipe." When I was on the JV and freshman volleyball teams, we used to run on a dirt trail next to it. The aqueduct looms over one of Santa Clarita's biggest parks, where families walk their pets and play baseball, soccer and ultimate frisbee on the weekends. At times, it sits at ground level and in other places, is mounted onto concrete stilts as it climbs and descends hills.

Standiford's book begins with one of my town's most notorious disasters, the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928. The dam acted as a reservoir for the aqueduct. When it broke, thousands of gallons of water rushed through the Santa Clarita Valley, into the Santa Clara River (which is normally dry) and barreled through the farmlands of Fillmore and Santa Paula before it flowed into the Pacific Ocean at Ventura. The site of the dam is about a 20 minute drive from my house and if you know what to look for, remnants are still visible from the canyon road that passes by the area. Standiford does provide some details and historical perspective about the incident, particularly from the dam supervisor who seemed concerned about the St. Francis when few others were.

Standiford's book primarily focuses on the engineering of the aqueduct and while the planning and building of it is certainly worth writing about, I didn't expect the bulk of the book to be devoted to it. William Mulholland, who would later have the famous curvy mountain highway named after him, is a central figure in the book and rightly so. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, of which Mulholland was the longtime head of in the city's early days, has been highly influential in Los Angeles' development for years and it traces back to the aqueduct and its designer. The portions of the book with Mulholland in them were the strongest parts.

Another strong focus is the battle between Owens Valley residents and Los Angeles. The aqueduct designers put the intake channel so far up the Owens River, it devastated farmers below. As a result, the aqueduct is still a point of contention today.

Since "The Rise of Los Angeles" is part of the subtitle, I was hoping there would be a history as to how the aqueduct helped spur the population boom the city had in the mid-20th century. The San Fernando Valley, home to the reservoir that serves as the endpoint of the aqueduct, went from being farmland to vast cityscape. Communities as far away as Huntington Beach and Pasadena started to flourish in the 1920s and drew residents via the Red Car Trolleys. Were those developments helped by the aqueduct? Also, when we say Los Angeles, do we mean the city or the metro area, the latter of which gives new meaning to the word sprawl?

As a bonus, the end of the book focuses on the 1974 film Chinatown, which is partially based on the early days of the LADWP and the water rights war between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley.

Rating: 3/5 stars. It's a good starting point of early Los Angeles history and its thirst for a sustaining water source. However, I still had questions as to how the aqueduct helped trigger LA's boom and the emphasis on the construction was a surprise, given the human drama of the water wars and the dam disaster. It should also be noted that based on some other reviews, some readers looked to the book for any commentary on our state's current drought situation, but this isn't the book for that.

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