Joseph B. Lippincott, the forgotten hero hydrographer who brought water from the desert to a thirsty Los Angeles in 1913 & took photos to show us how he did it.
In the beginning Los Angeles was dust, It emerged from the desert. To fully flower, the city would always need water to grow. Without Joseph Barlow Lippincott (1864-1942), engineer, topographer and hydrographer, Los Angeles would have simply withered and died. Lippincott was intrinsic in the colossal and ambitious early 20th-century, man vs. nature projects that brought water to the arid and rapidly growing L.A., and to other many other cites of the dry American West.
Lippincott was no stranger to hard work. In his youth he spent several years driving cattle in Texas. He attended Dickson College (1886), the University of Kansas (1890), and left with a degree in Civil Engineering. He then worked as a railroad track engineer in Missouri before being promoted to division engineer in 1889. From 1889 to 1892, Lippincott was topographer for the U.S. Geological Survey, mapping New Mexico and California. In 1893 he became assistant engineer of the Bear Valley Irrigation Company, on the construction of an early irrigation project on the headwaters of the Santa Ana River in Southern California. By 1895 Lippincott was resident hydrographer for the State of California, with the Hydrographic Branch of the U.S. Geological Survey. In 1995, there was practically no knowledge of any potential water supply available in all of California. Lippincott set about changing that. He established gaging stations on the main streams and persuaded locals to volunteer as observers. The rainfall and stream-flow records he obtained were to be essential in developing plans for California’s future water supply. In the fall of 1897 and the spring of 1898 Lippincott was on the board of consulting engineers of the City of Los Angeles.
In the spring of 1899 Lippincott prepared an exhaustive report for the Geological Survey on the water supply, available reservoir sites, and irrigable areas on the Gila River in southwestern Arizona. He then made a comprehensive study of the development of the surface waters of the upper Santa Ana River and the San Bernardino artesian basin. The results of his studies were published in the Water Supply Papers of the U.S. Geological Survey. When the U.S. Reclamation Service launched in 1902, Lippincott was the logical choice to supervise all Reclamation Service activities in the Pacific Coast region – from the Klamath River in Oregon to the lower Colorado River in Arizona and California. Over 3 years, he prepared plans and estimates of cost and construction of the Klamath and the Yuma projects which he finished in July 1905.
In July of 1904, in one 10 day period, the daily water consumption of the city exceeded the inflow into the city’s reservoirs by nearly four million gallons. The City of Los Angeles water commissioners had a looming crisis on their hands. Los Angeles was running out of water. In 1905, Lippincott was appointed with O.K. Parker and William Mulholland to a board of engineers which was to make recommendations as to how they would quench the city’s thirst. They investigated seven potential sources out in the desert, finally deciding that the Owens River was the nearest and most logistically possible water supply.
Lippincott’s report instigated the Los Angeles Aquaduct project. In 1905, the voters of Los Angeles approved a US$1.5 million bond for the ‘purchase of lands and water and the inauguration of work on the aqueduct’. On June 12, 1907 a second bond was passed with a budget of US$24.5 million to fund construction. The aqueduct was controversial, its construction wiped out the Owens Valley as a viable farming community and devastated the Owens Lake ecosystem.
Construction began in 1908. It was so huge it required it’s own cement plant in the desert. A railroad was built to ferry in heavy equipment. The number of men on the payroll in the first year was 2,629. This number peaked at 6,060 in May 1909. Five years later, in 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was complete.
The aqueduct consisted of six storage reservoirs and 215 mi (346 km) of immense pipes that snaked out of the desert into L.A. Beginning 3.5 mi (5.6 km) north of Black Rock Springs, the aqueduct diverts the mighty Owens River into an canal to begin a 233 mile journey south to the Lower San Fernando Reservoir.
There was 24 miles of open unlined canal, 37 miles of lined open canal, 97 miles of covered concrete conduit, 43 miles of concrete tunnels, 12 miles of steel siphons, 120 miles of railroad track, two hydroelectric plants, three cement plants, 170 miles of power lines, 240 miles of telephone line and 500 miles of road. The aqueduct used gravity alone to move the water, it also harnessed the water’s power to generate electricity, which made it cost-efficient. Over a century later, the aqueduct system is still in operation.
After finishing the Los Angeles Aquaduct, Lippincott set up in private practice as an engineer, topographer and hydrographer and spent the rest of his life diverting water to cities all over the U.S. including projects in Hawaii and Alaska.
By the 1920s, aggressive water rights rules and the diversion of the Owens River precipitated outbreaks of anti L.A. aquaduct violence. Farmers in Owens Valley attacked its infrastructure, dynamiting the aqueduct numerous times and opening sluice gates to divert the flow of water. The aquaduct just kept on flowing. Between 1909 and 1928, the city of Los Angeles grew from 61 square miles to 440 square miles. This was due largely to the aqueduct, and the city’s charter was worded such that it stated the City of Los Angeles could not sell or provide surplus water to any area outside the city.
The population of Los Angeles (and many other American cities) should each raise a glass of water in thanks to their unsung hydrographic hero, Mr. Joseph Barlow Lippincott.
Lippincott’s work on dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, water supply works, groundwater, and streamflow in Arizona, Texas, and other western States, and in California, particularly the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is documented in photographs mostly his own. These sit, with his papers in the Online Archive of California. Over 5,000 photographs covering the years 1895 to 1930, most taken by Lippincott himself. The following are just a small, chronologically & geographically mixed, selection of Lippincott’s epic aquaduct adventures. There are pristine pre-construction landscapes, men toiling with steam power and sweat, desert camps, tunnels, pack horses, posses of men and finally the there’s the miles and miles of 11 foot high steel pipes, the preformed concrete canals and conduits they left, abstract and modern, in the wilderness.
Even if you don’t give a fuck about irrigation, topography or hydrography, the images are as immense and as epic as the project. Men bending harsh nature in remote desert, taming it to do their bidding. Changing the course of rivers, and lives. Random scenes from a forgotten real life saga played out in the vast American landscape.
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