Cue Mulholland Reference: Trash-Talking Water on the Upper Colorado

You know you’ve reached a milestone in a western water war of words when the aggrieved party invokes the name of William Mulholland. Such is the case today in discussions over a proposal to pipe a gobzillion acre feet of water across the continental divide to the growing cities in Colorado’s front range. And it’s Utah that’s playing the Mulholland card.

William Mulholland was the engineering giant who brought Los Angeles its water. That’s what you did a hundred years ago when you were an engineering giant. But the water had to come from somewhere, and the legacy of the places Mulholland dried up, especially the Owens Valley east of the Sierra Nevada, have become both the icon and reality against which all big western water projects are now measured. As the Salt Lake Tribune does in this editorial discussing the Colorado-Front Range pipeline proposal:

It’s a scheme worthy of William Mulholland, the engineer who ravaged Southern California water resources for the City of Los Angeles early in the 20th century. But today such thinking is outdated, or at least it should be. One reason is that everyone has seen the environmental devastation in the Owens Valley and elsewhere created by Mulholland’s projects and others like it.

This is an important argument on a couple of levels. The first what is essentially an argument against out-of-basin transfers. That is the wonkish water policy principle invoked by the Owens Valley references. The second, and perhaps more important, level, is the question of who is making the argument: Utah, or at least one of its important public voices in the form of the editorial page of one of the state’s major newspapers. Utah and Colorado are siblings in the western water family by virtue of sharing an Upper Colorado Basin allotment under the 1922 Colorado Compact.

Does this suggest the siblings are squabbling?

(picture postcard of Lake Hollywood on Mulholland Drive in LA, courtesy Loyola Marymount University Library/Calisphere)