By Tom Sitton
Here we are on July 20, the 149th anniversary of an important date in the history of supplying many of us with the necessary wet resource that kept Los Angeles growing. For on that date in 1868 the Los Angeles City Water Company received its thirty-year lease to provide the city’s residents with nature’s gift by operating its water system.
That event followed a number of years in the mid-1800s, when early water providers faced many difficulties in building crude infrastructure to distribute water from the Los Angeles River and other sources to thirsty Angelenos. By 1868 city officials were desperate for help, and three entrepreneurs offered to solve their problem. Although there were many critics of the final lease agreement, the city leaders saw no other solution to their dilemma and a majority of the common council agreed to a thirty year lease for distribution of the city’s water.
Conflicts between the city and the company began soon after the firm took over, as its directors fought to reduce their annual rent payments to the city, reneged on building promised infrastructure, and even challenged the city’s ownership of the water. While the company amassed generous profits from the business, residents complained of bad service, high rates, slimy water and low pressure. As the Los Angeles population boomed in spurts in the 1870s and 1880s, the protests became louder with the transformation of the area from primarily agricultural to commercial and residential.
By the time the lease period was ending in 1898, public outcry against a renewal of the lease had crystalized with a demand for the city to take over its water system. The lease became a major issue in the 1896 city election in which opposition candidates were successful. The new council members began negotiating, but the sales prices demanded by the company and the city were far apart and ended up in arbitration that still did not solve the problem. The council decided to build the city’s own infrastructure for distribution instead of purchasing the company’s system, which would leave the firm with pipes, pumps and such, but without water. Several lawsuits ensued and a compromise was finally worked out — the city took over the company’s property in 1902, almost four years after the lease had expired.
The transfer of ownership of the city’s water system from private entrepreneurs to the city was an example of the early reform sentiment in Los Angeles that would increase during the early Progressive era movement that was sweeping the nation at this time. The municipal ownership drive of urban reformers was a key ingredient in progressivism, particularly in owning natural resources and other necessities for residents. Los Angeles would soon have full control of its water supply and eventually its electrical, harbor, and airport services as it does today.
So Happy Anniversary, Los Angeles City Water Company, and thanks for your contribution to the early history of Los Angeles growth and its environmental and political history.
Tom Sitton is History Curator, Emeritus of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. For more on the Los Angeles City Water Company see books by Ostrom, Fogelson, Hundley, Karhl, Mulholland, and Soifer.