Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

The cattle and horses were dying in early September 1864. Three years of little rain was burning through rangeland that had been unusually lush in 1861. Over-grazing now made the land barren. In Los Angeles County, 70 percent of the herds died or were slaughtered to leave forage for the rest. Carcasses were left where they fell. Out of reach beneath them – in some places, only a few dozen feet – pooled billions of gallons of life-sustaining water in the Los Angeles aquifer. 

New cycles of drought intensified the search for reliable water at the start of the 20th century. The worst dry period lasted for eleven years, from 1893 to 1904. In six of those years, rainfall was less 70 percent of normal; three consecutive years averaged less than 51 percent. The city of Los Angeles went looking for water in the foothills of the Sierras and found it in the Owens Valley. The communities west of the city and the towns on the Downey Plain punched some 3,500 wells into the Los Angeles aquifer for agriculture, industry, and the neat rectangular lots of suburban homes. More