Ethics of Decisions Behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct


Moving water from outside a city in for its residents is a challenge in growing metropolitan areas, and engineers are needed to create the systems and structures and to oversee the work. Engineers often go far away to get water, and transporting it can be difficult and expensive. In the early 1900’s, Los Angeles needed its engineers to move water into the drying city. They chose to take water from the Owens Valley, a water-rich valley high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The engineers did so in a legal way, although it was not done in a highly ethical way. This paper will argue that the way the Los Angeles aqueduct project was done was highly unethical. It uprooted a whole area forcing farmers and families to leave their lands. It was hard on the local ecology, drying up the Owens Lake. And it has greatly changed the landscape of Southern California. The engineers on the project used underhanded means when the water could have been procured in an ethical manner.

In the early 1900’s, the growing city of Los Angeles needed water to fuel its growth. The city leaders knew they had to look far past the deserts surrounding the city to find water to bring to the people. They went to the Owens Valley, over 300 miles away in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to acquire water for the city. They problem was that there were families living in the Owens Valley farming and relying on the water flowing in the Owens River. Although there were people using the land, LA bought the land without disclosing to the people of the Owens Valley what their intentions really were. Although the City of Los Angeles needed the water and got it legally, the way in which it was acquired was not highly ethical. This paper lays out ethical issues regarding the Los Angeles aqueduct, looks at what was done ethically and unethically, and strives to show examples for future projects regarding how poor ethics can be avoided.

William Mulholland was the engineer in charge of the Los Angeles city water at the time. The city of LA was growing fast and needed to supply the people in the city with water. He and a team of engineers took water from the Owens River Valley to supply the water to Los Angeles. He worked closely with fellow engineers Fred Eaton and JB Lippincott to achieve this goal. With the help of creative engineers, they created a system of pipes, tunnels, channels, and siphons to move water, using only gravity, from the Owens Valley to LA. The moving water brought life to LA, but what happened to life in the Owens Valley?

When Mulholland and his crew obtained the land, they did it in an underhanded way. The dilemma is that what they did was completely legal. Fred Eaton worked closely with J.B. Lippincott, who worked for the Bureau of Reclamation and had previously surveyed the Owens Valley to see if it would be worthwhile for the government to build a dam and do a large irrigation project there. Lippincott was being paid by the government to survey the valley. At the same time, Eaton was paying Lippincott to help him obtain the land [1]. Lippincott went with Eaton and directed Eaton to the land he needed to buy to gain access to all the water rights in the valley. Lippincott should not have been working for the government and working for Eaton at the same time. He used his government-funded knowledge to guide Eaton. Lippincott was also able to steer government projects out of the Owens Valley so LA did not have to compete with federal projects. While Lippincott manipulated the government, Eaton was buying the land in the valley by misleading the landowners with the front of being a wealthy cattle rancher. The people of the valley knew he was up to something, but since the City of Los Angeles was not buying the land, the people were willing to sell. The people did not find out until much later that the city was going to buy the land from Eaton to gain control of the water in the valley [1].

This report will use four ethical tests to investigate the way the LA aqueduct was handled. The tests will help clarify if actions were fair. The four tests are the justice test, the character/virtue test, the rights test, and the utility test. Each test looks at different reasons for why an action might be unethical.

The character/virtue test asks if an action shows good reputation and vision for an organization. If this were to take place today, it would make national news and cause a large legal battle. No local or national government would want to do something that would draw so much possibly negative public attention to its questionable ethical decisions. Eaton and Mulholland worked slyly to control public opinion. Eaton was masquerading around the valley, pretending to be a wealthy cattle rancher wanting to overpay for the land. At the same time, Mulholland was using his connection with the local newspaper to stimulate fears of a potential drought. These sly maneuvers were not a virtuous way to complete the project [1]. The two masterminded the whole project and manipulated opinion in a way that gave LA a bad reputation. For a local government to mislead people, and essentially lie to get land, is not an ethical thing to do. That is not a way the city of Los Angeles should want itself to be viewed. These actions do not uphold a good reputation for the city, and they do not balance the excellence and success of the city. The city did see success, but that success was at the price of the city’s good name. The name LA was not associated with strong values and honest decisions but dishonesty and underhanded policies.

The justice test asks if there is a fair distribution of benefits and burdens, and there was an unfair distribution of the benefits and burdens between LA and the Owens Valley. The people of the Owens Valley had their land purchased from them and then their water redirected out of their hometown and sent hundreds of miles away to LA. The people of the Owens Valley were left with almost no water and little land. Because almost all of the water was redirected out of the valley, the Owens Lake started to dry up. It was a saline lake, and as the lake dried, the salts and minerals in the water became an alkaline dust. The dust blew up easily in storms and became a pollution issue in the valley. It became the major violator of the federal particulate standard in the southern Owens Valley [2] [3].

Even the people who had non-agricultural businesses and who did not sell their land had their businesses suffer. Initially, the valley had become populated because of agriculture, so with the loss of water and farmland, most businesses collapsed. For example, the Watterson brothers were avid bakers in the area with multiple banks in the valley. They were hit hard by the loss of patrons, and they watched their banks fail. The collapse of their banks brought down the whole valley economy [1].

The rights test looks to see if fundamental human rights are respected during and after the process. In the process of the building of the aqueduct, the human rights of the people of the Owens Valley were respected. The people of the Owens Valley were not treated in a fair fashion, but they still had all of their human rights. They were not forced to give up their land, and they were paid a reasonable amount for their land. They were not denied food and were allowed to do as they pleased after the land was purchased. The people retained their freedoms and they were valued just as much as any individual in LA.

In the early 1900’s, things were just handled differently. Engineers were seen as men making it work, and LA still had a Wild West aspect to it. It was a rugged environment, and the city acted out of survival. Because the city was acting on its own survival, it acted on the people of the Owens Valley. This is not the same as forcing them to do anything. The people in the Owens Valley were not worth any less then, but the way the city expansion was handled was very different.

The final way to assess the decision is with the utility test. It looks to see if the ends justify the means. Before the aqueduct was built, LA was quickly approaching a maximum population limit. The city had other ways it could have conserved water, but not many that could have let it continue to grow much larger than 250,000 people [4]. Meanwhile, the Owens Valley was populated, but not as many people lived there, and a lot of excess water flowed through the river into the saline Owens Lake. Who needed the water more? And by LA taking the water, did the situation do good for more people than if the water had stayed in the Owens Valley?

When looking at the situation in this light, it is hard to decide whether the aqueduct was purely unethical. Without the aqueduct, Los Angeles would have quit growing. Water has been brought into Southern California in other ways, but that would not have been necessary had the water not first come from the Owens Valley. Without that water as a primer, LA would not have seen the population booms it saw in the mid-1900s. It would not have been able to sustain its early agriculture. This flourishing agriculture in turn sparked more work, which brought more people west. Since then, other industries have boomed, including the entertainment industry, finance, aerospace, and all other industries needed in populated cities. LA is also home to huge array of culture and it houses refugees from other countries. It is home to a population of almost 10 million people [5].

The population of LA is not the only group that directly benefits from this water. Not only is the state one of the strongest economies in the country, it is also the 8th largest economy in the world [6]. This is due to land irrigated by the aqueduct and its help in getting LA and Southern California to the size that it is. The water from the Owens River has benefitted a large number of people for a hundred years now.

Turning to the Owens Valley, it is hard to say if keeping the water there would have had such a powerful impact. Yes, there were plenty of people living in that area at the time, but the water fed a small area of agriculture and land for livestock. Much of the land had been purchased by land speculators who did not do anything with it. The land and water were not being used to benefit the largest number of people possible.

An issue with this is that just because water is not being directed to cities or people, it does not mean that the water is being wasted. The land may have been better off with the water still flowing through it. The area is beautiful, and it could have been turned into a National Park, and in that way, it could have benefitted many people.

All in all, when looking at which choice was able to benefit the maximum number of people and do the most good, it is easy to see that some of the decisions made were not ethical. Pretending to be a cattle rancher, using the local paper to excite people in the city with false information, and ignoring potential, and real, ecological impacts were all unethical decisions. None of those is fair, nor are they good examples of what a person, city, or corporation would want to be. The main issue with all of this is, did this unethical means justify the obviously huge end? Poor means were taken, but a good end was met.

The engineers behind the project did many things that were of poor judgment. Those poor decisions still led to a large and prosperous city, but the men could not have gone about the project in other ways. It is possible that not using false claims would have set the project back. And it is likely that if Eaton had told the people of the Owens Valley that he had planned on selling the land, it would have set the project back. But if the ends were truly going to justify the means, then good means should have been taken throughout the process. Teddy Roosevelt supported the project when he saw how many people would benefit from the water. He saw the potential growth of Southern California [1]. Surely others would have seen the impact of the water and helped pushed the project through. The benefit of doing the work honestly would have been that everyone would have been treated fairly, the environment would have seen less degradation, and many legal issues would have been avoided. Maybe people would not have dynamited the aqueduct in order to get revenge. Maybe the engineers would have slowed and had the foresight to see the environmental impact of the redirection of water and done more to keep dust pollution down and conserve the river.

Today situations similar to this are happening all over the world. In Brazil, cities are growing and reaching in to the Amazon. In Southeast Asia, expanding cities are pushing into the frail forests around them. All over the world, resources are needed to allow continued growth. Many second and third world nations are trying to grow and become economic centers. These places face situations similar to those the United States faced as it grew into the nation that it is today. These places can learn from the mistakes of the United States.

When work is done dishonestly, it causes more harm than good. Many issues can be averted if one takes a clear, honest look at the issues and does not side skirt important matters.

This is why it is so important to look and learn from the mistakes of the past. This engineering feat holds many opportunities for man to look back and learn about handling the tricky ethics of major engineering projects.

By Mason West

Works Cited

[1] M. Reisner, “The Red Queen,” in Cadillac Desert, New York, NY: Penguin Books; 1993, ch.2, pp. 62-69

[2] Dept. of Water and Power. (2012). Owens Lake Dust [online]. Available:

[3] D. Carle, “The Los Angeles Aqueduct,” in Introduction to Water in California, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2009, ch.3, sec.5, pp. 115-118

[4] Dept. of Water and Power. (2012). The Story of the Los Angeles Aqueduct [online]. Available:

[5] U.S. Census Bureau. (2013, Jan 3). Population of Los Angeles County [online]. Available:

[6] Visual Economics. (2010). California Vs. The World [online]. Available: