The man behind the monumental aqueduct

Review of ‘Water to the Angels’ by Les Standiford.

 

Water to the Angels
Les Standiford
336 pages,
Hardcover: $28.99.
Ecco, 2015.

Few issues in the West are more controversial than water, and Les Standiford dives headfirst into the topic in his new nonfiction book, Water to the Angels, a dramatic account of the life of William Mulholland. Standiford traces Mulholland’s rise from an Irish immigrant ditch-digger to the mastermind behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct, one of the greatest civil engineering projects of the 20th century. In the process, Standiford, an accomplished novelist, displays his talent for finding and sharing compelling anecdotes that highlight the drama and adventure of Mulholland’s story.

Unlike other books written about Western water issues, such as Marc Reisner’s magisterial Cadillac Desert (1986), Standiford’s Water to the Angels passes over the complexity of the region’s water politics in order to focus on the larger-than-life person of Mulholland himself. Of course, politics and controversy flow with water wherever it goes, and Mulholland’s personal story remains inextricably linked to its context. “But controversies,” says Standiford, “have only one small part of my fascination with such tales wherein one of the most powerful men of an era undertakes a project that most consider impossible and overcomes all obstacles.”

William Mulholland and Commissioner Del Valle in an 80-inch pipe at Power Plant 1 construction in 1916.
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

Mulholland is clearly the hero of this story, but Standiford’s portrayal is nuanced and never overblown: The man was, after all, a mere mortal, who confronted numerous challenges in his life and made his share of enemies along the way. And the mistakes he made were, on occasion, both public and catastrophic. Standiford recounts the most tragic failure of Mulholland’s career, the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which killed hundreds in one of the worst civil engineering disasters in U.S. history. “Devastated by the event that refashioned him from civic hero to villain in an eye-blink, Mulholland would at one point confide to a reporter, ‘I envy those who were killed.’ ”

Water to the Angels ultimately portrays Mulholland as a man who was responsible, intelligent, honest and tireless in his dedication to the public good. Although Mulholland doesn’t float unscathed through controversy — and in fact, controversy still swirls around him today — Standiford’s story of the ditch-digger who built the monumental aqueduct will inspire anyone who has dared to dream the impossible, and then set out to make it happen.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Friends of the San Juans (Friends), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is seeking an experienced, passionate, and charismatic environmental leader to continue its strong community leadership...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.