Some Headworks History

June 22, 2010 § 4 Comments

The Water Seekers by Remi Nadeau, Fourth Edition, 1997 Revised, Crest Publishers, Santa Barbara

I recently finished reading Remi Nadeau‘s The Water Seekers, a book which I highly recommend. It’s a very readable (almost folksy) history of Los Angeles and broader Southern California efforts in seeking water from faraway places. It  focuses mainly on the water grabs from Owens Valley and from the Colorado River, with excellent overview and lots of great detail – especially excellent anecdotes and stories. It’s fairly balanced – not excessively booster-ist about how much thirsty L.A. really needed all that water. 

There are probably more than a dozen L.A. Creek Freak posts I can drag out of The Water Seekers. I will start with a somewhat minor one – the story of the city of Los Angeles’ Headworks site, with some related water conservation and legal history thrown in for good measure. 


In a later post, I hope to explore current plans afoot for L.A.’s Department of Water and Power’s (DWP) reservoir project at the Headworks site – see basic project info at DWP’s website

For those unfamiliar with the Headworks site, it’s a ~40-acre elongated-teardrop-shaped area, located adjacent to Griffith Park’s Travel Town, the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, Forest Lawn, Mount Sinai, and across the river from the city of Burbank. The eastern end of the site is traversed by the 134 Freeway. 

The headworks site gets its name because, about a century ago, it was the starting point for the city’s water distribution system. Groundwater extracted (pumped up to the surface) at the site was gravity-fed into the city pipes and flowed into downstream reservoirs, homes, and even agricultural fields. 

(Note that an infiltration gallery is basically a big complicated straw with holes poked in it. They’re generally made of concrete and used more or less like a well – for extracting lots of water from underground.)    

From The Water Seekers (page 12): 

In an attempt to develop [the Los Angeles River’s] last drop of moisture, [William] Mulholland had already launched a plan to catch the underground flow by a system of infiltration galleries. But the strategic spot for the headworks situated in the narrows between the Cahuenga and the Verdugo hills, was owned by two private enterprisers who asked an extreme price for their land and water rights. 

Los Angeles moved to condemn the property, claiming rights to the entire river and the underground basin by virtue of its original Spanish pueblo grant. After a six-year legal battle the celebrated case of Los Angeles vs. Pomeroy and Hooker was settled by the Supreme Court in 1899. 

This legal case extended Los Angeles’ exceeding strong pueblo water right. That right was the legal basis for awarding the city all the waters of the Los Angeles River, including pretty much any upstream water source that feeds the river in any way, including San Fernando Valley groundwater. The legal right is based on a questionable interpretation of the Spanish word “pueblo.” The city asserted that the Spanish pueblo water right went to the pueblo of Los Angeles, with pueblo meaning roughly “town,” though pueblo also means “people.” 

Nadeau continues: 

The city won the last and most far-reaching suit in a legal defense of the Los Angeles River which had lasted nearly a century. Henceforth it held that rights to all water in the basin needed for its municipal supply and could prevent farmers upstream from pumping water from wells. The San Fernando Valley, then witnessing the beginnings of irrigation, found its development abruptly cut off and its future condemned. 

Further on Nadeau continues: 

At first [Mulholland’s] frantic pursuit of improvements was hindered by the water company’s unwillingness to spend money while negotiations were pending for sale to the city. But in February 1902 the transaction was complete; Mulholland and his staff were retained in charge and immediately mended their water defenses. The infiltration galleries were built to catch all the underground flow of the Los Angeles River, while meters were introduced for factories and other heavy users to reduce consumption. 

Also very highly recommended, Blake Gumprecht’s The Los Angeles River: Its Life Death and Possible Rebirth (page 97) reports that, from 1901 to 1908, water meter instalation helped reduce L.A.’s per capita water use 56%! This shows that L.A. can and did achieve greater self-sufficiency through conservation. Interestingly, the per capita use went down to 136 gallons per day – equal to today’s average for L.A. (about 135 gallons per day, per Mark Gold.) 

William B. Mathews - Pioneering L.A. water supply lawyer. Image from page 121 of Nadeau's The Water Seekers, credited as Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Photo

Nadeau also profiles William B. Mathews (sometimes W. B. Mathews), the “smooth and able Los Angeles city attorney” who 

had been a leading spirit in the city’s legal fight for the title to the entire Los Angeles River watershed and in the campaign for city ownership of the waterworks. Soft-spoken and deliberate, Mathews was at his best in the hard strategy of a courtroom trial or as an eloquent advocate of the city’s cause before congressional committees. In his dealings with opponents he exemplified the velvet glove on the iron fist – a man of inordinate patience, of scrupulous fair play, but unswerving in purpose. … [Mathew’s]  imaginative mind nutured the dream of a vast city-owned water and power system to bring unlimited growth. Elected city attorney in 1901, Mathews left the office a few years later to become the Water Department’s chief counsel and to share Mulholland’s place as creator of the city’s water foundations. 

Mathews will go on to play large roles in the city’s quests for water from Owens Valley and the Colorado River, and ultimately even gets a reservoir named after him – Lake Mathews near Corona.  In describing their work together on the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Nadeau relates that Mulholland liked to say “I did the work, but Mathews kept me out of jail.” 

Gumprecht cites water extraction at Headworks (and at additional sites in Griffith Park and at the Arroyo Seco confluence) as one of the reasons for the decline and fall of the L.A. River. Once water was tapped at the river’s source (more properly: tapped at the source point where it went from the San Fernando Valley basin into the coastal plain) then the river was more-or-less dry in the summer. The river becomes much easier to see as a dumping ground, a quarry, and a nuisance… and less as a natural waterway. 

After galleries at Arroyo Seco (1904), Headworks (1905) and Crystal Springs (extended 1906), Gumprecht states: 

By removing the subsurface flow of the river, the infiltration galleries sucked the river dry. … [A pair of 1914 Flood Control District photos – see below] dramatically illustrate the influence of such developments had on the character of the river. … One shows the river near Griffith Park, its flow ample, its banks lined with brush and willows. In another taken “200 feet below [the] filtration galleries,” the river is a dry wash with a small puddle in midstream the only reminder of its former state. 

This is your river, before and after water clear-cutting. Photos from page 102 of Gumprecht’s The Los Angeles River: Its Life Death and Possible Rebirth. Photo source: LA County Board of Engineers, Flood Control, 1915 Report to the County Supervisors

The Headworks site’s prominence turns out to be fairly brief. It comes online about 1905. Then when the city gets water from Owens Valley, in 1913, Headworks becomes a secondary character in L.A. water dramas. It continues to pump, but the city is getting most of our water supply (today ~85% for city of Los Angeles) from faraway sources. 

The DWP invents what is said to be the world’s first inflatable dam and installs it at the Headworks site, around the early 1950’s. It’s basically an anchored glorified linear rubber inner tube that can be deflated during winter floods. The seasonal dam is used to divert river flows onto the headworks site where they soak into the ground to recharge groundwater. 

Per Gumprecht: (page 125) 

Pollution eventually forced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to eliminate its last remaining surface diversion on the river and to discontinue pumping for water all along its course. The Headworks Deep Gallery, a vertical pipe that captured part of the river’s subsurface flow, was shut down in 1971 because of water quality concerns. Diversions from the river into the Headworks Spreading Grounds on the north side of Griffith Park were halted in 1982 because of increased discharges of treated sewage into the river.  

As a very large publicly-owned unpolluted river-adjacent site, Headworks can play a huge role in the future restoration and revitalization of the Los Angeles River. More to say about the site in future posts at L.A. Creek Freak. 

Updated 5:30pm 22 June 2010 – corrected a handful of errors and omissions. I would like to dedicate this article to LeVal Lund. He was a DWP engineer whom I met after he’d retired, who taught me about the inflatable dams and other river and engineering lore.


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§ 4 Responses to Some Headworks History

  • Nick says:

    Was the Valley Settling Basin project (sewage settling basin) constructed at the Headworks site in 1951? Based on the descriptions, it had to be in the area.

    • Joe Linton says:

      I don’t know – I’ve never heard of that project.

      • Nick says:

        Hi Joe,

        I’m an infrastructure historian (if there is such a title) and I’m attempting to pin down the location(s) of two long-gone facilities in L.A. related to water and sewer. The Valley Settling Basin was a project completed in 1954. The project was constructed due to area residents objecting to raw sewage being dumped into the L.A. River west of Burbank (and the Board of Health intervening). The basins were located (per the Valley News) in Griffith Park, south of the River near Forest Lawn Drive. The tanks were used to reduce loading on the North Outfall while the La Cienega and San Fernando Valley Relief Sewer was being constructed. I thought it was located just east of the Headworks site (near Travel Town), but the description says it was near Forest Lawn Drive, which puzzles me a bit. The Valley Settling Basin was in operation through 1959.

        The other facility is the LADWP 1930 experimental sewage reclamation plant. It appears to be located near the Travel Town/CETA Forest sites in Griffith Park based on the photographs of the hills and the proximity to pipeline crossings on the L.A. River. This was a cutting edge project and I think I can pin down the location based on the 1930’s photos – it looks like it was just downstream of the Headworks site.

        If you have any contacts at LADWP or the Bureau of Sanitation who can access the archives, I would appreciate being able to contact them.


  • Nick says:

    I’ve finally identified the location as the current Griffith Park CETA Forest site (just downstream of the Headworks site) based on 1927 construction drawings of the NOS sewer outfall crossing on the L.A. River combined with a USGS Topo map identifying the Valley Settling Basing site as “Sewage Disposal.

    Mission accomplished!

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