What San Gabriel’s Padres taught William Mulholland 

On a hot August day in 1816, waves of heat shimmered off of the dusty plazas and red tile roofs of the San Gabriel Mission community. The surrounding valley and foothills were brown and dry, and the nearby arroyos hadn’t run with water since March. But the town was a verdant oasis, watered by babbling brooks that ran alongside the vineyards, through the workshops, and into a 40-acre garden. These streams quenched the thirst of more than 1,700 Native American and Spanish inhabitants; of thousands of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, and mules; and of the fruits and grains that fed them.

But more than that, the water powered Southern California’s first center of industry, including a $20,000-a-year cattle hide and soap export business. So impressive was the mission that one of the first visitors from the United States to this Spanish (and later Mexican) settlement remarked that its value was equal to a mine of silver or gold.

The extensive network of waterways was no product of nature—it was shaped entirely by human hands. And as it was improved, the system provided one of the most important early examples of industrial agriculture in western North America, and contributed directly to the rise of the young city of Los Angeles. It’s a story that reminds those of us gripped by one of California’s worst droughts on record that control over water has shaped our region’s destiny for centuries.

The San Gabriel Mission’s water system developed over a 60-year period through trial and error. The first version of the system, in fact, was an utter failure. Unaccustomed to Southern California’s fickle waterways, missionaries initially placed the mission in the fertile floodplain of the San Gabriel River in 1771. After four difficult years, the padres realized that the river’s annual flooding represented as much a threat as a blessing, and they relocated the small community to high ground. Rather than bringing the mission to water, they decided to bring water to the mission.

Tapping into artesian springs more than two miles to the north, the mission’s native Gabrieleño neophytes (captive laborers) hand-excavated a series of zanjas, or ditches, bringing precious water to the growing mission town. By the second decade of the 19th century, lit by the first rays of the dawning Industrial Revolution, clever, self-taught engineers had expanded the simple trenches into a vast system of rock-lined canals, brick and plaster reservoirs, dams, and water-powered grain and sawmills.

Only the broad outlines of the San Gabriel Mission water system’s scope and function have been preserved in the inventories, letters, and histories that the mission priests and their successors left behind. Few images, and no maps, survive from the mission’s active years, and those that we have fail to capture the details of the system. The story that was passed down has its flaws, however, being heavily biased in favor of the handful of men of European descent who designed and profited from these works. So how do we know what it looked like, and how it worked? The science of archaeology specializes in filling this kind of gap by exposing and interpreting the material remains of past human activity.

On another hot fall day in 2014, a team of archaeologists cleared nearly two centuries of soil away from the stone foundations of the San Gabriel Mission water system. Time had been surprisingly kind to the site. In a historical irony, the construction of a railroad atop the ruins in 1874, while initially destructive, had preserved the heart of the water works just across the street from the iconic mission church.

Another train project made the dig possible. The construction of the Alameda Corridor-East San Gabriel Trench, a project that will lower the Union Pacific Railroad tracks below the intersecting streets, required that the tracks be temporarily shifted to the north. This displacement represented a rare opportunity to examine the long-buried foundations, which underlay the entire railroad right-of-way, directly across the street from the mission church. My team of archaeologists excavated those foundations with machines and by hand to reveal the pattern, associated artifacts, and history of the waterworks’ construction.

Project planners have long known that archaeological materials were present in the area, prompting them to hire my firm of professional archaeologists in advance of construction. We have spent years documenting the physical remains of the mission, including numerous foundations and hundreds of thousands of artifacts and food remains. This latest dig has uncovered four major iterations of the water system, from simple earthen ditches, to cobblestone-lined canals and tanks, to masonry reservoirs connected by segmented ceramic pipes, to the pinnacle of the mission’s hydraulic technology—a massive cement flume that served as the millrace and millpond for a New England-style grain mill dating to 1825. In exposing and documenting these systems, we continue to be impressed by the innovation that marked their evolution, and the increasing sophistication that they gained as they were improved. This improvement was not simply about increases in scale—with each new version of the water system, the designers got better at conserving water. They did this not by reducing their use, but by recycling the water several times before releasing it downstream. The network of canals simultaneously powered mills, flushed tanning vats, watered animals, irrigated crops, and supported cooking, bathing, and washing needs.

We preserved the most intact portion of the 1825 flume two years ago by picking it up and moving it across the street to Plaza Park and installing a self-contained plumbing system. It once again flows with cool water so that visitors can experience the look, feel, and sound of the historic waterway. Our finds in 2014, however, included the largest and least expected element of the system, representing a kind of missing link between the earliest zanjas and the late Mission period millworks.

I have been conducting archaeological research for 20 years, excavating in Arizona, New Jersey, Honduras, British Columbia, Florida, and Peru. But much of my career has focused on the early history of Los Angeles. I have learned how deeply L.A.’s roots are entwined with water issues. After making the 9-mile walk from San Gabriel to their new town site, one of the first acts of Los Angeles’ pobladores (settlers) was to create their own Zanja Madre, a “mother ditch” connecting the Los Angeles River to their houses and fields. More than a century later, a former zanjero (ditch tender) named William Mulholland took the idea pioneered by San Gabriel’s missionaries to its logical end, bringing water from the Sierra Nevada to Los Angeles in a ditch of epic proportions, the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

As Los Angeles looks to the future, the thirst of its growing population remains to be satisfied. In both Los Angeles and her predecessor, San Gabriel, bringing water to the people was only half of the equation. The other half – seeking new ways to conserve the water – was the key innovation upon which this great city was first built, and will be built again.

John Dietler is the lead archeologist for the Alameda Corridor-East Construction Authority and the California cultural and paleontological resources program director at SWCA Environmental Consultants. He is a graduate of UCLA. He wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.

Israel Tourism Drive Focuses on Latinos

Missions to Israel are a staple of Jewish organizations, but when Pepe Barreto leads a group tour there in August, it’ll represent something new.

Barreto is perhaps the most popular drive-time host on Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles and a major player in a new drive to boost travel to Israel among California Latinos.

The campaign is a key part of a program outlined by Daniela Aharoni, the recently arrived director of the Israel Government Tourist Office for the Western United States. With Hispanics/Latinos making up nearly half the population of Los Angeles County and one-third of the state, this demographic will be of ever-growing importance in the years to come.

“We have found that Latinos are free-spending tourists, with a strong religious interest in the Holy Land,” said Aharoni, sitting in her office with an expansive view of midtown Los Angeles.

Aharoni served previously as deputy director of the Israel tourist office here from 1994-98, and she has been amazed at the rising influence and economic status of Latinos during the intervening seven years.

While American Jews remain Aharoni’s main clientele, she is also putting increased effort into attracting the Christian community.

“If we can convince the pastor of a church to go, his congregants will follow him,” said Aharoni, who is now organizing specially tailored seminars and promotional material for pastors and ministers.

Next year, Aharoni plans to explore the possibility of increasing tourism from the large Korean community in Southern California.

Her jurisdiction includes 13 Western states, Alaska and Hawaii among them, and she acknowledged that it’s tougher to sell Israel tourism in her territory than in the Northeast and Midwest.

“You have a much longer travel time to begin with, and Israeli sunshine isn’t that much of a selling point to people in California or Arizona,” she said.

After a near-disastrous slump in tourism to Israel during the past four years of the intifada, the statistics are beginning to look better. In 2000, the last “normal” year, a record-breaking 2.7 million tourists arrived in Israel. Two years later, the figure had plummeted to 206,000, rising to 379,000 for 2004.

The upswing is continuing, with figures in January and February of this year in the key North American market showing a 15 percent to 20 percent improvement over the same months last year. If the general Middle East situation doesn’t worsen drastically, Israel expects a total of 1.7 million tourists in 2005, 1.9 million in 2006 and 2.1 million in 2007.

Despite the gloom of the intifada years, Israel has been busy improving its tourism infrastructure and added a host of new attractions, Aharoni said. Off the top of her head, she reeled off the Davidson Center and archaeological park near the Western Wall, a new Yad Vashem historical museum, Israel Park in Latrun, Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv and Begin Museum in Jerusalem. There’s also easier access to Masada and new facilities and projects in Sefad, Tiberias, Akko and Eilat.

Aharoni’s office will trumpet Israel’s old and new attractions at the May 15 Israel Independence Day festival in Woodley Park in Van Nuys. A week later, on May 22, Eilat will join 20 other Los Angeles sister cities at a fair at the Page Museum gardens, next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Aharoni hopes that the easing last month of the U.S. State Department warning against travel to Israel will further encourage tourism from the United States.

Aharoni’s father arrived in Israel as a youngster from northern Iran, near the Kurdistan border. The tourist office director, who was born in Jerusalem, regrets that she didn’t learn Farsi (she’s picking up Spanish), but is now learning how to cook Persian-style.

After army service, Aharoni studied at Hebrew University and Israel’s official School of Tourism. She first joined the Ministry of Tourism in 1988 and has been working in the tourism field since, both for the government and in the private sector.

“Tourism is absolutely vital to Israel and its economy,” she said. “For every additional 100,000 visitors, 4,000 new service jobs are created.”

For information about Israel tourism, call (323) 658-7463 or visit www.goisrael.com

Teen Called ‘Amiga de Cuba’

Since traveling to Cuba several times with her mother, who organizes relief missions for Cuban Jews through her travel agency, Daniella Gruber has returned home changed by the experience.

"Both Daniella and I will never forget the images in our minds of these old Jews, some who are Holocaust survivors, living in dingy rooms with chunks of ceiling falling down, bursting into tears when we delivered bags of food," said her mother Roe Gruber, who enrolled her daughter in Spanish classes one summer at the University of Havana.

For the last five years, Daniella, 16, has followed her mother’s example and tapped school families, her synagogue and a retirement community to collect medicines, clothes, hygiene products and school supplies for Cuba’s Jews, as well as for a children’s hospital and several orphanages. Her latest campaign is a shoe drive for mentally handicapped teens in a Havana orphanage.

"Watching her over the years doing all this organizing, promoting, collecting and sorting has been amazing," said Gruber, who thinks her daughter’s values differ from typical, self-absorbed teens.

In a surprise at a school awards assembly last month, the 11th grader at Irvine’s Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School received national recognition from B’nai B’rith International’s Cuban Relief Committee in Pittsburgh. The Amiga de Cuba youth award was created especially for her to spotlight her unusual example and hopefully to serve as an inspiration to others, said Stan Cohen, the committee’s chairman, who has organized 23 relief missions to Cuba from B’nai B’rith chapters worldwide since 1995.

"She’s obviously a great girl," Cohen said.

School principal Howard Haas, who presented the award, said, "She exemplifies what we want for every student at Tarbut — to be a role model."