An article in today's New York Times, titled "Danger Is Pent Up Behind Aging Dams," read like it could have been an epilogue to Mark Reisner's 1986 masterpiece, Cadillac Desert.
From the article: “We don’t hear much from the people of Bakersfield,” Ms. Petrovsky said. “It’s one of those ‘out of sight, out of mind’ things. You forget there’s a dam up here holding back a lot of water.”
(Hollywood Hills Reservoir)
And that's just it. These dams are so ubiquitous and we've grown so accustomed to them, they've become invisible. I often think of this when I look up at the Hollywood Hills and remember that the Hollywood reservoir is sitting up there, a body of water hanging in limbo up above the city. Of course, it's been made even more invisible since the face of the Mulholland Dam was covered in dirt and foliage eighty years ago:
It's telling to remember why the Mulholland dam was covered up. It was an effort to strengthen the dam to be sure, but one has to wonder if it wasn't also meant to intentionally hide it. It was, in many ways, a sister dam and copy of the St. Francis Dam built up above Santa Clarita. In 1928, two years after its completion, that dam experienced a catastrophic failure, sending a wave of water along the Santa Clara river bed, out through Fillmore and Santa Paula before hitting the ocean just south of Ventura. In terms of lost life, it was one of largest disasters in California history, second only to the 1906 earthquake and fire. Over 450 people died.
Now, I'm not predicting catastrophic dam failure above Hollywood, but I think this serves to illustrate the invisibility of these dangerously aging pieces of vital infrastructure. And, as the article points out, it's not just the oldest dams which pose the biggest threat, but the huge number of dams built from the 40's to the 60's as well. Dams like the Lake Isabella Dam above Bakersfield and the Baldwin Hills Reservoir up above South LA, which gave way on live television in 1963. Just one more fact of life, not just in Southern California, but across the West.