Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

Crescenta Valley Water and The Road to Glendale Annexation

In last week’s column I described how the earliest settlers in CV in the late 1800s had enough water to survive on just by trapping and carefully distributing surface water. The winter runoff in the canyons was held in cisterns built of stone and mortar, then piped by various water companies to the individual homes. Several of these stone cisterns still exist. One is on the hillside above the top of Boston, and another on Briggs Terrace at the very top of Canyonside. A third one, at the corner of Briggs and Laughlin, has a house built over the top of the stone cistern.

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

This type of water distribution worked fine for the 75-some families that lived in the valley before the turn of the century but it was a limiting factor for further housing development and land sales. A novel new water source was tried. Earthquake faults trap and hold water, and force it closer to the surface. Hard-rock miners using hand drills and dynamite drove horizontal tunnels straight into the San Gabriel Mountains, sometimes several hundred feet, until they hit water at either the Sierra Madre fault or the Mt. Lukens Fault further back. Usually a good amount of water would flow down the center of the tunnel to be collected at the entrance. A score or more of these tunnels were dug into the mountains, several of which lie abandoned in the canyons. One at the top of Pickens Canyon is still used today, and supplies a portion of the water for CV residents.

Traditional vertical wells on the valley floor were impractical as the water table lay unreachable several hundred feet beneath alluvial rock. It wasn’t until electricity reached the valley in the ’teens that wells could be drilled and electric pumps installed to pull the deep water to the surface. These two sources assured water availability through the growth of the 1920s.

But the huge postwar housing boom in the valley strained these sources to their limits. A late ’40s drought lowered the water table to the point that many of these wells ran dry and extreme water rationing was put in place. Glendale had all the water it needed due to external municipal water sources such as the Owens Valley and the Colorado River (water sources that were legally unavailable to CV). Glendale graciously offered to hook their water up to CV’s water systems on an emergency basis.

In the meantime, valley activists began to organize to create a permanent water source for the growing valley. Frank Lanterman got himself elected to the state assembly specifically to introduce legislation that would allow unincorporated areas like La Crescenta and La Cañada to tap into imported water sources. This, however, mandated radical changes in the structure of water distribution in the valley. The individual water companies would have to be folded into a larger utility-style entity, a “water district.” This was a complicated and expensive process, as the water company’s wells and individual shares would have to be purchased and money be raised to connect all the systems and sources together. To finance this involved bonds being issued and new taxes, a tough sell for the many young families buying homes in CV.

At the same time, Glendale was offering a permanent water hookup for free if the Valley would simply annex to the City and become part of Glendale. The pro-annexation forces (backed by a little veiled empire-building on the part of Glendale) and those trying to form a water district began to actively compete. Charges and countercharges flew back and forth between the two groups. The pro-annexation groups continued to make headway as, bit-by-bit, parts of the valley calved off and joined Glendale, making the job of the pro-water district forces seem impossible as boundary lines fluctuated.

After a couple of extremely dramatic showdown elections in the early ’50s, the boundaries stabilized. Half the Valley, including most of Montrose, had gone to Glendale, and the other half had formed the Crescenta Valley Water District, creating the divided community we still grapple with today.