I awoke the morning of my 46th birthday on top of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Not immediately on top of it – it was buried at a depth of at least 25 feet in this spot – but just a few steps from our parked van it was exposed by a service shaft: an open concrete box lidded with a thick grate. Standing over it, I could hear the roar of water being sucked southwards by the thirsty urban monster 100 miles away. Down the hill from my vantage point, the giant metal drinking straw of the aqueduct’s pipe emerged from the soil, spanned the dry creek below, and thrust itself back into the ground of the opposite slope. Another service shaft stuck up out of the hilltop above it, just like the one in front of me.
The Romans made far more elegant structures for the same purpose, but I marveled at the feat of engineering laid before (and underneath and behind) me. I wondered about the degree of angle it employed in order to run slightly downhill over such a long distance. I looked in vain for any sign of the tremendous excavation that must of taken place. Or did they bore a tunnel? If so, that must have been a big powerful machine. The engineering feats of the 20th Century are a wonder to behold for their sheer scale and complexity. The long-term costs of these projects, though, have not been so wonderful.