Few issues in the West are more controversial than water, and Les Standiford dives headfirst into the topic in his new nonfiction book, Water to the Angels, a dramatic account of the life of William Mulholland.

Standiford traces Mulholland’s rise from being an Irish immigrant ditch-digger to being the mastermind behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct, one of the greatest civil engineering projects of the 20th century. In the process, Standiford, an accomplished novelist, displays his talent for finding and sharing compelling anecdotes that highlight the drama and adventure of Mulholland’s story.

Unlike other books written about Western water issues, such as Marc Reisner’s magisterial Cadillac Desert (1986), Standiford’s Water to the Angels passes over the complexity of the region’s water politics in order to focus on the larger-than-life person of Mulholland himself. Of course, politics and controversy flow with water wherever it goes, and Mulholland’s personal story remains inextricably linked to its context. “But controversies,” says Standiford, “have only one small part of my fascination with such tales wherein one of the most powerful men of an era undertakes a project that most consider impossible and overcomes all obstacles.”

Mulholland is clearly the hero of this story, but Standiford’s portrayal is nuanced and never overblown: The man was, after all, a mere mortal, who confronted numerous challenges in his life and made his share of enemies along the way. The mistakes he made were, on occasion, both public and catastrophic. Standiford recounts the most tragic failure of Mulholland’s career, the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which killed hundreds in one of the worst civil engineering disasters in U.S. history. “Devastated by the event that refashioned him from civic hero to villain in an eye-blink, Mulholland would at one point confide to a reporter, ‘I envy those who were killed.’”

Water to the Angels ultimately portrays Mulholland as a man who was responsible, intelligent, honest and tireless in his dedication to the public good. Although Mulholland doesn’t float unscathed through controversy—in fact, controversy still swirls around him today—Standiford’s story of the ditch-digger who built the monumental aqueduct will inspire anyone who has dared to dream the impossible, and then set out to make it happen.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Water to the Angels

By Les Standiford


336 pages, $28.99