California Water Wars

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The Los Angeles Aqueduct in the Owens Valley

The California Water Wars were a series of conflicts between Los Angeles, farmers and ranchers in the Owens Valley of Eastern California. As Los Angeles grew in the late 1800s, it started to outgrow its water supply. Fred Eaton, mayor of Los Angeles, realized that water could flow from Owens Valley to Los Angeles via an aqueduct. The aqueduct construction was overseen by William Mulholland and was finished in 1913. The water rights were acquired through political fighting and, as described by one author, "chicanery, subterfuge ... and a strategy of lies".[1]:62

By the 1920s, so much water was diverted from the Owens Valley that agriculture became difficult. This led to the farmers trying to destroy the aqueduct in 1924. Los Angeles prevailed and kept the water flowing. By 1926, Owens Lake at the bottom of Owens Valley was completely dry due to water diversion.

The water needs of Los Angeles kept growing. In 1941, Los Angeles diverted water that previously fed Mono Lake north of Owens Valley, into the aqueduct. Mono Lake's ecosystem for migrating birds was threatened by dropping water levels. Between 1979 and 1994, David Gaines and the Mono Lake Committee engaged in litigation with Los Angeles. The litigation forced Los Angeles to stop diverting water from around Mono Lake, which has started to rise back to a level that can support its ecosystem.

Owens Valley before the water wars[edit]

Joseph Reddeford Walker explored the Owens Valley

The Paiute Indians were the original inhabitants living in the valley, and used irrigation to grow crops.[1]:59

In 1833, Joseph Reddeford Walker led the first known expedition into the central California area that would later be called the Owens Valley. Walker saw that the valley’s soil conditions were inferior to those on the other side of the Sierra Nevada range, and that runoff from the mountains was absorbed into the arid desert ground.[2] After the United States gained control of California in 1848, the first public land survey conducted by A.W. von Schmidt from 1855 to 1856 was an initial step in securing government control of the valley. Von Schmidt reported that the valley’s soil was not good for agriculture except for the land near streams, and incorrectly stated that the "Owens Valley [was] worthless to the White Man."[3]:23

In 1861, Samuel Bishop and other ranchers started to raise cattle on the luxuriant grasses that grew in the Owens Valley. They came into conflict with the Paiutes over land and water use, and most of the Paiutes were driven away from the valley by the U.S. Army in 1863 during the Owens Valley Indian War.[4]

Many settlers came to the area for the promise of riches from mining. The availability of water from the Owens River made farming and raising livestock attractive.[1]:60 The Homestead Act of 1862 gave pioneers five years to claim and take title of their land for a small filing fee and a charge of $1.25 per acre. The Homestead Act limited the land an individual could own to 160 acres (64.7 ha) in order to create small farms.[5]

The amount of public land settled by the late 1870s and early 1880s was still relatively small.[citation needed] The Desert Land Act of 1877 allowed individuals to acquire more area, up to 640 acres (259.0 ha), in hopes of drawing more settlers by giving them enough land to make their settlement and land expenses worthwhile, but “included no residency requirements.”[3]:39 By 1866, rapid acquisition of land had begun and by the mid-1890s most of the land in the Owens Valley had been claimed. The large number of claims made by land speculators hindered the region’s development because speculators would not participate in developing canals and ditches.[citation needed]

Before the Los Angeles Aqueduct, most of the 200 miles (320 km) of canals and ditches that constituted the irrigation system in the Owens Valley were in the north, while the southern region of the valley was mostly inhabited by people raising livestock. The irrigation systems created by the ditch companies did not have adequate drainage and as a result oversaturated the soil to the point where crops could not be raised. The irrigation systems also significantly lowered the water level in the Owens Lake, a process that was intensified later by the diversion of water through the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Around the start of the 20th century, the northern part of the Owens Valley turned to raising fruit, poultry and dairy.[citation needed]

Los Angeles Aqueduct: the beginning of the water wars[edit]

Frederick Eaton

The water wars began when Frederick Eaton was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1898,[6] and appointed his friend, William Mulholland, the superintendent of the newly created Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).[7]:20–23

Eaton and Mulholland had a vision of a Los Angeles that would become far bigger than the Los Angeles of the start of the 20th century.[8] The limiting factor of Los Angeles' growth was water supply. "If you don't get the water, you won't need it," Mulholland famously remarked.[9] Eaton and Mulholland realized that the Owens Valley had a large amount of runoff from the Sierra Nevada, and a gravity-fed aqueduct could deliver the Owens water to Los Angeles.[10]:3

Obtaining water rights 1902-1907[edit]

At the start of the 20th century, the United States Bureau of Reclamation was planning on building an irrigation system to help the farmers of the Owens Valley, which would block Los Angeles from diverting the water.[8]

From 1902 to 1905, Eaton and Mulholland used underhanded methods to obtain water rights and block the Bureau of Reclamation.[1]:62[2][8][11]:152 The regional engineer of the Bureau, Joseph Lippincott, was a close associate of Eaton,[1]:63 Eaton was a nominal agent for the Bureau through Lippincott, so Eaton had access to inside information about water rights and could recommend actions to the Bureau that would be beneficial to Los Angeles.[1]:64 In return, while Lippincott was employed by the Bureau, he also served as a paid private consultant to Eaton, advising Los Angeles on how to best obtain water rights.[1]:68

To help acquire water rights, Eaton posed as a cattle rancher in 1905, willing to overpay for land.[1]:66 Eaton bought land as a private citizen, hoping to sell it back to Los Angeles at a tidy profit.[12] Eaton claimed in an interview with the Los Angeles Express in 1905 that he turned over all his water rights to the City of Los Angeles without being paid for them, "except that I retained the cattle which I had been compelled to take in making the deals ... and mountain pasture land of no value except for grazing purposes."[13]

Mullholland also participated in misleading others. In 1905, back in Los Angeles, Mullholland influenced public opinion by dramatically understating the amount of water then available for Los Angeles' growth.[1]:73 Mullholland also misled residents of the Owens Valley, by claiming that Los Angeles would take water only for domestic purposes, not for irrigation.[8]

By 1907, between acquiring key water rights and lobbying Theodore Roosevelt, Eaton and Mullholand were able to cancel the Bureau's irrigation project.[6]

Many argue that Los Angeles paid an unfairly low price to the farmers of Owens Valley for their land.[14]:504 Gary Libecap of the University of California, Santa Barbara observed that the price that Los Angeles was willing to pay to other water sources per acre-foot of water was far higher than what the farmers received.[15]:89 Farmers who resisted the pressure from Los Angeles until 1930 received the highest price for their land; most farmers sold their land from 1905 to 1925, and received less than Los Angeles was actually willing to pay.[15] However, the sale of their land brought the farmers substantially more income than if they had kept the land for farming and ranching.[15]:90 None of the sales were made under threat of eminent domain.[16]

The aqueduct was sold to the citizens of Los Angeles as vital to the growth of the city.[8] However, unknown to the public, the initial water would be used to irrigate the San Fernando Valley to the north, which was not at the time a part of the city.[8] A syndicate of investors, close friends of Eaton, including Harrison Gray Otis, bought up large tracts of land in the San Fernando Valley with this inside information.[8][12] This syndicate made substantial efforts to support passage of the bond issue that funded the aqueduct. This included creating a false drought by manipulating rainfall totals and publishing scare articles in the Los Angeles Times, which Otis published.[8]

The building and operation of the aqueduct 1908-1928[edit]

William Mulholland with a surveyor's scope, ca.1908-1913

From 1908 through 1913, Mulholland directed the building of the aqueduct.[11] The 223-mile (359 km) Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in November 1913, required more than 2,000 workers and the digging of 164 tunnels.[11] Mulholland's granddaughter has stated that the complexity of the project was comparable to the building of the Panama Canal.[17] Water from the Owens River reached a reservoir in the San Fernando Valley on November 5, 1913.[11] At a ceremony that day, Mulholland spoke his famous words about this engineering feat: "There it is. Take it."[11]

After 1913, the San Fernando investors demanded so much water from the Owens Valley that it started to transform from "The Switzerland of California" into a desert.[11] Mulholland was blocked from obtaining additional water from the Colorado River, so he decided to take all available water from the Owens Valley.[1]:89

In 1923, farmers and ranchers formed an irrigation cooperative to share costs. Wilfred and Mark Watterson, owners of the Inyo County Bank, helped organize Owens valley residents into opposition to Los Angeles through formation of an irrigation district. But by exploiting personal bitterness of some of the farmers, Los Angeles managed to acquire some of the key water rights of the cooperative. By obtaining these rights, they raised the cost of running the cooperative too high, and the rest of the ranchers were forced to sell their water rights to Los Angeles.[1]:90 After these water rights were secured, inflows to Owens Lake were almost completely diverted, which caused the lake to dry up by 1924.[18]

By 1924, farmers and ranchers rebelled.[2] A series of provocations by Mullholland were, in turn, followed by corresponding threats from local farmers, and the destruction of Los Angeles property.[1]:93 Finally, a group of armed ranchers seized the Alabama Gates and dynamited part of the system, letting water return to the Owens River.[2]

Dynamite found during sabotage incidents of Owens Valley Aqueduct, circa 1924

In August 1927, when the conflict was at its height, the Inyo County bank collapsed, which massively undermined valley resistance. An audit revealed that there were shortages in both cash in the vault and amounts shown on the books. The Watterson brothers were indicted for embezzlement, then tried and convicted on thirty-six counts. Since all local business had been transacted through their bank, the closure left merchants and customers with little more than the small amount of money they had on hand. The lifetime savings of many people, including in many cases, the entire payment gained from the sale of homes and ranches to the city, had been wiped out.[19][20] The brothers claimed that the fraud was done for the good of the Owens Valley against Los Angeles, and this excuse was generally believed in Inyo County.[verification needed] [1]:97

In the face of the collapse of both resistance and the Owens Valley economy, the attacks on the aqueduct ceased. The city of Los Angeles sponsored a series of repair and maintenance programs for aqueduct facilities, that stimulated some local employment and the Los Angeles water employees were paid a month in advance to bring some relief. But it was impossible to prevent many businesses from closing their doors.[19][20]

The City of Los Angeles continued to purchase private land holdings and their water rights to meet the increasing demands. By 1928, Los Angeles owned 90 percent of the water in Owens Valley and agriculture interests in the region were effectively dead.[2]

The second Owens Valley Aqueduct, 1970-present[edit]

Terminus of the Second Los Angeles Aqueduct, near Sylmar.

In 1970, LADWP completed a second aqueduct.[7] In 1972, the agency began to divert more surface water and pumped groundwater at the rate of several hundred thousand acre-feet a year (several cubic metres per second). Owens Valley springs and seeps dried and disappeared, and groundwater-dependent vegetation began to die.[2][21]

Because LADWP had never completed an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) addressing the impacts of groundwater pumping, Inyo County sued Los Angeles under the terms of the California Environmental Quality Act.[21] Los Angeles did not stop pumping groundwater, but submitted a short EIR in 1976 and a second one in 1979, both of which were rejected as inadequate by the courts.[22]

In 1991, Inyo County and the city of Los Angeles signed the Inyo-Los Angeles Long Term Water Agreement, which required that groundwater pumping be managed to avoid significant impacts while providing a reliable water supply for Los Angeles. In 1997, Inyo County, Los Angeles, the Owens Valley Committee, the Sierra Club, and other concerned parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding that specified terms by which the lower Owens River would be re-watered by June 2003 as partial mitigation for damage to the Owens Valley.[23]

In spite of the terms of the Long Term Water Agreement, studies by the Inyo County Water Department from 2003 onward showed that impacts to the valley's groundwater-dependent vegetation, such as alkali meadows, continue.[24] Likewise, Los Angeles did not re-water the lower Owens River by the June 2003 deadline. In December, 2003, LADWP settled a lawsuit brought by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the Owens Valley Committee, and the Sierra Club. Under the terms of the settlement, deadlines for the Lower Owens River Project were revised and LADWP was to return water to the lower Owens River by 2005.[25] This deadline was missed, but on December 6, 2006, a ceremony was held at the same site where William Mulholland had ceremonially opened the aqueduct which had closed the flow through the Owens River, to restart it down the 62 miles (100 km) river. David Nahai, president of the L.A. Water and Power Board, countered Mulholland's words from 1913 and said, "There it is ... take it back."[26]

Nevertheless, groundwater pumping continues at a higher rate than the rate at which water recharges the aquifer, resulting in a long-term trend of desertification in the Owens Valley.[27]

Mono Lake[edit]

By the 1930s, the water requirements for Los Angeles continued to increase. LADWP started buying water rights in the Mono Basin (the next basin to the north of the Owens Valley).[28]:38 An extension to the aqueduct was built, which included such engineering feats as tunneling through the Mono Craters (an active volcanic field).[29] By 1941, the extension was finished, and water in various creeks (such as Rush Creek) were diverted into the aqueduct.[29] To satisfy California water law, LADWP set up a fish hatchery on Hot Creek, near Mammoth Lakes, California.[29]

Tufa towers in Mono Lake were exposed by water diversions.

The diverted creeks had previously fed Mono Lake, an inland body of water with no outlet. Mono Lake served as a vital ecosystem link, where gulls and migratory birds would nest.[30] Because the creeks were diverted, the water level in Mono Lake started to fall, exposing tufa formations.[31]:180 The water became more saline and alkaline, threatening the brine shrimp that lived in the lake, as well as the birds that nested on two islands (Negit Island and Paoha Island) in the lake.[31]:91 Falling water levels started making a land bridge to Negit Island, which allowed predators to feed on bird eggs for the first time.[30]

In 1974, David Gaines started to study the biology of Mono Lake. In 1975, while at Stanford, he started to get others interested in the ecosystem of Mono Lake.[32] This led to a 1977 report on the ecosystem of Mono Lake that highlighted dangers caused by the water diversion. In 1978, the Mono Lake Committee was formed to protect Mono Lake.[32] The Committee (and the National Audubon Society) sued LADWP in 1979, arguing that the diversions violated the public trust doctrine, which states that navigable bodies of water must be managed for the benefit of all people.[32] The litigation reached the California Supreme Court by 1983, which ruled in favor of the Committee.[32] Further litigation was initiated in 1984, which claimed that LADWP did not comply with the state fishery protection laws.[33]

Eventually, all of the litigation was adjudicated in 1994, by the California State Water Resources Control Board.[34] The SWRCB hearings lasted for 44 days and were conducted by Board Vice-Chair Marc Del Piero acting as the sole Hearing Officer.[34] In that ruling (SWRCB Decision 1631), the SWRCB established significant public trust protection and eco-system restoration standards, and LADWP was required to release water into Mono Lake to raise the lake level 20 feet (6.1 m) above the then-current level of 25 feet (7.6 m) below the 1941 level.[34] As of 2011, the water level in Mono Lake has risen 13 feet (4.0 m) of the required 20 feet (6.1 m).[35] Los Angeles made up for the lost water through state-funded conservation and recycling projects.[34]

Central Valley[edit]

In February 2014, after three consecutive years of below-normal rainfall, California faced its most severe drought emergency in decades with fish populations in the Sacramento River Delta in unprecedented crisis due to the decades of massive water exports from Northern California to south of the Delta via state and federal water projects. “Fisheries... people and economic prosperity of northern California are at grave risk", per Bill Jennings, Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance [36] One half a million acres of Central Valley farmland supposedly was in danger of going fallow due to drought. On 2-5-2014 the House passed a bill to increase flows from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Central Valley, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act (H.R. 3964; 113th Congress). This would suspend the very recent efforts to restore the San Joaquin River since 2009, won after 18 years of litigation, with increased releases from the Friant Dam east of Fresno. Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer proposed emergency drought legislation of $300 million aid, and to speed up environmental reviews of water projects, so state and federal officials have "operational flexibility" to move water south, from the delta to San Joaquin Valley farms.[37][38]

On February 14, 2014, President Obama visited near Fresno and announced $170 million worth of initiatives, with $100 million for ranchers facing livestock losses and $60 million to help food banks. Obama joked about the lengthy and incendiary history of water politics in California, saying, "I'm not going to wade into this. I want to get out alive on Valentine's Day."[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Reisner, Mark (1993). Cadillac Desert (revised ed.). Penguin USA. ISBN 0-14-017824-4. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Smith, Genny; Putnam, Jeff; James, Greg; DeDecker, Mary; Heindel, Jo (1995). Deepest Valley: Guide to Owens Valley, its Roadsides and Mountain Trails. Genny Smith Books. ISBN 0-931378-14-1. 
  3. ^ a b Sauder, Robert A. (1994). The Lost Frontier: Water Diversion in the Growth and Destruction of Owens Valley Agriculture. Tucson: University of Arizona. ISBN 0-8165-1381-3. 
  4. ^ Piper, Karen L (2006). Left in the dust: how race and politics created a human and environmental tragedy in L.A. Macmillan. p. 88. ISBN 978-1-4039-6931-6. 
  5. ^ Beach, Frederick C; Rines, George E (1904). The Encyclopedia Americana 13. 
  6. ^ a b "Fred Eaton". PBS: New Perspectives on The West. Retrieved 2011-10-08. 
  7. ^ a b Kahrl, WL (1982). Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles' Water Supply in the Owens Valley. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-05068-6. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h "William Mulholland". PBS: New Perspectives on The West. Retrieved 2011-10-08. 
  9. ^ McDougal, Dennis (April 25, 2001). Privileged Son: Otis Chandler And The Rise And Fall Of The L.A. Times Dynasty. Da Capo Press. p. 35. ISBN 0-306-81161-8. 
  10. ^ Davis, ML (1993). Rivers in the Desert. e-reads. ISBN 978-1-58586-137-8. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f Prud'homme, Alex (2011). The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century. Simon and Schuster. pp. 151–153. ISBN 978-1-4165-3545-4. 
  12. ^ a b Wheeler, Mark (October 2002). "California Scheming". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2011-10-08. 
  13. ^ "Fred Eaton Back From Owens River". Los Angeles Express. 1905-08-04. Archived from the original on 2006-12-30. 
  14. ^ Rolle, AF (1969). California: A History (second ed.). Crowell. OCLC 4730. 
  15. ^ a b c Libecap, GD (2007). Owens Valley Revisited: A Reassessment of the West's First Great Water Transfer. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-5379-1. 
  16. ^ Erie, Steven P. (2006). Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press. p. 39. ISBN 0-8047-5140-4. 
  17. ^ Mulholland, Catherine (2000). William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21724-1. 
  18. ^ Forstenzer, Martin (1992-04-10). "Dust to Dust". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-10-09. 
  19. ^ a b Nadeau, Remi A. The Water Seekers. Doubleday. ISBN 0962710458. 
  20. ^ a b "Whoever Brings the Water Brings the People". Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. 
  21. ^ a b "Evaluation of the Hydrologic System and Selected Water-Management Alternatives in the Owens Valley, California". Owens Valley Hydrogeology. US Geological Survey. Retrieved 2011-10-09. 
  22. ^ "A brief overview: recent Owens Valley water history and OVC". Owens Valley Committee. Retrieved 2011-10-09. 
  23. ^ "The 1997 MOU". Inyo County Water Department. Retrieved 2011-10-09. 
  24. ^ Manning, SJ (2004-05-26). "Status of Re-Inventoried Vegetation Parcels According to the Drought Recovery Policy, 2003". Inyo County Water Department. 
  25. ^ Sahagun, Louis; Hymon, Steve (2003-12-17). "DWP to OK Owens River Water Flow". Los Angeles Times. 
  26. ^ "L.A. Returns Water to the Owens Valley". NPR. 2003-12-17. 
  27. ^ Manning, S (2013). "Desertification Illustrated". Owens Valley Committee. Retrieved 2011-10-09. 
  28. ^ Hart, John (1996). Storm over Mono: the Mono Lake battle and the California water future. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-20121-7. 
  29. ^ a b c "The Mono Basin Project". Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. 
  30. ^ a b Green, Dorothy (2007). Managing water: avoiding crisis in California. University of California Press. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-520-25326-1. 
  31. ^ a b Mono Basin Ecosystem Study Committee (1987). The Mono Basin ecosystem: effects of changing lake level. National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-03777-8. 
  32. ^ a b c d "History of the Mono Lake Committee". Mono Lake Committee. Retrieved 2011-10-09. 
  33. ^ "Restoration Chronology". Mono Lake Committee. Retrieved 2011-10-09. 
  34. ^ a b c d "Decision 1631 Background". Mono Basin Clearinghouse. Retrieved 2011-10-09. 
  35. ^ "Mono Lake Levels 1850-Present". Mono Basin Clearinghouse. Retrieved 2011-10-09. 
  36. ^ Bacher, Daniel (2014-02-07). "The Emptying of Northern California Reservoirs". Counterpunch. Retrieved 2014-02-16. 
  37. ^ Lochhead, Carolyn (2014-02-12). "Sens. Feinstein, Boxer propose emergency drought legislation". Retrieved 2014-02-14. 
  38. ^ Senator Feinstein (2014). "To direct the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Commerce, and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to take actions to provide additional water supplies and disaster assistance to the State of California due to drought, and for other purposes.". Retrieved 22 February 2014. 
  39. ^ Marinucci, Carla (2014-02-14). "California drought: Obama wades into water wars in visit". Retrieved 2014-02-14. 

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