The Water War

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Beyond the Missouri River, water has been almost a sacred commodity—accorded the same passionate respect that it received in the Bible lands. There is an old saying in the West: “Steal my horse, carry off my wife, but don’t touch my water.” Ever since the American frontier reached the great bend of the Missouri, water—or the lack of it—has been the chief determinant of western development. And from the time that the first farmer fenced a water hole on the open range, it has been the West’s chief source of conflict. Texas and New Mexico contended over the Rio Grande. Colorado battled Kansas over the Arkansas River, then turned to fight Wyoming for the North Platte. California took on all comers in the struggle for the Colorado River.

Ordinarily, these epic contests were fought in the realm of water law. Throughout most of the Far West, this body of law was based on the miner’s code of “first in use, first in right”--even though the benefited land was not contiguous to the water source. But in California, water law flowed from two origins--the priority rights established by the early American miners, and the riparian rights for contiguous land, according to the Spanish tradition and the English common law.

The complications brought on by this clash of two traditions intensified the water struggle in California and put a premium on legal cunning. While most western fights over water took place in the courtroom or the legislative hall, Californians fought many of theirs outside the law because one side or another distrusted legal machinery. This was the basis of violence in the Los Angeles-Owens Valley conflict. Not only was it the most savage water war in United States history; it provided an early warning of a disturbing modern trend--the inability of outlying communities to protect their identity and their way of life from being swallowed by Megalopolis.

In the long drought that afflicted California from 1892 to 1904, the burgeoning city of Los Angeles appeared to have reached its limit at a population of approximately 200,000. City parks and residential lawns were allowed to dry up. Irrigation canals were commandeered to supply drinking water. If Los Angeles could not find a new water source—and quickly—it would no longer be able to absorb the steady tide of newcomers from the Midwest. To the Los Angeles boosters, such a catastrophe was unthinkable.

One man stepped forward to lead the Angelenos out of their dilemma. William Mulholland, an Irish immigrant, had arrived in 1877 with ten dollars in his pocket and the resolve to “grow with the country.” Within nine years he had become superintendent of the company supplying water to the city, and when the company was purchased by Los Angeles in 1902, Mulholland was placed in charge of the entire waterworks. He had risen by hard work, by diligent study of engineering books late into the night, and--most important--by sheer force of personality. His supreme self-confidence inspired city authorities to act upon his recommendations alone, without further study. “They have always been,” he once said, “in the habit of taking my word.”

With this kind of authority, Mulholland charged forth in the late summer of 1904 to combat the city’s water shortage. Since local sources were already tapped, he looked afield for a new supply. His friend Fred Eaton, a former Los Angeles mayor, had once told him of a magnificent water source on the east side of the Sierra Nevadas. Desperately, he now asked Eaton to show it to him.

In September the two friends climbed into a two-horse buckboard and headed north. Camping in the open, they drove 250 miles over a rutted wagon road across the Mojave Desert to Owens Valley. Through this green oasis, nestled against the east scarp of the High Sierra like some remote Alpine vale, flowed stream upon stream of fresh snow water. They converged into the Owens River, which coursed down the valley and lost itself in the alkaline pollution of Owens Lake, one of the world’s rare dead seas.

In the 1860’s pioneer American farmers had wrested the valley from the Paiute Indians, and by the seventies were beginning to divert water from the river and its tributaries into large canals to irrigate the land. By the time Mulholland reached the valley in 1904, he found a population of some five thousand and a small empire—about 38,000 acres—of fruit orchards, melon vines, and cool alfalfa. It was truly a “land flowing with milk and honey.”

But in the meandering river and its feeder streams Mulholland saw only one thing: enough water to supply two million people and allow his own stunted city to grow into a giant. What was more, according to Fred Eaton’s rough calculations, the river could be diverted around Owens Lake and brought south all the way to Los Angeles by gravity, without the aid of a single pump.