The Water War


It would, of course, be years before the city would grow enough to use the entire flow of the river. But in the meantime, to maintain title to the water under the law of prior use, the surplus could be used by farmers in San Fernando Valley, adjacent to Los Angeles. The whole project would represent the biggest municipal aqueduct in the world--a breathtaking project for a self-educated engineer. Immediately, Mulholland was captured by the boldness of Fred Eaton’s concept. “When I saw it staring me in the face,” he later declared, “I couldn’t back away from it.” While Mulholland sold the plan to Los Angeles authorities, Eaton went through lower Owens Valley lining up riparian water rights.

Trouble loomed in the valley’s own ambitions for water development. The young United States Reclamation Service, founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, had proposed a dam in the Owens River gorge to store water for irrigating the valley below. Its isolation and its limited area would keep the region from becoming a major agricultural empire like the one being carved out in the imperial Valley. But by providing an assured water supply year in and year out, the proposed reclamation project would certainly bring to Owens Valley a new order of life and prosperity. In this clash of interests the city had a key ally. The chief Reclamation Service engineer for the Southwest was T. B. Lippincott, a friend of Eaton and Mulholland, and by “religion” an ardent Los Angeles booster. At his insistence, consideration of the Owens River reclamation project was abandoned to make way for the city’s water plans.

When the Los Angeles Times broke the news in July, 1905, of a “Titanic Project to Give City a River,” there were two distinct reactions. Among the boosters there was immediate jubilation: the city’s wonderful growth would not be halted for lack of water! Within hours, property in much of the county doubled in price.

But in Owens Valley a different reaction greeted the Times story. All at once its people saw their reclamation dream go glimmering. Fred Eaton and his son, finishing some last-minute affairs in the valley town of Bishop, saw an ugly mob gathering around them in the street. They hurriedly packed and drove their buggy out of town, but before he escaped, Eaton was told that he would “never take the water out of the valley” and that if he came back he would be drowned in the river.

Nor was valley anger cooled by reports that water which Los Angeles did not actually need for the next few years would be used for irrigating the San Fernando Valley. As early as 1903, a syndicate of Los Angeles entrepreneurs had taken an option on a large chunk of that valley. Not very long afterward it was joined by Moses H. Sherman, who was a member of the Board of Water Commissioners. After Mulholland outlined his aqueduct plan to city officials, but before it was publicly announced, the syndicate exercised its option and bought 16,200 acres. The land thus purchased at approximately $30 an acre was to soar to $300 an acre. Today it is valued by the front foot. When operations of the syndicate were made public in 1905, Owens Valley people believed they were the victims of an outrageous water grab for the benefit of a few land schemers. Awaiting their chance, they moved to block Mulholland when he asked for a right of way for his proposed aqueduct across federal lands. “Not one drop for irrigation!” they shouted, pointing to the San Fernando deal.

The battle that followed raged from the floor of Congress to the White House. To prevent profiteering on the water itself, President Roosevelt proposed an amendment to the right-of-way bill that would prohibit Los Angeles from selling water to corporations or individuals for resale. Thus altered, the right-of-way bill passed Congress in June, 1906. But it contained no prohibition against the use of Owens River water for irrigation in the San Fernando Valley.

Inspired by this victory, the Angelenos moved to consolidate their water gains in Owens Valley. Once again the federal government was called upon for help. To forestall private claimants who might harass the city’s program, the Reclamation Service had continued to bar entry to public lands that had been within its abandoned project. But this did not include most of the flatland of the valley. The Angelenos thereupon asked Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot to extend national-forest boundaries to include the valley, even though the Forest Service Law forbade the reservation of land more valuable “for agricultural purposes than for forest purposes.”

Owens Valley people were outraged. Throughout the region, they cried, the only trees were those they themselves had planted. Nevertheless, in April of 1908 Pinchot’s decree extending the Sierra Forest Reserve was signed by the President. The city was tightening its grip. “Los Angeles has been given all that she asked for,” groaned one valley editor, adding ominously, “except the water.”

But the intrepid Mulholland, who had secured $25,000,000 in two bond elections to finance the big ditch, was already in the field turning the earth.