The Water War

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The obvious site for such a reservoir was the same that had been planned for the ill-fated federal reclamation project. A dam located in the Owens River gorge upstream from the valley, above the town of Bishop, would back up a magnificent lake in Long Valley. Fred Eaton, who owned the site, had offered to sell it to Los Angeles for something like a million dollars. But Mulholland, believing his friend was trying to take advantage of the city, refused. Eaton then gave up an easement for a reservoir that could have been created by a hundred-foot dam, but such a reservoir was too small to serve as a year-to-year regulator. When the city began constructing the dam anyway, the settlers of Owens Valley filed an injunction suit: they would never stand for a dam on their river unless it was big enough to assure water for all. Caught between Fred Eaton and the valley farmers, Los Angeles abandoned its dam. The Owens River was left uncontrolled, and the first dry spell set the city and the valley at each other’s throats.

By 1923 the great aqueduct that had been built for fifty years of growth was already proving inadequate. Los Angeles, enjoying its biggest real-estate boom, had outgrown its old rival, San Francisco. In the lush San Fernando Valley the farmers would have used almost the entire flow of the aqueduct in the summer months if Mulholland had not arbitrarily shut off irrigation water.

Desperate for water, Mulholland invaded Owens Valley in quest of new sources. In the lower valley, where the city already owned most of the water rights, he sank new wells to tap the underground basin. And in the upper valley, which was still green with growing crops, his agents tried to buy water rights from the farmers in order to send a bigger flow into the aqueduct.

They found the valley organized against them. Leading the settlers were two brothers, Wilfred and Mark Watterson, whose five banks dominated the economic life of eastern California. Mark, the younger, was a good-natured mixer, inclined to follow the lead of his older brother. Wilfred, though more dignified and aloof, was nevertheless extremely well-liked; when meeting with a group of men he had the ability, as one observer put it, to “talk ‘em out of their hind legs.”

To prevent the city from getting further water rights in Owens Valley, the Wattersons conceived the idea of tying all the irrigation canals together in one large Owens Valley Irrigation District. With their customary persuasiveness they had put their plan over in an election late in 1922. But before the water rights had actually been turned over to the new district, the city made its move. Overnight two agents moved through the farmhouses along the McNally ditch, one of the oldest and largest irrigation canals on the river, offering premium prices for water rights. By next morning they had taken more than a million dollars’ worth of options. When this news flew through Bishop, the people fairly exploded with rage. The city thought it had smashed the irrigation district? Very well, they would see that no water secured in the McNally deal would ever reach the aqueduct.

Soon every farm canal above the city’s intake was gulping all the water it could carry, and overflowing onto marginal cropland. Below the last valley canal the bed of the river was dry as the desert. In the spring of 1923 Los Angeles was tapping its capital funds of water in the aqueduct reservoirs. In San Fernando Valley the crops were condemned to die. And in Owens Valley the city’s predicament in paying for a million dollars’ worth of water it could not deliver became an uproarious joke.

Mulholland had reckoned without the human factor. Embattled farmers at the source of water were threatening the very life of Los Angeles. In this frantic moment his water department made another error.

The last big ditch before the mouth of the aqueduct was the Owens River and Big Pine Canal, which was drinking in all the water not siphoned off by the canals upstream. At first the city’s agents tried to buy water rights in the Big Pine ditch. But the Big Piners formed a “pool” and demanded rates roughly double those paid along the McNally ditch. The city agents thereupon resorted to what one called “primitive measures.” The Big Pine intake was located at the point of a U-bend in the meandering river. One morning the Big Piners discovered city workmen with mules and scrapers cutting a ditch across the neck of the bend. If the river were diverted through such a ditch, the Big Pine Canal would be dry and the aqueduct would be gurgling with water. It was an astounding piece of deviltry for a municipality to engage in, but the municipality was powerfully thirsty.

Quickly the Big Piners rose to give battle. A posse of about twenty armed men--some on horseback, some in Model T’s--poured across Owens River to serve what one of them called a “shotgun injunction.” To the city workmen they gave stern notice: “We don’t want any shootin’, but we’re not goin’ to let you make that cut.” With that they threw the city’s grading equipment into the river and settled down to guard the strategic bend. For two nights, relieving each other around the clock, the minutemen of Big Pine kept up their vigil. Finally, seeing that the city was not prepared to fight, they struck camp.

“Los Angeles, it’s your move now,” challenged the Big Pine newspaper. “We’re ready for you.”