The Water War


Faced with this firm opposition, the city reopened negotiations for purchase—this time on Big Pine terms. Two months later the Big Pine farmers sold out for a total of $1,100,000—a price that made many a family financially independent.

Such rates now gave the water war a new turn. Seeing the color of the city’s money, the other canal groups determined to sell out too. There were, to be sure, many families whose love of the land made them oppose sale at any price, but fearing they would be left to maintain a canal without the help of neighbors, they sold against their will. Still, from the moment of the McNally and Big Pine deals, the water war was chiefly a contest between valley farmers who wanted to force Los Angeles to buy them out at high prices, and city representatives who merely wanted to get the use of water rights they had already bought. To enforce their demands, the farmers of the upper valley continued to divert most of the city’s water into their own canals.

By March of 1924 this strategy was working well. Los Angeles was getting so little water that Mulholland prohibited irrigation in San Fernando Valley “until we get a rainfall.” Faced with destruction of their crops, the San Fernando farmers sent a delegation up to Owens Valley to buy a chunk of water. The Watterson brothers led a local delegation which escorted the San Fernandans along canals brimming full with clear Sierra water. Not one drop of it, said the hosts, was for sale. The entire upper valley, land and water, was for sale, however; it could be delivered in forty-eight hours—for $8,000,000. If the Angelenos needed the water so badly, they ought to be willing to pay what it would be worth in Los Angeles.

Back to the city went the San Fernando delegation. Within two months the city gave its answer. Suit was filed against the upper valley canals to recover the McNally and Big Pine water that Los Angeles had purchased. The Owens Valley people, fearing they could never defeat the city in court, prepared for violence.

On May 20, 1924, three boxes of dynamite were taken from the Watterson powder house at Bishop. A dynamiting job required no more than one or two experts. But some forty valley patriots assembled south of town for the excitement. In a caravan of cars the conspirators filed down the valley highway that evening while bystanders stood gaping. A few miles north of the town of Lone Pine they pulled off the road and began their work. Shortly after 1 A.M., the lower valley was awakened as if by an earthquake. Forty feet of concrete ditch was blasted away, but a great shower of rocks fell back into the hole and prevented most of the water from escaping. Quickly the dynamiters scattered over byroads to find their way back to Bishop while the valley came alive with the frantic activity of city aqueduct employees.

The preliminary skirmishing was over; the water contest had become a shooting war. Enraged at this attack on his aqueduct, Mulholland hurled a diatribe against Owens Valley ranchers that included such terms as “yellow” and “barking dogs.” From the north came immediate warning that if he ever set foot in Bishop he would be lynched.

“They wouldn’t have the nerve,” roared the old fighter. “I’d just as soon walk the whole length of Owens Valley unarmed.”

But the valley men had succeeded in rousing the city’s interest in their plight. From the south came a parade of excited Angelenos—reporters, committees, engineers, and finally the Los Angeles water board. Accompanying its members was Mulholland, who made good his defiance of Owens Valley hotheads. At Bishop they were told by Wilfred Watterson that the only fair solution was to buy the whole district. Instead, when the commissioners returned to Los Angeles they drew up a plan to insure a sufficient water supply for the remaining valley farmers. They further promised, in compensation for loss of business from previous land purchases, to help build up the valley communities by highway improvements that would increase tourist trade.

A month later the valley gave its answer—in violence. On the morning of November 16, 1924, Mark Watterson led a little army of between sixty and a hundred men in an auto parade down the length of Owens Valley. They seized the aqueduct at the Alabama Gates, near Lone Pine, and turned the water out through an overflow spillway. Almost immediately the city’s representative in the valley, Edward F. Leahey, arrived at the gates, in defiance of a warning to stay away. Leaving his car at the foot of the hill, he hiked up the slope to the wheelhouse. Through one of its windows a noose suddenly appeared and dangled before his eyes. Without blanching, he continued to the top. Six men, including Watterson, met him.

“Who’s in charge here?” Leahey demanded.

“We’re all in charge,” returned Watterson.

“You can’t contend we have no right to this water,” shouted Leahey. “It’s not hurting anybody going down the ditch.”

“Don’t you realize,” Watterson snapped, “that whether people are damaged or think they are, the effect is the same?”