The Water War


The strategy was plain enough. This was not an attempt to seize water, for the aqueduct was located downstream from the valley’s center of resistance. It was a demonstration, through which the valley hoped at most to force the city to buy them out, and at least to publicize the affair throughout California. To the reporters who quickly gathered, the settlers gave their manifesto: “We are here to keep this spillway open. We will stay here until we are driven out or dragged out.”

Against this threat Los Angeles first tried legal action. The local sheriff soon arrived on the scene and served seventy-five copies of a restraining order. But the men at the gates simply threw them into the rushing spillway. Then they picked up the sheriff and carried him in a sitting position back to his car.

The city next tried to get warrants for the arrest of the demonstrators. But the valley judge, sympathizing with the ranchers, declared himself disqualified to act. The men at the spillway were left to laugh at the law.

Exasperated, the Los Angeles water department sent a request for help to neighboring sheriffs in southern California. Their combined forces were then offered in support of the Owens Valley sheriff. But he was busy pleading with Governor F. W. Richardson to call out the National Guard—an idea which the Governor steadfastly resisted.

By this time the stand at the Alabama Gates had become a grand picnic for the valley settlers. Up in Bishop practically every store was closed. On the flagpole in the center of town hung a large sign: “If I am not on the job, you can find me at the aqueduct.” At the gates, ranchers and businessmen gathered about campfires in cheerful conversation while their wives brought hot meals from nearby homes. The congenial crowd had swelled to fifteen hundred, many of whom had brought stoves, tents, and beds. On the fourth day they had a barbecue, entertained the sheriff, and even invited the city’s own aqueduct employees.

But later on their intensity of purpose returned. Gathered earnestly around the fires, the farm families passed along hymn books brought by the Baptist minister of Bishop. Soon the mighty strains of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” floated across the valley. For these stalwarts, Satan was a city, and they battled for the Lord.

That righteous refrain was not lost on the outside world. The story of California’s little civil war was headlined across the nation and featured as far away as France and Sweden. Throughout the state, resentment against the upstart city of Los Angeles put sympathy on the side of the farmers. Even in Los Angeles sentiment was divided, though William Randolph Ream’s Examiner charged that the seizure was the “big card in a gigantic holdup scheme.”

By no coincidence, Wilfred Watterson was in Los Angeles when the demonstration occurred. Meeting with his fellow bankers of the Clearing House Association, he addressed them for an hour, recommending the outright purchase of the Owens Valley Irrigation District. Here, of course, was the principal aim of the valley plan. Los Angeles might call it a “holdup,” but the embattled farmers believed they were simply giving forceful emphasis to their plea to “buy us all or leave us alone.” Since Los Angeles had not listened, they had done something to make it listen.

But for Wilfred Watterson the Los Angeles bankers had short words. Unless he got the gates closed, they are said to have told him, they would cut off his bank’s credit. They agreed, however, to use their “best efforts with the business interests of this city to bring about an equitable settlement.” Back to the valley went Watterson. Meeting with leaders of the spillway crowd, he asked them to disperse in response to the promise of the Los Angeles bankers. After holding the water supply of a great city in their hands for four days, they went back to their homes.

While the negotiations immediately following the gate seizure came to nothing, the valley people had made one point: they had convinced the Los Angeles water board that it could not afford to get its water from a hostile community. Up to Owens Valley went a top city representative to assess the situation. Returning, he went before the water commissioners and told them the bitter truth.

“The only way to settle things up there,” he said, “is to buy out the rest of the valley.”

“My God!” cried one of the members. “How much will that cost?”

“Five or six million dollars,” was the cool answer.

Such a figure was far above any previous water investment. It meant both a tacit admission of past mistakes and a partial concession to the Watterson group. But early in 1925 the commissioners said they were ready to buy all land tributary to the Owens River.

Within a few days, Wilfred Watterson was in Los Angeles negotiating the sale of a large “pool” of property on the Bishop Creek ditch. By the end of March the city bought the entire length of the canal. It looked as though the valley people had brought the city to terms, and that the long war was over.