The Water War

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Los Angeles had won a greater victory than it had expected. Moving to make a final valley settlement, it bought the remaining Owens Valley Canal in 1929. The following year the Angelenos voted $12,000,000 in bonds to “clean up Owens Valley”; with this huge fund the city bought up practically all the town properties in Big Pine and Bishop. Though the purchases took place in the Depression, Los Angeles paid boom prices that had prevailed in 1923--the year that its invasion made its first impact on the valley.

To the Angelenos it was an expensive and even embarrassing program--constituting an admission of gross errors in Owens Valley. To the valley people who had spearheaded the fight against the city it could be considered a final victory; they had won a fatter settlement than those who had sold out in the beginning. But to most of the settlers, who wanted only to live out their lives on the land undisturbed, it was a tragic ending to a bitter feud. As they piled their belongings onto their cars and headed out of Owens Valley, they could echo Jeremiah’s lament: “Our inheritance is turned to strangers.” Wrote one of them, “It is not the loss of the home, or the garden … or the growing business which has been the test; it’s the loss of the years, and the hope and the endeavor …” In the stunted remains of abandoned orchards, Angelenos may still see the swath their city cut in its inexorable drive for water—and bigness.

The exodus from Owens Valley was not lost upon California’s literati. Not since Longfellow’s Evangeline had the dispossession of a people been the source of such pathos. Embattled critics charged that the aqueduct was conceived by the San Fernando land syndicate purely to reap swollen profits at public expense; that Los Angeles “forced the ranchers to sell to the city at condemnation prices and get out”; that it took water from the river forcibly without a legal right.

Even the Owens Valley people made no such claims. Fred Eaton and no other had conceived the Owens River project. In practically every case ranchers sold to the city because they were offered highly attractive prices. Los Angeles took extreme care to establish legal water rights from the beginning, and for several years it was prevented from using part of these rights because of forcible diversions by some of the ranchers.

But surely the Owens Valley episode offered Angelenos little cause for pride. At the beginning the city used questionable political methods to kill federal reclamation efforts in Owens Valley, gain rights of way, and hold water filings; it failed to build a reservoir at the head of the aqueduct that would have prevented the water crisis of the 1920’s; and for several years it pursued a policy of buying only the water rights it needed, without accepting responsibility for the effect of this invasion on either the economic life or the morale of the Owens Valley community.

By the mid-1930’s Los Angeles was moving to write the last chapter to its adventure by correcting an early mistake. Long Valley, the reservoir site, was purchased from Eaton and his associates, and the big dam was constructed in the gorge. Completed in 1941, it created Crowley Lake, which stores enough water from year to year to have supplied both city and valley back in the turbulent twenties. At the dedication ceremony one valley spokesman looked back over a generation of tumult and pronounced a weary finale:

“We cannot but regret that this enterprise was not constructed long ago; there would have been less of history to forget…”

Poetic justice would be served if it could be reported that the Long Valley Dam has made possible the rebirth of Owens Valley—that the farmers have returned to the land and are pushing back the sagebrush with orchards and green fields. It is tempting to declare that the one million dollars Fred Eaton had demanded for his reservoir site would have been cheap compared to the millions paid for Owens property.

But the relentless growth of Los Angeles has blasted the chances of any such conclusion. To provide more water for the mushrooming city, the aqueduct was extended farther north to Mono County; and although the total water supply is far more than even Eaton and Mulholland first visualized, the city’s insatiable thirst has likewise grown. There is still insufficient water for a guaranteed supply to Owens Valley farms. What little agriculture is attempted depends upon short-term leases that permit the city to withhold the water at any time. Though early construction of the Long Valley reservoir might have averted a water war, Owens Valley would eventually have been sacrificed anyway.