Water and Power: The Conflict Over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley
by William L. Kahrl
University of California Press, 583 pp., $24.95
The California Water Atlas California)
edited by William L. Kahrl
State of California (distributed by William Kaufmann, Inc., Los Altos,, 118 pp., $39.00
In the summer of 1965, a resident of California less than a year, I had occasion to travel to the Owens Valley in Inyo County on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. The purpose of the trip was the trial, in the Inyo county seat of Independence, of a practical nurse accused by the state of California of practicing medicine without a license. That the nurse was guilty was beyond dispute; the Inyo district attorney, however, prosecuted her only under protest and was among the first to congratulate her when the jury returned an acquittal. What held my attention was less the case than the vision of a California trapped in time, an eddy uncontaminated not only by the 1960s but also by most of the twentieth century. It was as if the louche Pacific littoral where I lived and the only California familiar to most Americans was a foreign country.
The tiny desert community where the nurse practiced was inhabited mainly by retired talc miners, many of whom lived in a honeycomb of sandstone caves on the edge of town, and by a colony of aged Social Security pensioners drawn to this sunbaked moonscape by a putatively therapeutic hot spring. There was no indoor plumbing and but one telephone; the nearest doctor was 180 miles away, a Seventh-Day Adventist general practitioner from Lone Pine, who flew his own plane in one day a week. Suspicion of outsiders was endemic. In a bad but nonetheless scary parody of Bad Day at Black Rock, I was followed by a black sedan wherever I ventured the entire week I was in the desert. I finally asked the Seventh-Day Adventist doctor why. “You’re from Los Angeles,” he explained. “You stole our water.” Thus was I introduced to the Owens Valley water war.
This was a war more in legend than in fact, a war of no heroes and of two conflicting populist ideologies. The first is the more romantic. At the turn of the century, the Owens Valley in the shadow of the Sierra was lush farm and grazing land, nourished by the waters of the Owens River and presided over by ranchers few in number but in their own minds men of the frontier. Vigilante justice was common and there were lynchings in the outlying mining camps as late as 1908. Then in a giant water swindle engineered by Los Angeles land speculators, the river waters were siphoned off and diverted south via aqueduct to the parched San Fernando Valley, where land prices soared and the speculators made a killing by selling off tracts they had previously bought at rock-bottom prices. There was deceit and there was treachery, and, on the part of public officials in cahoots with the rapacious speculators, there was criminal malfeasance. Their acres withering, the Inyo ranchers banded together and blew up the aqueduct that now fertilized the City of the Angels. But Los Angeles was too strong and too unyielding, and in the early spring …