Water and Power: The Conflict Over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley
The California Water Atlas California)
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 of 1927 the ranchers placed a full-page advertisement in most of California’s major newspapers, an ad that began, “We, the farming communities of the Owens Valley, being about to die, salute you….” This is a version of the struggle for water that lends itself both to Marxist rhetoric on the depredations of capitalism and to John Wayne movies (e.g., New Frontier, 1935).
The second and equally populist version also has Marxist overtones in its praise for technocracy and progress and especially in its elevation of the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number to a first and inflexible principle. The greatest number in this case happened to be the people of Los Angeles, at the turn of the century a boom environment destined for greatness only if its inadequate indigenous water reserves could be replenished in time to save it from dying of thirst. In their pursuit of the greater good, Los Angeles visionaries devised an aqueduct that would hook the city to the waters of the Owens River, a source so bountiful that Los Angeles could be watered in perpetuity even as the city, in its benevolence, provided for the handful of ranchers who chose to remain in their distant valley.
Emissaries of the city secured the valley’s riparian lands and with the benediction of Theodore Roosevelt and the federal government the aqueduct was built in a grand technological assault on the desert that separated Los Angeles from the Owens Valley—a ditch 233 miles long with 142 tunnels measuring 53 miles in length. If the city was sometimes indifferent to its tenants in the Owens Valley, these were the eggs without which no omelette was ever made. But the valley ranchers chose to respond to the omelette with a campaign of violence and destruction whose only result was the devastation of the valley itself. Needless to say, this is the version most vigorously promoted by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
It is one of the many considerable virtues of William L. Kahrl’s Water and Power that he punctures both of these morality plays without diminishing the evil history of the Owens Valley. “I was brought up to love a good story,” the book begins ingenuously and enchantingly. “It is a story of ideals in conflict, rich with incidents of great daring, deceit, achievement, betrayal, and faith.” Clarence Darrow visits the story as it slowly unfolds over the first quarter of the twentieth century, as do Tom Mix and Teddy Roosevelt and the Wobblies and nightriders and the Ku Klux Klan. Spillways are dynamited as are the offices of the Los Angeles Times, whose publisher, General Harrison Gray Otis, drove around in a limousine with a cannon on its hood. Death, disgrace, disaster, and prison terms punctuate the narrative. Here is the inspiration for Chinatown (which coincidentally was first titled Water & Power), enough plot and villainy for innumerable bad novels and terrible motion pictures. Kahrl, however, has a larger purpose, “the history of California in the twentieth century…the story of a state inventing itself with water.”
Manifest Destiny—the way west—was essentially a journey from waterhole to waterhole. It is a peculiarity of California, most peculiar of states, that its two leading cities, in defiance of all tradition, sprang up where there was insufficient water to support future growth. Los Angeles had a further disadvantage: it was a coastal city without a port. Still the people came, floods of them, lured by a demented civic boosterism that promised nirvana in the sun. The railroads contributed to this perversion of the frontier with a series of fratricidal price wars that finally, on March 6, 1887, lowered the cost of a ticket between the Missouri Valley and southern California to one dollar. The railroads and the boosters, of course, had land to sell, millions of acres, as did practically everyone else; the less savory speculators preyed on these bargain-basement pioneers by sticking oranges onto the branches of Joshua trees. Nothing could keep them away. Expansion, Carey McWilliams once noted, was the major business of southern California, the very reason for its existence. The climate and the availability of reasonable real estate—an opportunity for every man to own his own castle—attracted a docile and easily replaced labor force. The population of Los Angeles doubled and trebled, growing seventeen times between 1860 and 1900, increasing another 1600 percent between the turn of the century and 1940.
The problem was water. Doomsday predictions were floated as early as 1900: in continued growth there was future calamity. But Los Angeles was a city predicated on growth, needing water not only to boom but to support boom without end. In William Mulholland, head of its Department of Water, Los Angeles had a missionary of boom who, because of the unique character of his department—it was absolutely autonomous and thus politically unassailable—could function as a Torquemada of water politics, bringing his wrath to bear on any who did not share or, worse, who tried to obstruct his revelation of the greater good. Mulholland was an Irish immigrant, a ditch tender when he first arrived in southern California, self-taught and formidably well read (“Damn a man who doesn’t read books,” he once said), quite cheerful when asked in one of his frequent court appearances about his own lack of qualifications in the field of water engineering: “Well, I went to school in Ireland when I was a boy, learned the three R’s and the Ten Commandments—or most of them—made a pilgrimage to the Blarney Stone, received my father’s blessing, and here I am.”
Los Angeles was where he was, but the water he had his eye on was 200 miles to the northeast in the Owens Valley, five miles wide and a hundred long, so rich in agricultural possibilities that the brand-new US Reclamation Service had tapped it as a prime prospect for one of its pilot irrigation projects. It was not to be. The Reclamation Service’s man in charge of the Owens Valley project, J.B. Lippincott, also happened to be a freelance water consultant to Los Angeles, a friend of Mulholland’s, and well aware of the city’s finite water supply. There was no question that Lippincott’s allegiance was to Los Angeles and the aqueduct Mulholland envisioned, not to the service that employed him and certainly not to the Owens Valley. About the only thing that can be said in Lippincott’s behalf is that his treachery was not for personal gain; he was like the mole of spy fiction, working for one side and passing its secrets to the other—in this case the maps and charts and hydrological surveys the Reclamation Service had prepared to ensure the future of the Owens Valley. Armed with this information, Fred Eaton, a former mayor of Los Angeles and an associate of Lippincott’s, appeared in the valley and began buying up options on riparian lands from ranchers who assumed he was working for the Reclamation Service. It was a fatal mistake.
Betrayal was compounded by greed. In Los Angeles, a land syndicate including General Otis and the railroad barons Henry Huntington and E.H. Harriman got wind of Mulholland’s plan for an aqueduct and bought a huge tract of the San Fernando Valley—then not a part of Los Angeles—on the not unfounded assumption that the new water would irrigate their acres. The local newspapers—three of whose publishers were part of the land syndicate—pledged not to blow the whistle on the city’s secret activities in the Owens Valley until the trap against the ranchers was sprung. In the summer of 1905, it was. “We are going to turn that country dry,” Mulholland said, and he was as good as his word.
To secure voter support for the bond issues that would buy the Owens Valley lands and build the aqueduct, Mulholland cooked the rainfall figures and fabricated a drought. (Throughout his long career as a public servant, Mulholland would prove over and again that the commandment about false witness was one he had never entirely learned.) He need not have bothered. Neither the exposure of the land syndicate nor the not unsubstantiated imputation of a giant swindle troubled the voters; both bond issues passed by overwhelming margins. Over the protest of the ranchers, President Roosevelt anointed the aqueduct—“the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number”—and the fate of the Owens Valley was sealed; the water it once owned would now be a charitable contribution from the city of Los Angeles.
The rawness of this city was perhaps best exemplified by General Otis, who dismissed any doubts about the dealings of the land syndicate as “a stench in the nostrils of democracy.” After Mulholland, Otis is the most interesting player in the Owens Valley drama. He was the last of the nineteenth-century goons, hostile to both reform and social change and violently antilabor. Never was he more in his element than when the Wobblies tried to blow up the Times and the Socialist Party ran a candidate for mayor who not only was, with Clarence Darrow, a member of the Wobblies’ defense team but who also promised, if elected, not to allow a drop of aqueduct water in the syndicate’s acreage. “Anarchic scum,” General Otis railed, “the Stars and Stripes against the red flag.” If Otis gave no quarter, neither did his enemies. “He sits there in senile dementia,” Hiram Johnson said during his campaign for governor in 1910,
with gangrened heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, chattering impotently at all things that are decent, frothing, fuming violently, gibbering, going down to his grave in snarling infamy. He is the one thing that all California looks at when, in looking at Southern California, they see anything that is disgraceful, depraved, corrupt, crooked, and putrescent
“There it is! Take it,” Mulholland said when the spillway into Los Angeles was opened in 1913, and for the rest of the decade relations between the city and the Owens Valley were more or less circumspect. Boom in Los Angeles continued, as if by divine right; the city annexed the San Fernando Valley and a corridor to San Pedro, where it had invented a harbor. But even Mulholland, the quintessential merchant of boom, had drastically underestimated the city’s frenzy for growth. More water was needed and he decided to tap the remaining ground reserves of the Owens Valley. Hit by a drought of its own, the valley was strapped for water. To Mulholland, that was just too bad. He was now in his late sixties, blinded by megalomania, his vision as tunneled as his aqueduct. He seized on “every problem as an occasion of self-righteous conflict”; his “identity was…so completely wrapped up in the city as a whole that he saw each challenge as a personal affront.”
There were only 7,000 people living in the valley in the 1920s and to ensure some sort of survival valley spokesmen were willing to cut a deal with the city—a package sale of remaining water rights, a stable annual water allowance, and reparations for past abuses. Mulholland refused to bargain. This time his high-handedness was too much and open warfare broke out. Between 1924 and 1927 there were periodic bombings of the aqueduct and its spillways; nightriders warned valley dissidents to back the valley’s play. But for all the guns and all the dynamite, it was not so much a war as a war game, played for newsprint and for spectators. When ranchers seized one pumping station, Tom Mix, who was making a movie nearby, sent over an orchestra to serenade them and their picnicking families. What the civil war accomplished was to bring into the open Los Angeles’s plundering of the valley (the Los Angeles Times was sufficiently embarrassed to say that the ranchers had “a measure of justice on their side”) and to create a legend—“The Rape of the Owens Valley.” The devastation was there to see. By 1927, however, the ranchers were fighting not for a way of life—that was long gone—but for the highest possible price for their water rights. This was not an ignoble fight, but there are very few legends about real estate values.
In the end, no one was actually killed in the war. The only real casualties were the two valley bankers who sponsored the revolt—they stole from their own bank and went to jail—and Mulholland himself. On March 12, 1928, Mulholland certified the safety of the Saint Francis Dam, north of Los Angeles, a project he had promoted as a hedge against the Owens Valley strife, even though seventeen years earlier he had vetoed the same site as geologically unsound. That night the dam burst. Three towns were obliterated by the wall of water and over four hundred people killed. At the coroner’s inquest, Mulholland, now seventy-three, said: “I envy the dead.”
Water and Power is long and minutely detailed, drawing its story from three-quarters of a century of public documents, in those archives of local and state politics where the true mendacity and rapacity of the free enterprise system can best be uncovered. It is not to disparage Kahrl, a California historian, to say he would make a great city hall reporter. He sees the internal rhyming scheme of soil surveys and land records and committee reports, finding in the impenetrable diction of officialdom the broken meters that conceal collusion and fraud.
Kahrl’s purpose, however, is not the raking of old muck. What happened in the Owens Valley happened during a quarter of a century, with Mulholland the only major participant active both at the beginning and end. The drama of the conflict, the drama of all the novels and screenplays and popular and political accountings, is the drama of synopsis. Kahrl appreciates that no story lasting twenty-five years is as free of complexity as the demands of storytelling require. There is a claim, even an imperative, in the greater good. The history of urban growth is a history of downriver cities seeking a greater share of the water controlled by upriver communities; San Francisco’s water comes from a foreign county, as does New York’s. Nor is the claim of the Owens Valley unequivocal. “The ranchers who banded together in the 1920s to…bomb the aqueduct had no plan or program for the long-term preservation of the valley…,” Kahrl notes. “It was a conflict waged for immediate gain, and consideration for the valley’s future had little part in it.”
Even the colossal collusion and peculations were only sideshows; public thieves and civic liars have always been with us, and the aqueduct would still have been built without the grease of chicanery. In the end, the real sin of this squalid narrative was the systematic disenfranchisement of the people of the Owens Valley, making them, even to the present day, supplicants and wards of the city of Los Angeles. The valley is forever indentured. Mulholland and his successors dismissed the minimal costs of keeping it livable. Their arrogance and insensitivity bring to mind Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum about the Panama Canal: “We bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours.”
Water and Power has an extravagantly beautiful companion volume, The California Water Atlas, edited by Kahrl and published by the State of California, which graphically illustrates the history and flow of all the state’s water resources and water projects—its dams, its aqueducts and siphons and pumps and reservoirs and weirs, in short, California’s plumbing, its most essential infrastructure. Here in the Atlas is the water profile of Los Angeles today—a city that draws some water from its own ground reserves, some from the Colorado River and some from the State Water Project, but continues to obtain four-fifths of its supply from. Owens Valley, where the water comes cleaner and cheaper. Together these two volumes make clear that the history of California is in its water development. It is a complex and often tedious subject that Kahrl illuminates with meticulous detachment, bringing the drama into clear and undistorted focus. Although of small consolation to Owens Valley, such a water war could not happen again. One legacy was the passage of legislation prohibiting the draining of one region for the development of another.
Another legacy is psychic. Like a folk song, the ballad of the Owens Valley is sung whenever a new state water project is proposed. Such was the case when the Peripheral Canal was on the June 1982 ballot. The canal, designed to carry northern water around, rather than through, the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta on its way south, divided the state politically, north versus south, as has every water project of recent memory. Once again the lyric of the Owens Valley was heard, and even the Los Angeles Times seemed to hear it. At the end of its editorial endorsing the building of the Peripheral Canal, the Times was impelled to add a parenthetical disclosure of its majority interest (with General Otis’s Chandler heirs) in the Tejon Ranch Company, which was actively supporting the canal and would have been a major beneficiary of it. “The holdings in Tejon represent a minor part of Times Mirror assets,” the disclosure concluded primly. “The Times arrives at its views on the canal, as on any other issue, utterly without regard to the views of the Tejon Ranch Co.” The Peripheral Canal was beaten badly, suggesting that the Times had more influence when it had gangrened heart and rotting brain.