California Water Wars
The California Water Wars were a series of conflicts between Los Angeles, farmers and ranchers in the Owens Valley of Eastern California. As Los Angeles grew in the late 1800s, it started to outgrow its water supply. Fred Eaton, mayor of Los Angeles, realized that water could flow from Owens Valley to Los Angeles via an aqueduct. The aqueduct construction was overseen by William Mulholland and was finished in 1913. The water rights were acquired through political fighting and, as described by one author, "chicanery, subterfuge ... and a strategy of lies".:62 Farmers in the Owens Valley may not have received fair value for their water rights.[verification needed]
By the 1920s, so much water was diverted from the Owens Valley that agriculture became difficult. This led to the farmers trying to destroy the aqueduct. Los Angeles prevailed and kept the water flowing. By 1926, Owens Lake at the bottom of Owens Valley was completely dry due to water diversion.
The water needs of Los Angeles kept growing. In 1941, Los Angeles diverted water that previously fed Mono Lake into the aqueduct. Mono Lake, north of Owens Valley, is an important ecosystem for migrating birds. The lake level dropped after the water was diverted, which threatened the migrating birds. Environmentalists, led by David Gaines and the Mono Lake Committee engaged in a series of litigation with Los Angeles between 1979 and 1994. The litigation forced Los Angeles to stop diverting water from around Mono Lake, which has started to rise back to a level that can support its ecosystem.
Owens Valley before the water wars
In 1833, Joseph Reddeford Walker led the first known expedition into the area that would later be called the Owens Valley in central California. Walker saw that the valley’s soil conditions were inferior to those on the other side of the Sierra Nevada range and that runoff from the mountains was absorbed into the arid desert ground. After the United States gained control of California in 1848, the first public land survey conducted by A.W. Von Schmidt from 1855 to 1856 was an initial step in securing government control of the valley. Von Schmidt reported that the valley’s soil was not good for agriculture except for the land near streams, and incorrectly stated that the "Owens Valley [was] worthless to the White Man.":23
In 1861, Samuel Bishop and other ranchers started to raise cattle on the luxuriant grasses that grew in the Owens Valley. The Paiute Indians were already living in the valley, and used irrigation to grow crops.:59 The two groups came into conflict over land and water use, and most of the Pauites were driven away from the valley by the U.S. Army in 1863 during the Owens Valley Indian War.
Many settlers came to the area for the promise of riches from mining. The availability of water from the Owens River made farming and raising livestock attractive.:60 The Homestead Act of 1862 gave pioneers five years to claim and take title of their land for a small filing fee and a charge of $1.25 per acre. The Homestead Act limited the land an individual could own to 160 acres (64.7 ha) in order to create small farms.
The amount of public land settled by the late 1870s and early 1880s was still relatively small. The Desert Land Act of 1877 allowed individuals to acquire more area, up to 640 acres (259.0 ha), in hopes of drawing more settlers by giving them enough land to make their settlement and land expenses worthwhile, but “included no residency requirements.”:39 By 1866, rapid acquisition of land had begun and by the mid-1890s most of the land in the Owens Valley had been claimed. The large number of claims made by land speculators hindered the region’s development because speculators would not participate in developing canals and ditches.
Before the Los Angeles Aqueduct, most of the 200 miles (320 km) of canals and ditches that constituted the irrigation system in the Owens Valley were in the north, while the southern region of the valley was mostly inhabited by people raising livestock. The irrigation systems created by the ditch companies did not have adequate drainage and as a result oversaturated the soil to the point where crops could not be raised. The irrigation systems also significantly lowered the water level in the Owens Lake (a process that was intensified later by the diversion of water through the Los Angeles Aqueduct). Around the start of the 20th century, the northern part of the Owens Valley turned to raising fruit, poultry and dairy.
Los Angeles Aqueduct: the beginning of the water wars
The water wars began when Frederick Eaton was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1898, and appointed his friend, William Mulholland, the superintendent of the newly created Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).:20-23
Eaton and Mulholland had a vision of a Los Angeles that would become far bigger than the Los Angeles of the start of the 20th century. The limiting factor of Los Angeles' growth was water supply. "If you don't get the water, you won't need it," Mulholland famously remarked. Eaton and Mulholland realized that the Owens Valley had a large amount of runoff from the Sierra Nevada, and a gravity-fed aqueduct could deliver the Owens water to Los Angeles.:3
Obtaining water rights
At the start of the 20th century, the United States Bureau of Reclamation was planning on building an irrigation system to help the farmers of the Owens Valley, which would block Los Angeles from diverting the water.
Eaton and Mulholland used underhanded methods to obtain water rights and block the Bureau of Reclamation.:62:152 The regional engineer of the Bureau, Joseph Lippincott, was a close associate of Eaton,:63 Eaton was a nominal agent for the Bureau through Lippincott, so Eaton had access to inside information about water rights and could recommend actions to the Bureau that would be beneficial to Los Angeles.:64 In return, while Lippincott was employed by the Bureau, he also served as a paid private consultant to Eaton, advising Los Angeles on how to best obtain water rights.:68
To help acquire water rights, Eaton posed as a cattle rancher, willing to overpay for land.:66 Eaton bought land as a private citizen, hoping to sell it back to Los Angeles at a tidy profit. Eaton claimed in an interview with the Los Angeles Express in 1905 that he turned over all his water rights to the City of Los Angeles without being paid for them, "except that I retained the cattle which I had been compelled to take in making the deals ... and mountain pasture land of no value except for grazing purposes."
Mullholland also participated in misleading others. In Los Angeles, Mullholland influenced public opinion by dramatically understating the amount of water available for Los Angeles' growth.:73 Mullholland also misled residents of the Owens Valley, by claiming that Los Angeles would take water only for domestic purposes, not for irrigation.
Many argue that Los Angeles paid an unfairly low price to the farmers of Owens Valley for their land.:504 Gary Libecap of the University of California, Santa Barbara observed that the price that Los Angeles was willing to pay to other water sources per acre-foot of water was far higher what the farmers received.:89 Farmers who resisted the pressure from Los Angeles until 1930 received the highest price for their land; most farmers sold their land from 1905 to 1925, and received less than Los Angeles was actually willing to pay. However, the sale of their land brought the farmers substantially more income than if they had kept the land for farming and ranching.:90 None of the sales were made under threat of eminent domain.
The aqueduct was sold to the citizens of Los Angeles as vital to the growth of the city. However, unknown to the public, the initial water would be used to irrigate the San Fernando Valley to the north, which was not at the time a part of the city. A syndicate of investors (again, close friends of Eaton, including Harrison Gray Otis) bought up large tracts of land in the San Fernando Valley with this inside information. This syndicate made substantial efforts to support passage of the bond issue that funded the aqueduct, including creating a false drought (by manipulating rainfall totals) and publishing scare articles in the Los Angeles Times, which Otis published.
The building and operation of the aqueduct
From 1908 through 1913, Mulholland directed the building of the aqueduct. The 223-mile (359 km) Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in November 1913, required more than 2,000 workers and the digging of 164 tunnels. Mulholland's granddaughter has stated that the complexity of the project was comparable to the building of the Panama Canal. Water from the Owens River reached a reservoir in the San Fernando Valley on November 5. At a ceremony that day, Mulholland spoke his famous words about this engineering feat: "There it is. Take it."
After the aqueduct was completed in 1913, the San Fernando investors demanded so much water from the Owens Valley that it started to transform from "The Switzerland of California" into a desert. Mulholland was blocked from obtaining additional water from the Colorado River, so decided to take all available water from the Owens Valley.:89.
In 1923, farmers and ranchers formed an irrigation cooperative to share costs. By exploiting personal bitterness of some of the farmers, Los Angeles managed to acquire some of the key water rights of the cooperative. By obtaining these rights, the cost of running the cooperative became too high, and the rest of the ranchers were forced to sell their water rights to Los Angeles.:90 After obtaining these water rights, inflows to Owens Lake were almost completely diverted, which caused the lake to dry up by 1924.
So much water was taken from the valley that, by 1924, the farmers and ranchers rebelled. A series of provocations by Mullholland were, in turn, followed by corresponding threats from local farmers, and the destruction of Los Angeles property.:93 Finally, a group of armed ranchers seized the Alabama Gates and dynamited part of the system, letting water return to the Owens River.
In August 1927, the conflict was at its height when suddenly valley resistance was undermined with the collapse of the Inyo County Bank. Wilfred and Mark Watterson owned the Inyo County Bank and organized valley residents into a unified opposition to Los Angeles through the formation of an irrigation district.
When the bank collapsed, an audit revealed that there were monumental shortages in both cash in the vault and amounts shown on the books. The Watterson brothers were indicted for embezzlement, and were later tried and convicted on thirty-six counts. All local business had been transacted through their bank, and the closure left merchants and customers with little more than the small amount of money they had on hand. The lifetime savings of many people, including in many cases, the entire payment gained from the sale of homes and ranches to the city, had been wiped out. The brothers claimed that the fraud was done for the good of the Owens Valley against Los Angeles: this excuse was generally believed in Inyo County.:97
In the face of the collapse of both resistance and the Owens Valley economy, the attacks on the aqueduct ceased. The city of Los Angeles sponsored a series of repair and maintenance programs for aqueduct facilities that stimulated some local employment and the Los Angeles water employees were paid a month in advance to bring some relief. But it was impossible to prevent many businesses from closing their doors.
The City of Los Angeles also continued to purchase private land holdings and their water rights to meet the increasing demands. By 1928, Los Angeles owned 90 percent of the water in Owens Valley and agriculture interests in the region were effectively dead.
The second Owens Valley aqueduct
In 1970, LADWP completed a second aqueduct. In 1972, the agency began to divert more surface water and pumped groundwater at the rate of several hundred thousand acre-feet a year (several cubic metres per second). Owens Valley springs and seeps dried and disappeared, and groundwater-dependent vegetation began to die.
Because LADWP had never completed an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) addressing the impacts of groundwater pumping, Inyo County sued Los Angeles under the terms of the California Environmental Quality Act. Los Angeles did not stop pumping groundwater, but submitted a short EIR in 1976 and a second one in 1979, both of which were rejected as inadequate by the courts.
In 1991, Inyo County and the city of Los Angeles signed the Inyo-Los Angeles Long Term Water Agreement, which required that groundwater pumping be managed to avoid significant impacts while providing a reliable water supply for Los Angeles, and in 1997, Inyo County, Los Angeles, the Owens Valley Committee, the Sierra Club, and other concerned parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding that specified terms by which the lower Owens River would be rewatered by June 2003 as partial mitigation for damage to the Owens Valley due to groundwater pumping.
In spite of the terms of the Long Term Water Agreement, studies by the Inyo County Water Department have shown that impacts to the valley's groundwater-dependent vegetation, such as alkali meadows, continue. Likewise, Los Angeles did not rewater the lower Owens River by the June 2003 deadline. As of December 17, 2003, LADWP settled a lawsuit brought by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the Owens Valley Committee, and the Sierra Club. Under the terms of the settlement, deadlines for the Lower Owens River Project were revised. LADWP was to return water to the lower Owens River by 2005. This deadline was missed, but on December 6, 2006, a ceremony was held (at the same site where William Mulholland had ceremonially opened the aqueduct and closed the flow through the Owens River) to restart the flow down the 62 miles (100 km) river. David Nahai, president of the L.A. Water and Power Board, countered Mulholland's words from 1913 and said, "There it is ... take it back."
By the 1930s, the water requirements for Los Angeles continued to increase. LADWP started buying water rights in the Mono Basin (the next basin to the north of the Owens Valley).:38 An extension to the aqueduct was built, which included such engineering feats as tunneling through the Mono Craters (an active volcanic field). By 1941, the extension was finished, and water in various creeks (such as Rush Creek) were diverted into the aqueduct. To satisfy California water law, LADWP set up a fish hatchery on Hot Creek, near Mammoth Lakes, California.
The diverted creeks had previously fed Mono Lake, an inland body of water with no outlet. Mono Lake served as a vital ecosystem link, where gulls and migratory birds would nest. Because the creeks were diverted, the water level in Mono Lake started to fall, exposing tufa formations.:180 The water became more saline and alkaline, threatening the brine shrimp that lived in the lake, as well as the birds that nested on two islands (Negit Island and Paoha Island) in the lake.:91 Falling water levels started making a land bridge to Negit Island, which allowed predators to feed on bird eggs for the first time.
In 1974, David Gaines started to study the biology of Mono Lake. In 1975, while at Stanford, he started to get others interested in the ecosystem of Mono Lake. This led to a 1977 report on the ecosystem of Mono Lake that highlighted dangers caused by the water diversion. In 1978, the Mono Lake Committee was formed to protect Mono Lake. The Committee (and the National Audubon Society) sued LADWP in 1979, arguing that the diversions violated the public trust doctrine, which states that navigable bodies of water must be managed for the benefit of all people. The litigation reached the California Supreme Court by 1983, which ruled in favor of the Committee. Further litigation was initiated in 1984, which claimed that LADWP did not comply with the state fishery protection laws.
Eventually, all of the litigation was adjudicated in 1994, by the California State Water Resources Control Board. The SWRCB hearings lasted for 44 days and were conducted by Board Vice-Chair Marc Del Piero acting as the sole Hearing Officer. In that ruling (SWRCB Decision 1631), the SWRCB established significant public trust protection and eco-system restoration standards, and LADWP was required to release water into Mono Lake to raise the lake level 20 feet (6.1 m) above the then-current level of 25 feet (7.6 m) below the 1941 level. As of 2011, the water level in Mono Lake has risen 13 feet (4.0 m) of the required 20 feet (6.1 m). Los Angeles made up for the lost water through state-funded conservation and recycling projects.
- Water conflicts
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- Inyo County Water Department
- KNX Newsradio coverage (with video) of the Owens Valley Water Wars and the return of water to the Lower Owens River.
- Documentary on the San Gabriel River, Ya Don't Miss the Water (A five part video that documents the major ecological, political, and social problems of the community - approximately 2 million people surround and use the River's water.)
- Los Angeles Aqueduct Slideshow