Los Angeles, Owens Valley, and Water

My Maternal family came to the upper Mojave Desert in the 1950’s. During that time my grandfather started talking to the “old timers” as he called them. These were men and women that were in their 50’s -80’s back in the 1950’s. My grandfather tells one story in particular about a man who came to the Antelope Valley and Mojave area with his father when he was a young boy, sometime around the late 1890’s or 1900. The old man said that at the time this part of the Mojave Desert was a very different type of Desert, almost a grassland. There were still some antelope in the Antelope Valley (Lancaster/Palmdale area), and the area was lush with wildlife. The old man, as a boy, had to ride on a mule that his father led. His father wouldn’t let him walk across this high desert/grassland because their were so many rattlesnakes, it was dangerous. These days you have to try to find a snake.

When the Death Valley 49’ers eventually struggled out of Death Valley and Panamint Valley, they came to the Indian Wells Valley. The springs they found there, down along what is now Highway 14 and in to the Antelope Valley is what kept them alive long enough to reach Los Angeles. If you go out on remote parts of what is now Edwards Air Force Base you will find remnants of duck blinds, springs, and artesian wells. That area and in to the Antelope Valley was prime duck hunting through the 1920’s. The whole area had spread out farms and ranches that were irrigated with groundwater. Up through the late 1960′ and early 1970’s there was still just enough groundwater to have a large alfalfa ranch between Boron and California City.

What is now the upper Mojave Desert, from the Antelope Valley to Mojave, to Boron, North to around Ridgecrest, and even some ways east of Boron, wasn’t the desert we know today. Wondering what happened to it? What made it the way it is now? The easiest and most direct answer is this; Los Angeles.

LA was a small and dirty city at the turn of the last century, desperately in need of water. In contrast, the Owens Valley was a farming community and was becoming the fastest growing area in California. The Owens River flowed in to Owens Lake, which was 20 miles long, pretty darn wide, and had steam paddle boats that ferried people and mining products across. There were large farms and ranches in the area, all of which used irrigation farming, and wildlife, especially birds, were abundant. In 1904, two men, Fred Eaton and J.B. Lippincott traveled through the Owens Valley on a camping trip and marveled at the available water.  Fred Eaton was the former mayor of Los Angeles and had also worked as a supervisor for the water company. J.B. Lippincott worked for the Bureau of Reclamation, which was at the time looking at a public irrigation project in the Owens Valley which would have greatly helped out the farmers.

Eaton went back to LA and convinced William Mulholland, the head engineer for the water company, that the answer to LA’s water problem was the Owens Valley, over 250 miles away. Lippincott, working for the Bureau of Reclamation, went out and surveyed the Owens Valley, found out where the water flowed, how it flowed, how much of it their was, and where the key water rights and ranches were. Instead of giving this info to the Bureau, he gave it to Eaton and Mulholland. Eaton and other LA officials were able to pass a bond in LA to get enough cash to buy the key ranches to gain the water rights in the Owens Valley. In these days, news did not travel like it does now, and the Owens Valley had no clue LA was out for its water.

After the bond was passed,at the end of 1905, Eaton and Mulholland, using Eaton’s extensive political contacts, as well as dubious tactics such as bribery and deception, to acquire enough land and water rights in Owens Valley to block the irrigation project. Eaton posed as a rancher that was working for the Bureau of Reclamation. The Owens Valley thought that he was buying land for himself, to be a rancher, and buying land for the irrigation project. By the time they found out the truth, it was too late. by 1907 LA owned the key water rights and the irrigation project was blocked. At this point the rest of the water rights were obtained through bribery and coercion. In 1908 the LA aqueduct began to take life.

When the aqueduct was completed in 1913, the all of the water that had once flowed in to the lower Owens Valley, and Owens Lake, began to flow in to LA. A substantial portion of it was diverted in to the San Fernando Valley, a agricultural community that was not yet part of LA. It just so happens that all of the key players in the purchasing of water right in the Owens Valley and various high powered political and public figures had all recently purchased land in the SFV. The land values skyrocketed, surpassing the purchase prices.

After the aqueduct was completed in 1913, Lippincott immediately quit his job at the Bureau of Reclamation and went to work for the LA Water Department.

In the 1920s, the Owens Valley farmers that had not sold out were watching their farms drained of water, nearly every drop of which was pumped into the steadily growing San Fernando Valley. By the mid 1920’s the Owens Lake had become prematurely and totally dry. In 1924 and again in 1927, protesters blew up parts of the aqueduct. This period of time is known as the California Water Wars.

In the late 1930’s LA again needed more water, so the aqueduct was extended North through the rest of the Owens Valley, Long Valley, and in to the Mono Basin. It was completed by 1940.

It was also during this time that the Antelope Valley and the upper Mojave Desert started to become the desert that it is today. The Owens River and Owens Lake fed a multitude of underground rivers and streams and traveled many many miles South. When the river was diverted, and the lake dried up, the desert took on the form we know now.

What of the Owens Valley? With its giant lake drying up faster than nature intended, their was nothing to hold down the lake bottom and it became a giant unnatural salt flat. For many years it became the single worst source of dust pollution in the United States, it still may be. The wind will create alkali dust storms that that carry away as much as four million tons (3.6 million metric tons) of dust from the lakebed each year. The dust plumes can at times be seen from space, and will travel as far South as LA, can’t say I feel sorry for them though.

A decades long court battle ensued because of these dust storms, with the Owens Valley finally winning in the end. LA has to now put back just enough water to stop the dust storms and create some bird habitat.Not enough to restore Owens Valley. LA wasn’t exactly happy about having to give back water. Last year, they devised a way to till the land and cover it with giant dirt clods. In theory, the clods will hold the dust down and LA will only have to give 1/3  as much water as before. Only time will tell if this method actually works.

Today, NASA says that California only has one year left of water. It seems that in the end, LA raping the Owens Valley didn’t help it. Karma is coming, just too late to actually affect the men who legally stole the water in the first place.

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2 thoughts on “Los Angeles, Owens Valley, and Water

  1. Well written and scathing report of water greed in LA….
    I’m not sure their ethics or tactics have improved since, and it will be interesting to see what happens the longer this “drought” lasts. We have too many people and too many crop farms demanding water in an area without the local resources to support the populations… eventually, something will have to change.
    Hopefully my little family has moved on before then.

    • If you look at the LADWP website on the Owens Aqueduct, they put as much positive spin on it as they can. However, even they say “Eaton visited the Owens Valley in 1905 and began to purchase land for the City of Los Angeles. He gave the impression that he was working for the US Reclamation Service on a public irrigation project.”

      As for this drought, according to NASA, California reservoir’s will be dry in about a year.

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