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Historically Speaking: The Owens Valley War

The Owens Valley War

By Tom Morrow

Over the years, there has been much fighting within the state of California over gold, land, oil, but nothing like the clashes over water rights. California is a “have and have not” state – half of the state has water, the other is always in need.

One of the most memorable of the water wars were the many disputes between Los Angeles and residents of the Owens Valley located in the eastern part of the state.

In the late 1800’s the city’s growth demanded more water. Los Angeles officials discovered much-needed water could be brought by aqueduct from the Owens Valley. The aqueduct construction was begun in 1913, overseen by William Mulholland, an engineer who worked on the Panama Canal. Unfortunately the Owens Valley water rights for Los Angeles were acquired through political maneuvering, in-fighting and a series of outright lies to Owens Valley landowners.

By the 1920’s, enough water had been diverted from the Owens Valley that growing crops became so difficult that the farmers tried to destroy the aqueduct. But the attempt was foiled and Los Angeles kept the water flowing. By 1926, Owens Lake had been nearly drained, leaving the valley completely dry.

In 1941, Los Angeles diverted water via the aqueduct that previously fed Mono Lake, which is north of Owens Valley. Between 1979 and 1994, the Mono Lake Committee brought successful lawsuits against Los Angeles, forcing the city to stop taking water from around Mono Lake.

Aside from all of the early legal wrangling, the skullduggery continued. Mullholland was assisted by Fredrick Eaton, an official with the Los Angeles City Water Company.

Beginning in 1902, Eaton used less-than-ethical tactics to get water rights for Los Angeles. A key U.S. Reclamation official, Joseph Lippincott, became a close associate of Eaton, giving Los Angeles officials inside access to the government’s plans. He advised the city the best way to take the water rights from the Owens Valley.

In 1907, Eaton solidified the deal by convincing President Theodore Roosevelt the water from the Owens River would be more beneficial to Los Angeles than to Owens Valley.

To make sure his efforts for the city were ensured, Eaton bought a ranch in the Owens Valley, and turned over all his ranch’s water rights free-of-charge to the City of Los Angeles.

Some historians say Eaton was devious; others say he was a shrewd businessman. Defenders say at the time, Los Angeles didn’t have the money to buy Eaton’s water rights and he was just being a good citizen. Later, a bond election paid Eaton for the rights, but he always denied any deception on his part.

Mullholland reportedly misled Los Angeles as early as 1905. He understated the amount of water available for the city and misled Owens Valley residents saying the city would use only “unused flows.” But, all of the water was used to supply the San Fernando Valley, which flowed into the Los Angeles River, creating a large supply for the city.

To add even more pressure on Owens Valley, a second aqueduct was built in 1970,

In 1991, Los Angeles and Inyo County signed a long-term water agreement requiring the pumping to be better managed. By 1994, most of the litigation had been settled with Los Angeles required to release water back into Mono Lake to raise the level and restore the ecosystem.

The 1974 Jack Nicholson film, “Chinatown,” was partially based upon the Owens Valley wars.


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