California Scheming

Los Angeles’ insatiable thirst for water, which drained the Owens Valley, has ruined lives, shaped the city’s politics and provoked ongoing controversy

Owens River, Sierra Nevada
Owens River, Sierra Nevada Wikimedia Commons

At the moment, Chris Plakos is a little embarrassed. the public relations manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is looking for a river he can’t find. We’re driving down a road 200 miles from Los Angeles, in the Owens Valley, which parallels the Sierra Nevada for about 100 miles. Plakos’ employer owns most of this valley, having obtained it decades ago by means that may fairly be called ruthless. Plakos wants to show me how, these days, the municipal utility has become more enlightened toward the region and its residents.

We know the river is east of us, so it should be a simple matter of pointing the rented SUV in that direction. But we are caught in a whiteout caused not by snow but by salt, blowing off a dry lake bed to the south. The cloud contains microscopic particles of nickel, cadmium and arsenic, which at high doses have been shown to cause cancer in animals.

We keep the windows rolled up tight.

Plakos is also embarrassed because the salt-out is traceable to his employer’s past policies, and the utility, in a historic turnaround after decades of hostility and acrimony, recently agreed to do something about the problem. So he doesn’t need this possibly toxic atmospheric pollution just now. These dust storms, which have long plagued the area whenever the wind is just so, arise from OwensLake. Once a shallow 110-square-mile body of briny water that still managed to support an abundance of grasses, birds and other wildlife, it was drained decades ago by L.A.’s seemingly bottomless demand for water, transforming the lake into a vast, dusty, cracked-white patch of high desert. It’s the most visible casualty in the battle for the water that turned Los Angeles into a major metropolis—a battle about to be rejoined as the city eyes untapped water sources beneath the Mojave Desert.

In the final analysis, it’s not the balmy climate or the $31 billion a year the entertainment industry generates for the city that makes Los Angeles possible. It’s water. Without it, the town one newcomer in the 1860s called a “vile little dump” (pop. 13,000) would never have evolved into the second most populous city in the United States.

L.A.’s 19th-century movers and shakers knew that the city’s health and prosperity depended upon the availability of freshwater. Los Angeles sits on a semiarid coastal plain, with desert on three sides and the Pacific Ocean on the fourth. Freshwater was limited to the meager flow of the Los AngelesRiver, now a much-maligned concrete channel, and the paltry 15 inches of rain that the area averages a year.

The spigot for Los Angeles is located north of Owens Lake and the small town of Independence, off US 395 and down a mile of bad road. It consists of nothing more than two 20-foot-long concrete blocks. Here, on the eastern slope of the Sierra 4,000 feet above sea level, the Owens River, which used to meander the valley’s entire length before emptying into OwensLake, smacks abruptly into a concrete barricade. Then it is directed to a manmade, arrow-straight dirt channel.

This is the gateway of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Nearly a century ago an army of 5,000 men used dynamite, steam shovels, dredging machines and mules to dig out 233 milesof canals and tunnels. They carved the aqueduct out of unforgiving terrain, laying pipe across searing stretches of desert and going over, and often through, solid Sierra rock. Completed in 1913, the aqueduct still carries up to 315 million gallons of water a day to thirsty Angelenos.

You might think this engineering marvel worthy of notice. After all, it is largely responsible for the Southern California of today, as well as the ever-innovating city that has shaped so much of American life and world culture. But there’s no roadside attraction here, no plaque, no visitors. Just wind, the gurgle of water and the occasional distant whine of a car speeding along US 395. The only marker is etched into one of the concrete walls: “a.d. mcmxi, LOS ANGELES AQUEDUCT INTAKE.”

The low profile likely reflects the fact that as the aqueduct carried away the valley’s water, it also carried away the local economy. It left OwensValley farmers and ranchers high and dry. They responded with lawsuits, protests—and finally, dynamite of their own.

The OwensValley water war has provoked impassioned debate and been the subject of numerous books. It also provided the backstory to the 1974 film Chinatown, which, though fiction, has contributed to the popular perception that Los Angeles raped the OwensValley. Others contend that the area’s economics were spiraling downward anyway and that California’s future lay inevitably on its southern coast. The truth, as usual, is more complicated.

To be sure, a critical part of the aqueduct story is the tale of wealthy Los Angeles businessmen speculating in real estate. They included Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, owner and publisher, respectively, of the Los Angeles Times; E. H. Harriman, president of the Southern Pacific railroad; and Moses Sherman, a real estate developer and member of the city’s water board, which established policy for this utility. Otis would use the Times’ considerable influence to rally support for the aqueduct. Most historians believe that Otis and his colleagues engaged in shadowy dealings and traded on inside information, learning ahead of the public (probably from Sherman) where the aqueduct would terminate and where excess water would be stored—in the water table under the San Fernando Valley, adjacent to Los Angeles. All told, Otis and his colleagues bought 16,000 acres of this valley, which they later sold at a handsome profit.

But the main story of the greening of Los Angeles centers on two other men: William Mulholland and Frederick Eaton. Different as night and day, they were warm friends before becoming bitter enemies. Without their efforts, the aqueduct would not have been built; yet the project would prove to be each man’s undoing.

An Irish immigrant, Mulholland was blunt-spoken, almost six feet tall with curly hair and a bushy mustache. He was in his 20s when he settled in L.A. in the late 1870s, after stints as a sailor, dry goods merchant and lumberjack. His first job in the city—at $1.50 per day—was as a deputy zanjero, or irrigation ditch tender, with the privately owned Los Angeles Water Company. But Mulholland was too ambitious to remain a zanjero for long. Teaching himself mathematics, hydraulics and geology, he became a hydraulic engineer within two years, foreman within eight, and then, at 31, superintendent, a position he retained after the city purchased the water company.

For some of that time his boss was Frederick Eaton, a Los Angeles native raised in a well-to-do family. In contrast to the rough-hewn Mulholland, Eaton was sophisticated and polished. He loved his native city, serving as superintendent and chief engineer of the L.A. Water Company and then, from 1898 to 1900, as mayor of L.A.

By 1900, L.A.’s population stood at 102,000, twice what it had been a mere decade earlier. By 1904, the figure had again nearly doubled. As the population rose, the water table began to drop. Some estimates suggested that the Los AngelesRiver would provide enough water for no more than 250,000 people. Both Eaton and Mulholland realized an entirely new source was needed.

Mulholland began looking throughout Southern California for an alternative supply of freshwater, but it was Fred Eaton who came up with a solution. On a camping trip to the Sierra in the early 1890s, Eaton had gazed down upon OwensLake and thought about all the freshwater flowing into it and going to waste. Yes, Los Angeles was some 200 miles away, but it was all downhill. All one would have to do to move it to the city was dig some canals, lay some pipe and let gravity do the rest. Furthermore, he realized, several streams flowing out of the Sierra could be used to generate hydroelectric power. Imagine, a 200-plus-mile aqueduct running downhill to L.A. and “free” power to boot! Over the next two decades, as his civic interest joined his personal financial interests, Eaton grew increasingly evangelical about OwensValley water.

In September 1904, he took Mulholland to OwensValley with only “a mule team, a buckboard, and a demijohn of whiskey,” Mulholland later recalled. Despite the hooch, it was the water and not the whiskey that made a believer out of Mulholland. He readily endorsed Eaton’s proposal to build an aqueduct. Eaton, meanwhile, was buying water options from OwensValley ranchers and farmers whose pastures bordered the river, without disclosing the city’s plan. He also purchased a 23,000-acre cattle ranch in LongValley, most of which he hoped to sell to the city, at a tidy profit, for use as an aqueduct reservoir.

Historians differ on Eaton’s motives. Some say he duped OwensValley residents. Others say his purchases, though cunning, were justifiable because they benefited the city, which lacked the money to buy the land until voters later approved a $1.5 million bond measure. To his dying day, Eaton denied charges that he acted duplicitously.

Grandson John Eaton, who until a year ago lived on one of the last acres of land in LongValley passed down from his father, Harold Eaton, believes that his grandfather had no need to double-deal. “People were seeking him out to sell their property,” he says. “They saw him as this crazy millionaire who wanted to become a cattle baron and who was foolishly overpaying for land. And they wanted to get out.” It was a hardscrabble life, what with the valley’s short growing season, and the playing out of local gold and silver mines, the market for its produce. Of course, had the sellers known the buyer in the shadows was the city of Los Angeles, they wouldn’t have sold their land so cheaply, if at all.

In any event, when the ranchers and farmers learned the real story in 1905—“Titanic Project to Give the City a River” headlined the Los Angeles Times that July—they were so angry that Eaton had to leave town for awhile.

The construction of the aqueduct, under the direction of Mulholland, proceeded quickly. To provide power for electric shovels, he erected two hydroelectric plants—still in use today—on creeks that dump into the Owens River. He also built some 500 miles of roads, ran telephone and telegraph lines across 150 miles of desert, and laid down 268 miles of pipe to provide drinking water for the workers.

Conditions were harsh. Temperatures in the Mojave Desert could swing 80 degrees in a single day. “In the winter, it was just as windy and bitter cold as it was hot in summer,” Raymond Taylor, the aqueduct’s medical director, said at the time. Over the six years of construction on the aqueduct, 43 men died out of the 5,000 or so who worked on it, a toll that some experts say was rather low considering the scope of the project and the rugged terrain.

On November 5, 1913, Los Angeles officials staged a grand opening ceremony at the aqueduct’s terminus in the San Fernando Valley, with parades, fireworks and speeches, including a famously terse one from Mulholland: “There it is,” he said, as the gates opened, “take it.”

Eaton did not attend. His years of dreams of a real estate empire had come to naught. Mulholland had balked at Eaton’s price for the LongValley land, which most historians peg at $1 million—and refused to pay it. Consequently, the completed aqueduct at first had no reservoir in the LongValley area.

For a time, life in OwensValley remained largely unaffected by the aqueduct. Most farming and ranching took place at the valley’s northern end, above the aqueduct’s intake point, so the river still provided plenty of water. Valley produce still found a market, however reduced, at local mines, many of which were still operating.

But things changed. People continued to pour into Los Angeles, and several years of drought in the 1920s slowed the aqueduct’s flow. To compensate, the city began pumping groundwater directly from the aquifer beneath OwensValley. Starved of water, local farms and ranches failed. Businesses followed. Some OwensValley farmers sued Los Angeles and lost. Others began taking water directly from the aqueduct. The city countered by buying val-ley property in a checkerboard fashion—purchasing one farm but not the one next to it, which pitted neighbor against neighbor.

OwensValley residents took matters into their own hands at 1:30 a.m. on May 21, 1924. A caravan of cars with about 40 men set out from Bishop, the largest town in OwensValley, headed 60 miles south, and just north of Lone Pine, dynamited the aqueduct’s concrete canal. Six months later, a number of OwensValley residents, led by local banker Mark Watterson, seized the aqueduct’s Alabama Gates spillway, near Lone Pine and opened its gates, sending the precious liquid back into the Owens River.

Mulholland was furious. He dispatched two carloads of gun-toting city detectives to break up the siege. Trying to prevent bloodshed, the OwensValley sheriff warned them not to start trouble, saying, “I don’t believe you will live to tell the tale.” The detectives backed down. Soon local families arrived at the spillway, some bearing food; picnic blankets were spread and a huge barbecue ensued. Movie cowboy Tom Mix, shooting a film on location nearby, sent over his mariachi band to perform. The press arrived and took pictures. In the meantime, Watterson’s brother, Wilfred, also a banker, went to L.A. and appeared before the Los Angeles Joint Clearinghouse Association, a group of bankers, asking for a new commission to negotiate city payments to the valley. When the bankers agreed, the siege ended peacefully.

But negotiations between the commission and OwensValley locals, represented by the Wattersons, dragged on. In December 1924, Wilfred Watterson presented the commission with two invoices, one for $5.3 million in reparations to ranchers, the other for $12 million to purchase the remaining land in the valley. The commission refused to pay.

Tensions between city and valley grew. Litigation ensued, but stalled in the courts. The city bought more valley land, displacing farmers and ruining more local businesses. Finally, valley frustrations reached another boiling point. On May 20, 1927, several men detonated explosives outside Mojave, 100 miles north of L.A., destroying a part of the aqueduct. A few days later, more blasts rocked the aqueduct farther north and, on June 4, still another. A train filled with L.A. detectives armed with Winchester carbines was sent to guard the aqueduct.

Though the detectives had no legal right to do so, they placed OwensValley under martial law. It didn’t help. Over the next two months, seven more blasts occurred at sites along the aqueduct, from Mojave in the south to Bishop in the north, damaging pipes and a power plant and downing telegraph lines.

In the end, what broke the valley’s spirit was malfeasance by two of its own. In August, the Watterson brothers (whose bank dominated the valley economy) were arrested for embezzlement; they were later convicted on 36 counts. Some said the brothers had merely been trying to stay afloat financially, and helping others stay afloat, by moving money from one business account to another, recording deposits never made and debits already paid. Their defenders pointed out that none of the money ever left InyoCounty. The state’s prosecuting attorney, an OwensValley local and a friend of the brothers, was said to have cried while delivering his final argument. The Wattersons were sentenced to ten years in San Quentin and their five banks closed. Posted on the door of one was the message: “This result has been brought about by the last four years of destructive work carried on by the city of Los Angeles.”

Fred Eaton, whose plan to sell his LongValley ranch was stymied by the city, now had worse problems. His son Harold had mortgaged it to the Wattersons’ bank in loans totaling $320,000. When the bank failed, the ranch went into receivership and the city purchased it—for less than the $500,000 Mulholland had offered ten years earlier.

Eaton died in 1934 at age 78, his dreams of fortune unfulfilled. “He was bitter,” says his grandson John Eaton, “because he felt he’d been made the goat for all the troubles that came to ail the OwensValley, and because he felt he never got the proper credit for his role in the creation of the aqueduct.”

Mulholland, for his part, died a chastened man at 79, a year after Eaton’s death. A dam that Mulholland had built in San Francisquito Canyon, outside Los Angeles, collapsed in 1928, less than 12 hours after he had inspected it and pronouncedit sound. A wall of water 100 feet high roared down the canyon, sweeping away trees, homes, cars, a railroad trestle and animals, and killing at least 400 people. Mulholland, although cleared of wrongdoing, blamed himself. He soon retired from the water department and became a virtual recluse, a “stooped and silent” old man, Catherine, his granddaughter, says. (In the 1990s, David Rogers, a forensic geologist who studied the dam rupture, concluded that while there were some flaws in the construction, it was a massive landslide that felled the dam.)

Today most of the people residing in the Owens Valley make their living from tourism, with the majority of skiers, fishermen, campers and so on coming from (where else?) Los Angeles. Some ranches and farms still exist, but most of their fields are leased from the L.A. Department of Water and Power. The bulk of Owens Valley land is empty, its former vitality reduced to groupings of shade trees where houses once stood; long, V-shaped ditches, once used to water fields, now dusty and weed choked; an occasional concrete silo surrounded by sagebrush.

The aqueduct was extended north another 100 miles in the 1940s, to a second large body of water, MonoLake. Another entire aqueduct was built in 1970 alongside Mulholland’s. Almost 100 years have passed since William Mulholland ruled the roost, but for L.A.’s Department of Water and Power engineers, the mandate is still the same: keep the water coming.

I’m standing somewhere in the middle of owensLake—white, cracked, powder-dry and stretching off in every direction—with Ted Schade, an engineer and senior project manager for a tiny regional agency, the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District. The agency is responsible for enforcing the federal Clean Air Act in OwensValley, and thanks largely to it, things here are looking up.

Right now, the wind is still, and it’s OK to breathe. Yesterday, upwind and north of the lake, I saw a huge white cloud boiling off the lake bed. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, when the wind blows, this lake is the single largest source of particulate matter pollution in the United States.

Schade’s agency has been David to the Los Angeles utility’s Goliath since the mid-1980s, when the city, responding to a California state law, was required to pay several million dollars a year to monitor the air and figure out how best to stop the pollution (which meant, in effect, that the city paid the salaries of its antagonists). In 1997, Schade’s group approved a plan that ordered the city to flood the dry lake bed with water or grow a salt-tolerant grass. Where the water came from was up to the city, but of course, the only readily available water was from the aqueduct. “The city just went crazy,” says Schade. “They filed a lawsuit, tried to withhold money, and appealed the plan to the state of California.”

Then the utility’s new general manager, S. David Freeman (now California Governor Gray Davis’ energy czar), called a truce. “He just said what the city was doing was wrong,” says Schade, “and within a couple of weeks we had an agreement.” Grudgingly, the city agreed to have ten square miles of dust control measures in place by 2001, with incremental improvements after that.

By November 2001, diversion of some of the aqueduct’s precious water had begun; by January 2002, more than 7,600 acres of dusty OwensLake bed had been submerged in a few inches of water. But more remains to be done. In other sections of the lake bed, the city is currently planting more than 2,600 acres with hardy native grass that tolerates high salt and both freezing and blistering temperatures. The project is scheduled to be complete by 2006, by which time Los Angeles should have implemented dust control measures on more than 14,000 acres of Owens Lake bed, using about 50,000 acre-feet of water a year, enough to supply almost a quarter of a million people.

If water politics in Southern California today are no longer as rough-and-tumble as in Mulholland’s era, controversy continues to surround the struggle to meet the demand for water in the fast-growing region.

In one recent flap, water officials representing the greater Los Angeles area have struck a preliminary agreement with a private firm that owns large parcels of the Mojave Desert and controls access to an aquifer there. The firm, Cadiz Inc., proposes to service Southern California by pumping water out of the aquifer as well as using it to store water diverted from the Colorado River. The project, though approved by the Department of the Interior, still faces opposition from California Senator Dianne Feinstein and some environmentalists. In stating their concerns that drawing water from the aquifer will damage the fragile desert ecosystem, opponents also note that the aquifer runs under two dry lakes, and specifically cited what happened to OwensLake as an example of what could go wrong.

Maybe that will be OwensLake’s legacy, says Schade: an object lesson for what not to do. “Hopefully, everyone has learned from the mistakes that were made here.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.