The Aug. 5, 1905, headline in the Inyo Register still haunts this valley on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada: Los Angeles Plots Destruction, Would Take Owens River, Lay Lands Waste, Ruin People, Homes and Communities
And so it happened. In one of the great water wars of the century, later memorialized in films such as "Chinatown," Los Angeles bought up nearly every available inch of Owens Valley land, built an aqueduct to take its water 250 miles to southern California and spent the next half-century sucking the valley dry.
Drawing water in steadily increasing amounts, Los Angeles changed itself from a dusty, rough-hewn coastal port into a mecca for travelers and settlers from all over the world. The valley that was once an oasis in the arid eastern Sierras became as parched as a sun-scorched orange rind. Its cattle and farming industry declined. Its young people moved away.
But as another decade of Los Angeles' vise grip on this valley approaches, this community of 15,600 suddenly faces the prospect of an unexpected victory, which would pose a serious threat to the future water supply for the 3 million people of Los Angeles.
Arizona already has won a court order cutting off much of the water southern California receives from the Colorado River. Northern California voters have vetoed a plan to send more of their water south.
And now, returning to torment the city for its youthful transgressions, the citizens of Owens Valley have voted overwhelmingly to retake control of the ground water being pumped from below the valley and force the big city to take considerably less than it has in the past.
It would seem a futile gesture by a rural David against a metropolitan Goliath with the best legal and political help at its command, except that the state supreme court has just endorsed a similar effort to reconsider Los Angeles' use of water from Mono Lake north of here.
It provides a strong precedent for a similar decision on behalf of this, Los Angeles' principal water source. To valley residents it is about time.
Lillian Nelson, 64, was here in the 1920s, when a few desperate local men tried to stop the city's draining of the valley's water by blowing up some conduits and spillways. Los Angeles sent reservists to stop the violence and arrest the saboteurs, and Nelson and others here resigned themselves to a different way of life.
The valley's water runoff provides, on average, 65 percent of Los Angeles' water supply, and 8 percent more comes from its pumped ground water. Thus, any threat from Owens Valley is a serious one.
Living on a half-acre lot in this dusty little town, Nelson said she must pay up to $100 a month in water bills to keep all her plants alive, for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has not only drained the surface water but pumped away much of the ground water, too. She carefully saves dishwater to pour on her thirsty shrubs. "In L.A.," she said, with a look of disgust, "they hardly save a bit."
"We want them to get to know these water rights are not unlimited," said Cindy O'Connor, a member of the Inyo County water commission helping lead the uprising against Los Angeles. "I think the odds are now in our favor."
A visitor from Los Angeles who takes the five-hour drive to Owens Valley sees its riches and its poverty in one glance. Nearly surrounded by steep mountains gleaming with snow, the valley floor looks like dried brown porridge at the bottom of a white porcelain bowl.
When the snow melts and spring water flows into the valley, the thirsty pumps and aqueducts of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, usually referred to here as "the DWP," suck it up and take it south.
Only a few remnants of the valley's earlier days remain, such as the Red Mountain Fruit Ranch, a former apple and pear orchard outside Big Pine. Its neat rows of stubby, dead trees sit untended at the foot of one of the white-topped mountains.
"The valley used to have miles and miles of orchards, and vineyards and potato fields," Nelson said. Now recurrent droughts kill more and more trees, some along the main thoroughfare of Rt. 395, sometimes marked with big, red tags.
In 1859, Capt. J.W. Davidson led an Army expedition through the valley, which he called "some of the finest country I have ever seen." He said: "It may be said literally to be a vast meadow, watered every few miles with clear, cold mountain streams, and the grass (although in August) as green as in the first of spring."
Settlers flocked in. More than 700,000 head of cattle and sheep grazed here in the 1870s.
But later along the arid coast of southern California the men who led the 100,000 people of Los Angeles decided they wanted the city to grow and needed more than just the irrigating ditches, called zanjas, which drew city water from the underground Los Angeles River. Particularly ripe for development were nearby farm lands such as the San Fernando Valley. Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and other city leaders saw huge potential for housing and growth there if enough water could be found.
Today their vision is realized; the San Fernando Valley has become Los Angeles' suburbs, a busy hive of one million people, landscaped hillsides, shopping malls, speech patterns and life styles that have become the model of California living for the rest of the world. In 1903, however, it had just a few sparse farms, short of water.
In 1904, William Mulholland, superintendent of the city water department, took an unannounced mule-drawn buckboard drive to Owens Valley and decided it was possible to construct an aqueduct to Los Angeles. City officials began surreptitiously to purchase Owens Valley water rights.
As the project got further along, some politically influential southern Californians even persuaded the federal government to declare much of the valley a federal forest district (although its only trees were orchards planted by farmers) so that its use could be limited to providing a watershed for the city of Los Angeles.
Word finally reached the valley with the doomsday leadline in the Aug. 5, 1905, Inyo Register. The Los Angeles Times had a different view.