Owens Valley water dispute

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The Owens Valley water dispute in the early 20th century involved providing water to the large population in Los Angeles by an aqueduct from the Owens River, 250 miles away. It was a major engineering achievement in 1913, and it made possible the rapid growth of the San Fernando Valley, which is part of the city of Los Angeles. The success story has been target of mudslinging for a century by the left-wing press, and occasionally reignited by the popular culture, such as the inaccurate Hollywood movie “Chinatown” (1974).

The original aqueduct began just north of Independence and only affected the southern half of the county; the acqueduct in 1941 was extended north to Mono Lake.

The Owens Valley

The Owens River flows through Inyo county, California, on the Nevada border. It is a very large county, with high mountains, deserts, mining, and two farming districts, in the north and south parts of the Owens Valley. The population was always small—only 7000 in 1910—and only a minority were engaged in farming. When the mountain snows melt the Owens River produces a huge flow. Farmers along its path have legal rights to use of the water. To obtain the water an outside party has to buy the farms, which is what Los Angeles did. The farmers were mostly new arrivals; Indians had long occupied the area but the settlers drove them out and in one episode massacred 150 Indians to get their land.

LA needs water

Los Angeles city was growing very rapidly in 1900—doubling in size every few years; it went from 50,000 in 1890 to 320,000 in 1910, and the wells were starting to run dry. The city was surrounded by deserts and oceans. The solution was to bring in water from the California mountains (that is the Owens River); later it became possible to use water from other states via the Colorado River. Today both sources are used. The aqueduct was a representative product of the Progressive Era, designed by engineers and experts seeking to obtain the greatest good for the greatest number, with the least waste and maximum efficiency. Leftist critics falsely charged the bloated project was unnecessary, ruined small farmers and reeked of corruption.

Led by dynamic William Mulholland (1855-1935), a self-educated Catholic immigrant from Ireland and long-time head of LA’s Department of Water and Power, and ex-mayor Fred Eaton (1856-1934), LA officials went to Owens Valley in 1905 and began purchasing options to water rights in the southern half of Inyo County. They paid very generously and all farmers were eager to sell. They did not deceive the farmers, but the farmers did not know the scope of LA’s plans. The opposition was led by the Watterson brothers, who were bankers in Inyo and were now fearful their revenue stream from the county might dry up. The area already had lost some market as nearby mines closed down; most of the remaining farmers had switched to cattle ranching, and much of the land was owned by outside speculators. Nevertheless, it was approved by the farmers who sold their land and by Congress and the federal Department of the Interior, as well as by a vote of the citizens of Los Angeles, and took effect. The federal Reclamation Service, which already owned most of the land involved, dropped its own plans, conceding that Los Angeles needed the water. President Theodore Roosevelt, a proponent of conservation rather than environmentalism, signed the bill, pointing out, “It is a hundred or thousandfold more important to state that this water is more valuable to the people as a whole if used by the city than if used by the people of the Owens Valley.”

Mulholland gets primary credit for constructing the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 233-mile marvel of civil engineering that opened in 1913 at a cost of $25 million. It did not need pumping stations for the fall from 4000 feet to sea level was enough to move the water. It solved LA’s water crisis. Indeed, Los Angeles now had a surplus of water and LA used it to irrigate citrus farms in the San Fernando Valley (which it annexed.) Land speculators made money and millions more people moved to Los Angeles. Politics now intruded. The left-wing Socialist Party tried to win the heated 1911 election, but was defeated. William Randolph Hearst, then a leader of the left, used his papers to attack the conservative politicians, businessmen and newspapers who supported the aqueduct, charging fraud and manipulation.

Violence in owrens Valley

Back in the Owens Valley, the local bankers who had always opposed the offensive took the offensive in the 1920s, rallying community opinion to the effect that Inyo County should have sold the water for millions of dollars and instead were now getting nothing. Local activists responded by dynamiting the aqueduct in a series of 17 dynamite attacks on the aqueduct between 1924 and 1928. The city offered jobs and land leases to the locals. Nationally the left hailed the attacks as the uprising of an oppressed people against capitalism, but all the attacks were organized by the two Watterson brothers who controlled the Owens Valley Property Owners. Their goal was to get bought out by Los Angeles for millions of dollars, which they desperately needed because they had embezzled embezzled $2.5 million from the people of Inyo—the main reason Inyo was poor. The Watterson’s went to prison, the protests ended, and Los Angeles bought up the remaining farms at inflated prices to finally calm the people of Inyo County. Inyo switched from agriculture to tourism, and now has more people and prosperity than ever before.


Scandals sell papers, as Hearst discovered, and his exaggerated reports became a staple of left-wing pamphleteers for the remainder of the century, and resurfaced in the Hollywood conspiracy thriller "Chinatown" (1974). Environmentalists have taken up the Owens Valley cause, not because there was damage to the environment but because they reject ideals of efficiency and utility, so that the less use of natural resources the better.

San Fermando Valley emerges

Meanwhile, back in the San Fernando Valley, one major promoter was William Paul Whitsett, San Fernando Valley developer and founder of Van Nuys. Born in Pennsylvania, Whitsett was a successful businessman who contracted tuberculosis and moved to Los Angeles for his health in 1905. In 1911 he joined the syndicate purchasing San Fernando Valley property and became the sales manager for the new community of Van Nuys. Whitsett energetically promoted the sale of town lots, holding barbecues, providing transportation, and offering inducements to prospective purchasers. The promotion was very successful, and Whitsett made Van Nuys his home for the rest of his life. As one of the commissioners of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and long-time board member of the Metropolitan Water District, Whitsett involved himself in water politics and the promotion of Owens Valley. By the end of his life he had seen the population of Van Nuys and the San Fernando Valley grow from 250 people in 1911 to one million in 1965.

Further reading

  • Baur, John E. "William Paul Whitsett: A Biographical Sketch,"

Southern California Quarterly 1994 76(1): 5-30.

  • Hoffman, Abraham. Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy. (1981). 308pp, excellent, balanced scholarly history that shoots down the conspiracy theories
    • Hoffman, Abraham. "Myth, History and Water in the Eastern Sierra" online edition
  • Kahrl, William. Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles' Water Supply in the Owens Valley (1982), very good scholarly history, taking a national perspective
  • Mulholland, Catherine. William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000) excellent scholarly biography by his grand daughter. online edition
  • Sauder, Robert A. "The Agricultural Colonization of a Great Basin Frontier: Economic Organization and Environmental Alteration in Owens Valley, California, 1860-1925." Agricultural History 1990 64(4): 78-101. in JSTOR
  • Sauder, Robert A. "Patenting an Arid Frontier: Use and Abuse of the Public Land Laws in Owens Valley, California." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 1989 79(4): 544-569. in JSTOR
  • Starr, Kevin. Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (1990), ch 3 has a good, brief history text search
  • Walton, John. Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California (1992). 378 pp. leftist