March 13, 2013
As the 1800s drew to a close, the burgeoning population of arid Los Angeles began to outgrow its water supply. By 1900, the city’s population had doubled since 1890 and grown tenfold since 1880 (Hoffman 1977). William Mulholland, the superintendent of water for Los Angeles, recognized that water was the limiting factor of the city’s growth. He took note of the quality, quantity, and proximity of the water possessed by the Owens Valley, and realized that Los Angeles desperately needed that supply. Along with Fred Eaton, mayor of L.A., and Joseph Lippincott, the regional engineer of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Mulholland began the process of acquiring water from the Owens Valley. Using deception, subterfuge, bribery, and a strategy of divide-and-conquer, Los Angeles essentially stole all the water it needed while the farmers of the Valley received barely a fraction of the fair value for their water rights.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the farmers and ranchers residing in Owens Valley had their own plans for the river’s water and were seeking federal funding from the Bureau of Reclamation for a public irrigation project, which would have blocked Los Angeles from diverting the water (Hoffman 1997). Determined to prevent the scrapping of the Owens Valley Project, Eaton used his friendship with Lippincott to gain access to inside information about water rights, which he used to influence Bureau decisions that would benefit Los Angeles, while Mulholland focused on manipulatingpublic opinion by misrepresenting the amount of water the Owens Valley would provide and by lying to the Valley’s residents about how much of the water would be diverted. Then, Eaton began buying up land in the Owens Valley under the false pretense that the land would be used for the reclamation project, and by 1905 Eaton had purchased enough property to secure the necessary land and water rights to block the Bureau’s irrigation project and build the aqueduct (Libecap 2009).
Mulholland needed a way to store the surplus water from the aqueduct, especially because he feared that the residents of Owens Valley might claim back any water that went unused. However, having underestimated the cost of the aqueduct, Los Angeles couldn’t afford to also build a large reservoir. In fact, there wasn’t even enough money to build the aqueduct itself. Mulholland found a solution to both these issues in the San Fernando Valley. If the aqueduct traveled through the Valley on its way to the city, any water dumped in the Valley would drain into the L.A. River and its broad aquifer, creating a large, convenient, non-evaporative pool for the city to tap—essentially, it would become a big, free storage site. Adding the Valley and its residents to Los Angeles would also provide a means to fund the aqueduct by creating a new tax base. Thus, with the annex of the San Fernando Valley the Owens Valley project would finally be ready to move from conception to reality.
Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct began in 1908 and was completed in 1913. The enormous project, directed by Mulholland, employed more than 2,000 workers and spanned a distance of 223 miles. Once the aqueduct was completed, Los Angeles began to prosper and grow at an unprecedented rate as homes and businesses spread across the basin. The expanding population combined with demand from the San Fernando Valley forced Mulholland to take all available water from the Owens Valley, resulting in the rapid depletion of its water supply.
Much of the land in the San Fernando Valley had been previously bought up for low prices by a syndicate of investors, who had inside knowledge of the plan to incorporate the Valley into the city and run the aqueduct through it. Unbeknownst to the public, the San Fernando Valley would be converted to agriculture and irrigated by water from the Owens Valley, drastically increasing the productivity and value of the land. This infuriated the farmers of Owens Valley, who were being robbed of their precious water to support agriculture in Los Angeles in addition to residential use.
By 1924, Owens Lake and about fifty miles of the Owens River were completely dry. Conditions were so bad that the farmers rebelled, culminating in the use of dynamite to blast out part of the aqueduct and return water to the river. The conflict between the farmers and the city of Los Angeles escalated until 1927, when the Inyo County Bank collapsed and brought down the Valley’s economy with it. Los Angeles officials continued to purchase private land holdings and their water rights; by 1928, the city owned 90 percent of the water in the Owens Valley and agriculture in the region had been reduced to a shadow of its former glory (Libecap 2009). It would be an understatement to say that Los Angeles won this water war, which will forever serve as an example of how economic demand can lead to the unsustainable, and sometimes unfair, exploitation of natural resources.
This post was authored by Katherine Moreno ’13 BA Environmental Studies and Miller Zou ’13 BS Environmental Studies ’14 MA Environmental Studies.
Hoffman, Abraham. 1977. Origins of a Controversy: The U.S. Reclamation Service and the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Dispute. Arizona and the West 19.4: 333-46.
Libecap, Gary. 2009. Chinatown Revisited: Owens Valley and Los Angeles-Bargaining Costs and Fairness Perceptions of the First Major Water Rights Exchange. Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 25.2: 311-38.