“All the Elements of a Wild West Novel”: The “Owens Valley Feud” Over the Los Angeles Aqueduct in “The Outlook” Magazine, 13 July 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted in previous posts on this blog, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was one of the great engineering feats, especially with water delivery over long distances, of the early 20th century. A rapidly growing greater Los Angeles with insufficient local supplies turned to William Mulholland, chief engineer of what became the Department of Water and Power, and he and his associates developed a design to bring the precious fluid over 200 miles to the Angel City from the Owens Valley in Inyo County near the eastern edge of the state.

While it was obvious to Angelenos, especially those in positions of power (though some on the far left criticized it), that this system was essential to the growth of the city and region, including the broader American Southwest, ranches, farmers, ranchers and others in the Owens Valley understandably felt shunted aside as the project was planned and then pursued. Anger continued well beyond the 1913 completion of the Aqueduct and was most notoriously manifested in the so-called “Owens Valley Feud” or the “Water Wars” when violence was used to blow up parts of the system’s infrastructure.

Los Angeles Record, 21 May 1924.

Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection is the 13 July 1927 issue of the weekly magazine, The Outlook, and an article by “a special correspondent” on the ongoing controversy. The publication, launched in 1870 as The Christian Union and, of course, focusing on religious subjects, was reconstituted after nearly a half century into a magazine dealing with society and politics. In 1928, it merged with an older weekly, The Independent, formed in 1848, and then became The New Outlook for a few years before it ceased operations in the mid-Thirties.

The article began with the statement that “the forcible taking of money by organized bands of men has marked the early history of every civilized country in the world,” but there was no known example of “a rural community attempting to compel a city to buy its lands” and, beyond that, “pay it large sums of money for reparations, under threat of fircibly destroying its water system and cutting off its water supply, the very life of its existence” if the funds were not paid promptly. Yet, the piece went on, “this is exactly what is involved in the controversy between some of the residents of Owens Valley and the city of Los Angeles ” and “back of it all is a story which contains all the elements of a wild West novel.”

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 23 May 1924.

The tale was not as simple as accusing the Angel City of “a Machiavellian scheme,” rather, comprehending the issue “is to be fouind in the mental reactions of a pioneer community [although the indigenous people were, of course, the “pioneers” of the area] dwelling for two generations in an isolated mountain valley separated for nearly three hundred miles of desert from the nearest center of population.” The account continued,

Such a free and open-heartd people, uninformed and unaccustomed to the ways of the outside world, do not easily understand the acts and motives of city representatives who are pressed by the necessities of the moment and bound by the legal requirements imposed upon public servants. “The City” is conceived of as a superhuman individual acting with perfect co-ordination in all its parts and with but one thought and purpose . . . such a concept, however, is an imaginary ideal . . . the field is thus wide open for schemers and unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of the needs and inherent limitations of the municipality, and, by molding the suspicions and susceptibilities of the Valley people, to incite them to deeds of violence.

As for the history of the Aqueduct, it was noted that by summer 1904 the consumption of water in booming Los Angeles outstripped inventory and it was observed that the change of seasons prevented the drying up of supply. To avoid that possibility, city fathers acted quickly to choose the Owens River, fed from the copious sources of the Sierra Nevada range, as the site for the diversion of water to the Angel City, with $24 million spent on buying property and securing water right, as well as the construction of some 230 plus miles of channels, siphons, pipes, and other equipment and elements. William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, mayor of Los Angeles in 1887 and 1888 and its treasurer from 1901 to 1907 was involved in the issuance of bonds for the project.

Los Angeles Record, 20 November 1924.

Yet, the piece continued, “the inhabitants of Owens Valley depend upon the water of Owens River and its tributaries for the irrigation of their lands and the raising of agricultural crops,” including alfalfa, grain, meadow grass and orchards.” It was added that, because the intake for the Aqueduct was below the irrigation ditches of these farmers and ranchers, “the city cannot deprive the farmers of their water,” as it received the fluid that was permitted to pass through “or that which returns to the river from irrigated lands.”

Owens Lake, at the southern end of the valley and which used to have steamboats crossing it (for example, there were silver mines in the mountains to the east, including at Cerro Gordo, where F.P.F. Temple was heavily invested during a boom in the mid-70s, the collapse of which severely affected him and his Temple and Workman bank, which failed shorty after, in early 1876), was subject to evaporation, which was “a benefit to no one and the waste of a life-giving resource in a desert land.” This water, however, was that diverted by Los Angeles through its aqueduct to its thirsty hordes, so Angel City officials argued that they used this life-giving fluid to create, not destroy.

Los Angeles Express, 20 November 1924.

Consequently, an understanding existed for nearly two decades in which the city withdrew water from the southern end of the valley, where few lived “and ample water was available fro aqueduct supply from what remained after all farm ditches were supplies.” The Valley’s population doubled to over 7,000, property values jumped 400%, and cars were seen in abundance (including “Indians with Fords and second-hand Buicks, while the white population drive new and up-to-date models in medium and high-priced cars.”) Moreover, a railroad built to transport aqueduct construction material continued to operate to the benefit of the Valley, and tourists, many from greater Los Angeles came to admire the scenery.

The “special correspondent” observed that, in 1904, Los Angeles had about 175,000 residents and estimates, based on the previous decade’s growth, projected there’d be not far south of 400,000 with a couple of decades. Instead, it was stated that the population was over 1 million “the rate during the past few years exceeding that of any large city of the United States.” Obviously, the mushrooming figures meant “an ever-increasing demand for water, and also a protracted drought with deficient snowfall year after year.” In fact, from 1922 to 1925, there were three years of sub-par precipitation of roughly 10, 7, and 8 inches per season.

Pomona Progress, 13 May 1926.

In summer 1923, there was not enough water from Owens Valley to meet the needs of Angelenos with that year being the peak of yet another regional boom. While Los Angeles officials thought to purchase irrigated lands and their ditches to acquire water, it was claimed that owners of these properties “unlawfully diverted the water thus released and used it for the irrigation of lands remaining in private ownership.” Instead, wells were drilled at the north end of the aqueduct, which generated enough product until “the dry years tided over to a return of normal condition in 1926 [there were about 18 inches in 1925-26 and 1926-27, including some heavy flooding during parts of those seasons.]”

Moreover, since 1923, it was aded, Los Angeles bought some $12 million of water-bearing property in the Valley and, it was reported, “the average price being stated to be nearly twice the actual value,” with some lands acquired after appraisals conducted by “three leading citizens” of the area. It was averred that some sellers greatly benefited as they were struggling with debt in their efforts at obtaining good production on the lands. This effort means that “the net result of these purchases has been a transfer to city ownership of approximately eighty per cent of the acreage of irrigated land in the Valley,” even as it committed to keeping 30,000 acres as farmland, this “said to equal that actually farmed in the past.”

Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1927.

A plan by the Board of Public Service Commissioners, which included prominent Angelenos like William P. Whisett, Reginaldo del Valle and others, with Mulholland and his assistant, Ezra F. Scattergood, who oversaw electric power generation, were members, as well, sought to reassure people “that by proper conservation” adequate supplies of water could be provided to Los Angeles “without jeopardizing the development of the Valley or the future supply of the existing aqueduct.”

Yet, there were those in that area who believed “that the time will ultimately come when every available drop of water will be needed in Los Angeles, even if a second aqueduct must be built to obtain it,” and those promises from the board would be broken. In 1927, plans were well underway to tap the resources of the mighty Colorado River, and that aqueduct was completed at the end of the Thirties after six years of construction.

Illustrated Daily News, 28 May 1927.

The writer noted that

the whole story Owens Valley has not yet been told, but the chapters of the past three years chronicle the details of one of the most extraordinary sales campaigns of record. The prospective sellers include a small group of landowners and business men, the latter demanding “reparations.” They apparently see in the city of Los Angeles an easy prospect with millions of money to spend.

Moreover, negative press coverage from unnamed San Francisco and Los Angeles newspapers, it was stated (though there was much more than just from a couple of sheets), “portrayed the city as a heartless giant, ruthlessly overriding and destroying, leaving ruin in his path, one to whom defenseless women and children were an especial delicacy.” Naturally, the papers in the Valley, like the Inyo Register were “active in arousing the people by pointing out injuries which the city had inflicted upon them and urging them to action.”

A press photo, with a date of 24 July 1927, showing “anarchists” seizing an Alabama Hills spillway for the Aqueduct.

This culminated in a section of the Aqueduct being blown up with dymanite in May 1924, followed later by the opening of waste gates causing some 200 million gallons of water each day to flow into the dry Owens Lake and which, it was claimed, “was lost, benefiting nobody.” Press coverage was extensive and it was asserted that “the apparent purpose of the leaders in encouraging spectacular acts of lawlessnes was to command public attention.” This accomplished, the idea was that Los Angeles business leaders concerned about the fair name of the Angel City would call for a different policy from the City in dealing with Owens Valley interests.

The author claimed that the attacks did not affect supply, as there were adequate reserves in reservoirs near the city, and that “the American public, as a whole, are essentially law-abiding and frown upon disregard of the law and resent the forceful imposing of one human will upon another.” It was claimed that “the predominant note of editorial comment, both local and National, was disapproval.” Since 1924, he went on, “much additional land has been purchased by the city where offered at prices approaching that set by the appraisal committee.”

Still, just before the article was written, another spate of attacks occurred and “the latest dynamitings are believed to be incited by a few of the remaining landowners who are holding out for higher prices together with some of the business men of the towns.” It was posited that these latter “fear that the temporary lull in business of the past year or so is but a forerunner of ultimate ruin,” though, of course, no one could foresee just how bad the situation would be after the Great Depression burst forth late in 1929. The author insisted that these local figures “hope to force the payment of reparations by a reign of terror.”

The article ended with the report that Los Angeles officials “state that they stand ready at any time to put into effect some plan which will preserve and develop the economic and social life which has been so laboriously created in Owens Valley by its residents.” It was hoped “that the better sensibilities which actuate a majority of the Valley people will become predominant” and that there would be a solution that would be redolent of “the spirit of co-operation.” All that could be hoped for was “that wisdom on the part of public official will prevent bloodshed.”

The sanguine defense of Los Angeles, naturally, was at odds with the view of many in the Owens Valley that the buying up of irrigated lands to tap that water that a relentlessly growing Angel City desperately wanted was not done on anywhere close to fair and reasonable terms. Therefore, their only option was to resort to a range of actions, including the attacks on the Aqueduct, labeled “anarchist” by those defending the project’s expansion. There were further sabotage incidents in 1931 as the Depression was worsening, but with Los Angeles owning almost all of the water in the valley and agricultural and ranching interests severely curtailed, the City emerged victorious, though enmity continued, albeit more quietly.

In the early 1970s, a second aqueduct was finished and the effects on the Valley continued to be significant as legal battles mounted over purported violations of the California Environmental Quality Act. Finally, in the Nineties agreements were reached wiuthg multiple interested parties to allow for adequate water diversion but protecting the Valley’s ecology and “rewatering” the lower part of the Owens River, though destruction continued to mount. With state intervention, a deal was reached in 2006, by which water was finally returned to the lower river, though there is still more water being taken out than returned to prevent ongoing problems with the landscape.

It was about fifteen years between the completion of the Aqueduct and the writing of this defense of the City of Los Angeles, and it has been about the same period between the 2006 deal and today. Climate change has caused worsening and longer periods of drought and we are seeing the results with shockingly low levels in our reservoirs. The circumstances of the “water wars” of the 1920s are obviously very different, but it is abundantly clear that the effects of diversion from the Owens Valley will continue to be hotly (definitely no pun intended, especially with the terrible wildfires we experience year after year in California and the western states) debated, while we grapple with the much broader implications of water management in the context of the rapidly accelerating change in our planet’s climate.

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