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What Were the LA Water Wars?

The city of Los Angeles was founded by a small group of Spanish settlers on September 4, 1781. During much of the Spanish colonial period, Los Angeles remained an outpost, a relatively small pueblo far away from the colonial hub and center in present-day Mexico. As a small settlement, it relied upon, and was well-supplied by, existing rivers, canals, and irrigation ditches, or zanjas. However, once Los Angeles became a metropolis in the early 20th century, these existing systems were unsuitable for the city’s continued growth.

The fact that Los Angeles became a metropolis is somewhat surprising. On its own, Los Angeles had no harbor, nor did it exist at the intersection of two rivers, nor did it have an abundance of natural resources that would have made the site attractive to these early Spanish settlers. However, by the time that a significant number of American colonists got to California in the 19th century—and especially in the early 20th century—the idea that nature could be conquered was not new. Projects like the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in San Francisco locally, and the Panama Canal internationally, prompted discussions about the use of land and its manipulation for the progress and betterment of society.

While the Los Angeles River had been adequate for early settlers, it was unable to sustain Los Angeles’ growth after a series of booms. The completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad line and the railroad line from Los Angeles to San Pedro, and the discovery of oil in the early 20th century made modern Los Angeles possible. As Los Angeles became linked to the rest of the global economy through railroads and ports, and as Los Angeles became the center of a quintessentially-American resource extraction story, it gradually outgrew its water supply—with no other water in sight. Enter Frederick Eaton and William Mulholland (See Who Was Involved in the LA Water Wars?)

Frederick (Fred) Eaton was the Mayor of Los Angeles from 1898 through 1900. Under his leadership, he created the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and placed William Mulholland in charge. Eaton had met Mulholland while employed at the privately-held Los Angeles City Water Company. Both men had experience in Los Angeles’ nascent water companies and were well-acquainted with the water problems facing this region. Beginning in 1904, Mulholland and a group of engineers were tasked with finding a new source of water for the growing city. Mulholland collaborated with Eaton, and together they found the solution to Los Angeles’ problems in the Owens Valley.[1]

The solution to Los Angeles’ water problem would be a gravity-led aqueduct that would transfer water from the Owens Valley to the burgeoning city. The Owens Valley was about 200 miles away from Los Angeles and it sat on the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains between them and the Owens River. It was a green, fertile area that Mulholland and Eaton believed could more than satisfy all of Los Angeles’ water needs. However, this task would not be so easy.

In 1902, the Reclamation Act passed and was designed to establish water and irrigation projects in western states. The idea was that reclamation, or irrigation, projects would make the arid west suitable for American settlement.[2] President Theodore Roosevelt—who would become so important to other massive projects like the Panama Canal—supported these projects. However, the Bureau of Reclamation, this nascent federal bureau tasked with reclamation projects, was already interested in the Owens Valley. Since the Owens Valley held so much potential, it only made sense to the Bureau to improve the irrigation systems there to the benefit of Owens Valley farmers and the Americans who would end up buying their produce.

Nevertheless, Eaton was a convincing man with connections, and by 1905 he had convinced the Bureau of Reclamation and President Roosevelt that it was more beneficial to put the water to use in Los Angeles. Furthermore, Eaton and Mulholland were able to assure this resolution by purchasing enough of the water rights in the Owens Valley to block the project, anyway. Eaton and Mulholland orchestrated the purchase of land plots in and around the Owens Valley. These individuals—who were working on behalf of the city of Los Angeles—eventually ceded their water rights to the city. Through deception, and in some instances, bribery, Eaton and Mulholland were able to purchase enough of the land and water rights to prevent the reclamation project.

Map of California showing the Owens Valley, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and the city of Los Angeles

The construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct began in 1907 and was completed in 1913. The 233-mile long aqueduct used 2,000 workers who dug 164 tunnels.[3] Eaton and Mulholland had secured the necessary support for the aqueduct through a number of underhanded ways. The route for the aqueduct was slated to pass through the San Fernando Valley--which was arid. Through insider tips, a number of businessmen and railroad tycoons purchased land in this otherwise-worthless region which stood to increase in value once the aqueduct was completed. The first bond measure to begin the project passed in 1905, and the second passed in 1907—which led to its construction. The aqueduct was completed in 1913, and in its dedication ceremony, Mulholland addressed the crowd: “There it is; take it!” Mulholland had effectively overseen one of the world’s largest water projects—the world’s longest aqueduct at the time. Through his work, Los Angeles—a city of some 300,000 people—now had enough water for millions.[4]

Cover of the Los Angeles Times showing the First Water Flow from the Los Angeles Aqueduct

While the people of Los Angeles may have rejoiced, the people of the Owens Valley did not. As the Owens Valley residents and farmers saw their dreams dry up with the Owens River, they grew despondent. By the 1920s, the "Water Wars" were in full swing as Owens Valley residents rose up and attacked the source of their decline---the aqueduct. The flourishing San Fernando Valley's existence was a slap in the face since the Owens Valley had all but dried up by 1924. Beginning that year, the Water Wars became violent. Protestors laid dynamite on parts of the aqueduct in 1924 and in 1927. And, in 1924, "nearly 700 hundred Owens Valley citizens...took over and occupied without incident an aqueduct control gate at the Alabama Gates just north of Lone Pine... The 'occupiers' drained the entire flow of the aqueduct into the dry Owens Lake riverbed in a great act of non-violent civil disobedience."[5] By 1926, Los Angeles owned approximately 90% of the Owens Valley's water.[6] Regardless, Los Angeles continued to grow, and even its own water supply would not be enough to quench the city's insatiable thirst. Soon, they would make inroads into the Mono Basin.

Eaton and Mulholland both emerged from the 1930s disgraced. Eaton continued to seek his own financial gain. When Mulholland approached Eaton around 1928 to purchase some of his land in order to construct a dam, Eaton was only willing to sell for an exorbitant $1,000,000. Eaton's finances fell apart as he held out for the sale. Mulholland decided to hastily build the dam elsewhere. The St. Francis Dam's shoddy construction became Mulholland's ruin when, in 1928, it burst. It flooded several cities and resulted in hundreds of deaths. He didn't face criminal charges, but his reputation was ruined.[7]

Arguably, the Los Angeles Water Wars never really ended. Current residents of the Owens Valley are attempting to reclaim the water rights lost and defrauded over a century ago. Only time will tell weather their efforts will materialize into any results.[8] While, in the early 20th century, controlling and reshaping nature may have seem like the correct thing to do, we are currently dealing with the ravages of destroyed ecosystems. While there were benefits to these water projects, we are only now truly finding out how much they cost.

  1. [1] "Fred Eaton," New Perspectives on the West, PBS.
  2. [2] "The Bureau of Reclamation: A Very Brief History," US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation.
  3. [3] World Atlas.
  4. [4] "Los Angeles Aqueduct," History.com.
  5. [5], Kim Stringfellow, "Forget 'Chinatown,' Get the Real Story of California's Most Famous Water War" KCET, October 2012.
  6. [6] World Atlas.
  7. [7] Los Angeles Aqueduct.
  8. [8] Louis Sahagun, "L.A. took their water and land a century ago. Now the Owens Valley is fighting back," Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2017.