News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by

How the LA Aqueduct altered the Owens Valley environment

Water flows through the Owens Valley before it enters the aqueduct intake.
Water flows through the Owens Valley before it enters the aqueduct intake.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Water flows through the Owens Valley before it enters the aqueduct intake.
The Owens River flows from the Eastern Sierras toward the Los Angeles Aqueduct intake.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Water flows through the Owens Valley before it enters the aqueduct intake.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct flows in pipelines in Santa Clarita, Calif. After the aqueduct was completed in 1913, population in Los Angeles and the surrounded areas started to boom.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Water flows through the Owens Valley before it enters the aqueduct intake.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct runs parallel to the Eastern Sierra mountains near Bishop, Calif. The 223 mile aqueduct goes through a series of concrete conduits, unlined channels, pipelines and tunnels to get to Los Angeles, Calif.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Water flows through the Owens Valley before it enters the aqueduct intake.
Cows graze fields in the Eastern Sierra region of California near the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

LA Aqueduct anniversary series 2013This story is part of KPCC's weeklong series exploring the history of the L.A. Aqueduct and looking at the future of L.A.'s water resources. View the whole series

From the start, the people of Los Angeles celebrated their aqueduct, cheering by the thousands as water tumbled south. Where that water came from, in the Owens Valley, the response to LA's thirst was quite different.

Over time, a fragile peace gave way to anger, and battles on the aqueduct itself moved into courtrooms. KPCC's Molly Peterson joins the show with more on how the aqueduct altered the Owens Valley environment and its relationship with Los Angeles. 

Aerial Tour of the Los Angeles Aqueduct:

Interview Highlights: 

Effects of the aqueduct on the Owens Valley?
"The valley is long, so it had an immediate physical impact. It was on the bottom half, the southern half of the county. But by the '20s there were a 100,000 new people coming to Los Angeles a year, which is quite a bit of growth. So, the diversions began occurring further and further north in they valley at a time of drought in Los Angeles and the Owens Valley. That made tensions."

On how the tensions escalated:
"They began to use dynamite to make their feelings clear in a destructive way. There were bombing incidents during the construction of the aqueduct from 1907 to 1913, then after the aqueduct was built there were more dynamite incidents, including one at a place called Jawbone Canyon, which is along the Aqueduct. You can see it on the map on At that particular location, you can see pictures of this crushed pipeline that was bombed by people living in the Owens Valley, it was covered in newsreels. "

"Jawbone wasn't the only incident. There was also the Alabama Spillway incident. It was kind of like occupy Owens Valley. In the fall of 1924, about a 100 people from the Owens Valley gathered at the Alabama Spillway, which is a little further north from that bombing incident I told you about. They opened the gates of the spillway and dumped the water. Took it basically from the city of Los Angeles and put it back into its historic pathway into the valley and they kept it. It became this party for hundreds and hundreds of people. People took their children to it dressed up and they listened to Enrique Caruso records and they gathered there for a while."

On the impact these tensions had in Los Angeles:
"LA did not like being cast as the villain, and there was international publicity in which LA was considered the might and the Owens Valley folk were considered the right. But that is not what starved LA's thirst. What happened was incident like the one in Jawbone Canyon and the Alabama Spillway disappeared because the people in the Owens Valley ran out of money.

"There was the Depression. In order to continue such a fight they would have needed money. The bank in the Owens Valley collapsed, the resistance kind of went underground and turned into much more of a Cold War."

RELATED: Aerial photos of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

On how long the Owens Valley water war lasted:
"The war continued and it picked up and it got hot again in the 1970s after the city of Los Angeles decided to add a second aqueduct. It's basically a way that the city of Los Angeles was able to convey more water from the Owens Valley down south, but then there were questions about the kind of things that Los Angeles was doing to put more water into those channels, including ground water pumping. 

"Los Angeles pulled water out of the water table and sent it into the aqueduct. Those were the pumps that Los Angeles used, and uses to this day. There were back-and-forth and tit for tat fights over 25 years about what is environmentally acceptable, what the long term effects of this stuff are and continue to be in the valley.

"The Owens Valley was historically quite a bit of grassland and this grassland was lush and green, particularly along these waterways. Los Angeles changed that when it began to pump deep into the ground water table, pulling water out of the ground and from around these waterways into its aqueduct. DWP, to this day, says that a long-term water agreement makes it alright for it to continue to pump what it does. Every year they have to report their pumping to the Owens Valley and to the city of Los Angeles, and DWP insists that what it is doing is perfectly acceptable."

On whether there was ever an amicable relationship between LA and the Owens Valley:
"Once in a while the DWP makes a positive impression on the Easter Sierra. David Nahai, who was the head of the DWP in the early 2000s presided over the return of water to the lower Owens River. This was a long-term consequence of the fights over the ground water that we talked about earlier. 

"David Nahai was there with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when they turned the wheel in order to move more water out of the aqueduct and leave it in the Owens Valley for environmental benefits, and he harken back to something William Mulholland had said when LA took the water. And Mulholland said this to the cheers of Angelenos. He said, 'There it is. Take it.' David Nahai reached back to that part of history when he talked about the lower Owens Valley's future."

On the relationship between Owens Valley and DWP going forward:
"It does seem like what dries it up or cools it down every single time is money. The DWP has a litigation budget that is the size of Inyo County's entire operating budget, so there is just no way for Inyo County to fight effectively against the DWP. The DWP also says it has law on its side. So DWP folks have been living in the Inyo County for 100 years and that has changed the character of the valley too."