An article appeared in the Pasadena Star News this weekend titled, “Real estate jolt may come through eminent domain.” Columnist Brian Charles opens with the words, “Shady land deals are as much a part of California’s history as the Catholic missions and the Gold Rush.” As he continues he references the land and water grab of the early 1900’s that leads directly to my current interest in the Owens Valley and the first Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Millions of Los Angeles residents recognize the name Mulholland, but may not know of the man. There is even a William Mulholland Memorial Fountain honoring the self-taught engineer at the busy intersection near the entrance to Griffith Park.
Mulholland’s genius has never been in question, but questions have always been connected to his name and reputation. Was Owens River water stolen from the Owens Valley settlers?
There is a great deal of debate with differing historical perspectives concerning how plans to build and route an aqueduct designed to carry water 223 miles to Los Angeles from the Owens River were originally conceived. What is verifiable, however, is that by 1904 Los Angeles water levels were dangerously low.
But to solve that very real problem was Owens Valley water taken from them unfairly to satisfy the need of Los Angeles? And is it more than coincidence that along the way a few wealthy businessmen saw their personal fortunes expand?
Laws weren’t broken, in fact, federal legislation in the form of the Newlands Reclamation Act, a 1902 federal law funding irrigation projects for 20 states in the American west, paved the way for the action.
So if not illegal, was the project ethical? Ah…here’s where it gets tricky and I can only give you the condensed version!
Joseph P. Lippincott, a Reclamation Service engineer, was responsible for conducting a feasibility survey for an irrigation project intended to benefit farmers in the Owens Valley. Lippincott recommended withdrawing the Owens Valley public lands from any further settlement until further surveys could be completed.
But Lippincott, Mulholland and Eaton, considered the three fathers of the L.A. Aqueduct, all traveled in the same social circles. Mulholland, authorized to explore new options for water, and his former boss, the once Mayor Fred Eaton, had long held the idea that the Owens Valley, 200 miles from Los Angeles on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, held potential to meet the Los Angeles water demand–and Lippincott held the original data collected from the Reclamation Service survey.
Other players, including Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and railroad magnates Moses Sherman, E.H. Harriman and Henry Huntington got busy purchasing property in the San Fernando Valley, knowing the property would increase in value if the public agreed to fund the project. And Eaton and Lippincott, encouraging Owens Valley ranchers and farmers to believe they were selling land to the U.S. Reclamation Service for Owens Valley irrigation, bought property for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power at very reasonable costs. Had their true intention been known, land costs would have escalated.
A little shady or good business practice?
The answer to that question is a little difficult to answer. Researching archives connected to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, one would conclude that the business practices were “forward thinking” and came with the blessing of both local and federal government. Even President Theodore Roosevelt was involved in settling disputes in favor of the City of Los Angeles. But the Owens Valley Committee, a current non-profit citizen action group organized to protect the natural resources in the Owens Valley, takes a very different position!
When plans for the aqueduct were revealed, the farmers and settlers regarded the aggressive pursuit of water rights along the Owens River as a well-orchestrated swindle. There were numerous outbreaks of violence, including dynamiting the aqueduct at Jawbone Canyon–the beginning of The California Water Wars.
But despite protests, the aqueduct, Mulholland’s design and engineering marvel, was completed, connecting the Owens Valley to Los Angeles in 1913.
Remember my statement that William Mulholland’s genius isn’t in question? Remember, too, he was primarily a self-taught man. The aqueduct, a truly amazing design, has been compared to the building of the Panama Canal.
There were 142 tunnels, totaling forty-three miles in length. Transportation was largely by mule power, which was deemed too expensive, leading to the acquisition of caterpillar tractors. After maintenance and repair grew too expensive they returned to the mules to haul wagons of supplies to the construction camps.
By 1924, Owens Lake and fifty miles of the Owens River were dry, leading to Los Angeles eventually owning 95 percent of all farm and ranch land in the valley.
It’s all perspective, isn’t it? There were substantial gains for one ever-expanding region, but not for the agriculturists in the Owens Valley. Solving a big problem for one created hardship for others.
I am fascinated by the dual perspectives. And I can’t help but think about another highly controversial project currently in California headlines.
We are set to become home to the first high-speed rail system in the nation. Politicians say full steam ahead while the pubic outcry, in general,is demanding the project come to a full stop, at least until California’s economy is on an up-swing. But the high-speed rail project is being sold as a “critical lifeline” to the state; an answer to the oil depletion and the DROUGHT of energy supply.
Sound at all familiar?
The rail project was originally sold as a rail line allowing passengers to connect between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and forty minutes. The project plan has morphed several times, reducing the original claims to expectations far less tantalizing. And projected costs have skyrocketed since the original project was approved by voters.
But does it represent a better future? For everyone? Questions, questions!
Farmers and landowners in Central California, many originally in favor of the project hoping the high-speed rail would help the Central Valley by making it less isolated, now complain that high-speed rail officials are arrogant and unhelpful, dismissive and closed-mouthed about the plans. Tracks will limit access to the land of some of the farmers and orchard and complex irrigation systems will be divided and lost.
Have I heard this before?
I certainly see interesting parallels. And I admit my doubts about the feasibility of the project. It just sounds fishy to me.
BUT could it be that history will one day look back and see the high-speed railway project as genius? Will the exorbitant costs we’ve been quoted seem like a bargain fifty years from now?
Then again, who really gains, and what backdoor deals have been made? History tells us there is undoubtedly a story behind the quoted story.
The questions and concerns, perspectives and opinions bounce back and forth and never completely land. Future generations may continue to debate the merits of the project long after it is constructed.
Well, I’d better not open the door to this question too wide or we’ll be sitting here all day. As you can tell, I do find the topic interesting.
And to conclude, let me share just a few photos from the beautiful Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. I’m tempted to throw my support over to the Owens Valley Committee just on the basis of all this natural beauty. What do you think?