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Owens Valley - Liquid Gold

Posted in Events on December 1, 2009
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Photographers: Collette Blumer

Mark Twain hit it on the head. In the arid climate of the western United States, access to water is everything. Water brings the ability to grow food, wash clothing, hydrate the body, and to grow industries and communities. Water equals life. No water? No life. No wonder water is such a prize. Two hundred some-odd miles north of Los Angeles, Owens Valley lies in the shadow of the towering Sierra Nevada. Snow-fed streams rush down the slopes to converge in the Owens River. Flashback a century and Owens Valley was home to an abundant agricultural region thanks to the Owens River. Life was good here, as the population was low and resources were high. Then the long arm of Los Angeles reached out.

After lying dry for almost a century, water flows again in the lower Owens River. A judge's ruling in 2007 mandated water to be released into the riverbed and the largely-dry Owens Lake bed. L.A. still relies on the Owens river for a significant portion of its water, so we found water in both the Owens River and the L.A. Aqueduct during our trip.

Los Angeles's situation was the polar opposite of Owens Valley: a growing population juxtaposed with meager water sources. Los Angeles has some native water in the San Gabriel River, the Los Angeles River, Malibu Creek, and the Santa Ana River. In addition to the surface water, wells drilled in the Los Angeles area help supplement water needs. Although the list of water sources is long, the volume produced is generally low, inconsistent, and certainly inadequate for the needs of a major population center.

Los Angeles needed more water than it had access to. To fix this situation, Department of Water and Power Superintendent William Mulholland hatched a plan. Mulholland and a few cronies went to Owens Valley and quietly bought agricultural land that included water rights. Ownership of these purchases was subsequently transferred to the City of Los Angeles. By the time the Owens Valley residents woke up to the big picture, Los Angeles owned virtually all the rights to Owens River water.

An aqueduct was built, transferring the Owens River flow from its natural bed into the aqueduct. Even as the population and economy of Owens Valley died on the vine, Los Angeles found itself possessing the key element it needed to survive. On November 5, 1913, Mulholland supervised the release of the first Owens River into an LA-area reservoir. His words at the ceremony? "There it is. Take it." From that time forward neither Owens Valley nor Los Angeles would ever be the same.

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Why is a story about water in 4WD&SU?
First, Owens River water made modern Los Angeles possible and modern SoCal possible by extension. SoCal's varied terrain and generally good weather makes it a natural place to develop and build off-road products. Scores of off-road-industry companies and off-road enthusiasts call SoCal home. Owens River water helped grow the off-road industry. It seems only right to devote some time to that which made life and off-roading possible in SoCal.

Second, there's a lot of adventure to be had in and around Owens Valley. From world-class trout fishing to hiking to ghost town hunting to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Owens Valley offers myriad directions to point your rig. Death Valley and Saline Valley lie just to the east should you run out of Owens Valley trails to explore.

Normally, we like to list things in threes, but discovering a heritage and finding adventure seemed like a complete list at just two. It was time for a road/off-road trip.

Even if you don't live in SoCal, take some time to think about where your water comes from. Could your community survive without water from a distant source?

As this is being typed, there's another scenario playing out in Nevada that hearkens back to the incident often called "The Rape of Owens Valley." Growing, arid Las Vegas is now looking to pump groundwater from rural areas in eastern Nevada and western Utah. Once again, a major population center is seeking water from an agricultural area that's lightly populated and heavily watered.

One can't help but be grateful for the events orchestrated by Mulholland. There's no question it was deceptive and underhanded to have taken the water from Owens Valley and used it to grow Los Angeles. Despite the tarnished ethics record, millions have benefitted from the water, including the author.

Wherever you live, it's essential to appreciate the significance of water. It's more valuable than almost any other resource, so it's really not a stretch to call it liquid gold.

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