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Owens Valley - Liquid Gold

Owens River
Kevin Blumer | Writer
Posted December 1, 2009
Photographers: Collette Blumer

"Whiskey's fer Drinkin' and Water’s fer Fightin' Over" —Mark Twain

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.

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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