The Owens River Valley

“The constant purpose of the government in connection with the Reclamation Service has been to use the water resources of the public lands for the ultimate greatest good of the greatest number.”
President Theodore Roosevelt
Annual Message to Congress, 1907

Fred Eaton looked west to the sun setting behind the ragged escarpment of the Eastern Sierra Nevada.  It was the summer of 1904.  His friend, J.B. Lippincott had invited him, among other guests, on a family camping trip to the Sierras.  They had begun in the Yosemite Valley.  When they reached Tioga Pass, they had decided to descend to the other side of the mountains to the Mono Lake area.  At Mono Lake, a smaller group had decided to go on to Bishop for supplies.  Eaton and Lippincott were among them.

Eaton had first come to the valley twelve years earlier in 1892.  He had ridden up on horseback to evaluate an irrigation project for a client.  His engineer’s eye took in the swollen streams of the Sierra snowmelt, bursting their banks in their plunging descent onto the dry plain of the Owens Valley.  He also noticed that the lower end of the valley had been blocked by a recent lava flow, but that previous to the eruptions the river had flowed in a channel straight south to the mountains just north of Los Angeles.

Owens Lake had become a basin from which there was no outlet.  Once the water from the Sierras reached the lake Eaton believed it was useless, contaminated by the salt of the enclosed basin.  Eaton had begun to plan for this water rather than see it wasted, and now, in 1904 he was on the verge of acting on his plans.

Joseph Barlow Lippincott was also an engineer.  The two men shared similar backgrounds and specialties.  Eaton’s public works experience had led him to become involved with irrigation projects while Lippincott’s work as a topographer and hydrographer had led him to the Reclamation Service.  Eaton’s public service began with his election as City Engineer in 1886, while Lippincott had joined the United States Geological Survey in 1889.  Both men were civic minded.  Eaton had been mayor of Los Angeles in 1898 when the lease of the Los Angeles City Water Company had expired.  He had promoted the purchase of the system by the City, and Lippincott had been a volunteer in the bond drive that had financed the purchase.

Lippincott’s work as supervising engineer for California in the newly created U.S. Reclamation Service had brought him, independently of Eaton, to the Owens Valley.  In the spring of 1903, his boss, Fredrick H. Newell, had suggested the Owens Valley as a site for a potential reclamation project.  Lippincott had sent a surveyor to conduct a full study of the area so that the project’s feasibility could be evaluated.

The members of the camping party who went to Bishop for supplies encountered many residents of the Owens Valley along the way.  Traveling through the valley they discussed the area’s potential for a reclamation project, including places of interest such as the reservoir site at Long Valley.  To all observers, it was a group of friends on an outing, but Eaton’s plans for the water would launch a long conflict.

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