"Whoever Brings the Water
By delivering the Owens River water to Los Angeles, Mulholland had made it possible for the city to prosper. Mulholland said, “Whoever brings the water brings the people.” But as Los Angeles grew, it was the demand of the people that brought the water. The 1920s brought unprecedented growth, and homes and businesses spread across the Los Angeles basin.
were several years of lower than normal snowfall in the Eastern Sierra.
Local water use on privately owned land in the Owens Valley was
The City lacked a dam and a storage reservoir to control
the flow of the Owens River
above the aqueduct intake at Independence.
The best site, Long Valley, had remained in Fred Eaton’s hands
and Mulholland had rejected Eaton’s asking price for the land.
Between Long Valley and the Independence intake, miles of
irrigation canals diverted water to farms and ranches.
In order to increase supply, the City began pumping
groundwater. Farmers in the
Independence area filed injunctions in an attempt to halt falling water
table levels. In Bishop and
Lone Pine, residents became alarmed by the City’s purchases of
properties north of Independence for the acquisition of groundwater
Wilfred and Mark Watterson were Inyo County’s financial
leaders. Owners of the Inyo
County Bank, the Wattersons organized valley residents into a unified
opposition through the formation of an irrigation district.
The City of Los Angeles moved to acquire options on the
McNally Ditch, the area’s major canal, before its owners joined the
A series of escalating confrontations ensued.
Farmers illegally diverted water, leaving the canal empty.
The City purchased land and water rights indiscriminately,
leading to accusations of “checker boarding.”
An environment of frustration and uncertainty prevailed.
Area farmers felt vulnerable, unsure of the intentions of their
On May 21, 1924, the first violence of the dispute erupted.
Forty men dynamited the Lone Pine aqueduct spillway gate.
No arrests were made. Eventually,
the two sides were entirely stalemated.
The City believed the wholesale purchase of the district
was unnecessary to meet its water needs.
Instead, on October 14th, the City proposed a plan
that would leave 30,000 acres in the Bishop area free of City purchases.
The City also offered to help promote the construction of a state
highway to the area, thereby creating a local tourist industry.
The Wattersons and the directors of the Owens Valley
Irrigation District rejected the proposal, insisting on outright farm
purchase and full compensation for all the townspeople.
On November 16, 1924 Mark Watterson led 60 to 100 people to
occupy the Alabama Gates, closing the aqueduct by opening the emergency
negotiation ended the occupation.
Finally, the conflict became completely centered on the
issues of farm purchases and reparations to the townspeople.
Attacks on the aqueduct began again in April 1926 and by July
1927 there had been 10 instances of dynamiting.
The controversy was at its height when suddenly valley
resistance was undermined. The
Wattersons closed the doors of all branches of the Inyo County Bank.
The Wattersons were not only bankrupt, later they were tried and
convicted of thirty-six counts of embezzlement.
In the face of the collapse of both resistance and the
Owens Valley economy, the City sponsored a series of repair and
maintenance programs for aqueduct facilities that stimulated local
employment. The City of Los
Angeles also continued to purchase private land holdings and their water
rights to meet the increasing demands.
Five important reservoirs were constructed from 1921 to
1929: Tinnemaha on the Owens River, Upper San Fernando (Van Norman),
Stone Canyon, Encino, and Hollywood.
The water system of Los Angeles expanded by hundreds of miles of
new mains and thousands of new service connections.
In 1928 William Mulholland left the DWP, shaken by the
tragedy of the St. Francis Dam, 40 miles north of Los Angeles.
On March 12th of that year, Mulholland inspected the
dam, the construction of which he had supervised.
Hours later it collapsed, killing 450 people in the ensuing
flood. He accepted full
responsibility and resigned.