"Whoever Brings the Water
Brings the People"

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.  

There were several years of lower than normal snowfall in the Eastern Sierra.  Local water use on privately owned land in the Owens Valley was increasing.   By the spring of 1923 both the City and the Owens Valley were facing water shortages.

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 rights.

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 irrigation district.

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 neighbors.   The growing position of many valley residents was that Los Angeles should buy out the entire area.

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 spillway.  Renewed 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.

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