Ryan’s notes

California Scheming



  • The spigot for Los Angeles is located north of Owens Lake and the small town of Independence, off US 395 and down a mile of bad road. It consists of nothing more than two 20-foot-long concrete blocks. Here, on the eastern slope of the Sierra 4,000 feet above sea level, the Owens River, which used to meander the valley’s entire length before emptying into Owens Lake, smacks abruptly into a concrete barricade. Then it is directed to a manmade, arrow-straight dirt channel. This is the gateway of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Nearly a century ago an army of 5,000 men used dynamite, steam shovels, dredging machines and mules to dig out 233 miles of canals and tunnels. They carved the aqueduct out of unforgiving terrain, laying pipe across searing stretches of desert and going over, and often through, solid Sierra rock. Completed in 1913, the aqueduct still carries up to 315 million gallons of water a day to thirsty Angelenos.

  • as the aqueduct carried away the valley’s water, it also carried away the local economy. It left Owens Valley farmers and ranchers high and dry. They responded with lawsuits, protests—and finally, dynamite of their own.

  • a critical part of the aqueduct story is the tale of wealthy Los Angeles businessmen speculating in real estate. They included Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, owner and publisher, respectively, of the Los Angeles Times; E. H. Harriman, president of the Southern Pacific railroad; and Moses Sherman, a real estate developer and member of the city’s water board, which established policy for this utility. Otis would use the Times’ considerable influence to rally support for the aqueduct. Most historians believe that Otis and his colleagues engaged in shadowy dealings and traded on inside information, learning ahead of the public (probably from Sherman) where the aqueduct would terminate and where excess water would be stored—in the water table under the San Fernando Valley, adjacent to Los Angeles. All told, Otis and his colleagues bought 16,000 acres of this valley, which they later sold at a handsome profit.

  • People continued to pour into Los Angeles, and several years of drought in the 1920s slowed the aqueduct’s flow. To compensate, the city began pumping groundwater directly from the aquifer beneath Owens Valley. Starved of water, local farms and ranches failed. Businesses followed. Some Owens Valley farmers sued Los Angeles and lost. Others began taking water directly from the aqueduct.

  • dynamited the aqueduct’s concrete canal. Six months later, a number of Owens Valley residents, led by local banker Mark Watterson, seized the aqueduct’s Alabama Gates spillway, near Lone Pine and opened its gates, sending the precious liquid back into the Owens River.

  • But negotiations between the commission and Owens Valley locals, represented by the Wattersons, dragged on. In December 1924, Wilfred Watterson presented the commission with two invoices, one for $5.3 million in reparations to ranchers, the other for $12 million to purchase the remaining land in the valley. The commission refused to pay. Tensions between city and valley grew. Litigation ensued, but stalled in the courts. The city bought more valley land, displacing farmers and ruining more local businesses. Finally, valley frustrations reached another boiling point. On May 20, 1927, several men detonated explosives outside Mojave, 100 miles north of L.A., destroying a part of the aqueduct. A few days later, more blasts rocked the aqueduct farther north and, on June 4, still another. A train filled with L.A. detectives armed with Winchester carbines was sent to guard the aqueduct.

  • In the end, what broke the valley’s spirit was malfeasance by two of its own. In August, the Watterson brothers (whose bank dominated the valley economy) were arrested for embezzlement; they were later convicted on 36 counts. Some said the brothers had merely been trying to stay afloat financially, and helping others stay afloat, by moving money from one business account to another, recording deposits never made and debits already paid. Their defenders pointed out that none of the money ever left InyoCounty. The state’s prosecuting attorney, an Owens Valley local and a friend of the brothers, was said to have cried while delivering his final argument. The Wattersons were sentenced to ten years in San Quentin and their five banks closed. Posted on the door of one was the message: “This result has been brought about by the last four years of destructive work carried on by the city of Los Angeles.”

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