Resistance to the Aqueduct | Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform

Resistance to the Aqueduct

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

In order to build the LA Aqueduct, city officials had to acquire the water rights to Owens Valley as well as legal rights of way to build the aqueduct across federal lands between Owens Valley and Los Angeles. They accomplished this by blocking the federal Bureau of Reclamation’s plans to build an agricultural irrigation system for Owens Valley and by successfully lobbying President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Finally, they passed a $23 million bond measure in Los Angeles in 1907 to cover aqueduct construction costs. Public opinion in Los Angeles was favorable to the project, although it was not widely known that the initial water would be used to develop the San Fernando Valley, rather than to supply water to the current city populace. The economic opportunism of many of the aqueduct’s masterminds is evident in the formation of the syndicate of investors who purchased huge swaths of the San Fernando Valley with this inside information. The original name of present-day Canoga Park, “Owensmouth,” reflects the boosterism redolent of the suburban development of the San Fernando Valley, although this particular community’s name was misleading—“Owensmouth” used well water until its annexation into Los Angeles in 1917. It was finally renamed in 1931, significantly after years of increasing tension between Inyo County and Los Angeles over water rights.

Owens Valley Herald cartoon from May 19, 1926, John Randolph Haynes Papers (Collection 1241).
Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

The methods used by Los Angeles Mayor Frederick Eaton and LADWP Superintendent William Mulholland to secure these water rights remain highly controversial, and the tensions between Owens Valley residents and the Los Angeles DWP resulted in the infamous “California Water Wars.” In the mid-1920’s civil resistance to the aqueduct in Owens Valley took a more violent turn. Multiple incidents of dynamiting took place during those years, and in 1924 an anti-aqueduct party occupied the Alabama Gates, temporarily disabling the aqueduct.

Two men examining kit of dynamite and wire found during sabotage incidents of Owens Valley Aqueduct, Calif., circa 1924,
Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives (Collection Number 1429). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

A series of political cartoons from the Owens Valley Herald (which advertised itself as “A Home Paper for Home People” and “Inyo County’s Leading Newspaper) demonized the Los Angeles Water Board as pillaging water resources from the region. The front-page images portrayed members of the DWP as vultures, criminals, and predators (LSC Collection 1241, Box 23, Folder 19).

Owens Valley Herald cartoon from April 21, 1926, John Randolph Haynes Papers (Collection 1241).
Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

On April 28, 1926, the editor of the Owens Valley Herald Harry A. Glasscock published an open letter to the state newspapers addressing rumors that the Water Board of Los Angeles had considered prosecuting him for criminal libel and mounted an impassioned defiance of the city’s authorities:

If the members of the Board had one bit of manhood in their make-up, they would welcome a complete public investigation of their affairs in Owens Valley; but that manhood is one thing they lack. They will continue to hide behind their smoke screen of lying propaganda and will continue to be a disgrace to their city and to the whole state.

Despite the resistance of Glasscock and other Owens Valley advocates, their efforts were derailed by the collapse of Inyo County Bank and the economic repercussions for local businesses, whose prospects were already strained by projected water shortages.

The aqueduct’s diversion of the Owens River, compounded by the extension of the aqueduct to Mono Basin and the completion of a second aqueduct in 1970, devastated both agriculture and local ecosystems in the Owens Valley. In the 1970s, Inyo County resorted to legal means to address the ecological degradation produced by surface and groundwater diversion. Citing the California Environmental Quality Act, Inyo County sued Los Angeles, and subsequent decades of litigation, compromise, and advocacy have resulted in some modest improvements in the preservation of water resources for Owens Valley. Despite this, a long-term trend of desertification continues to threaten ecosystems in Owens Valley.


By Sara V. Torres, a Ph.D. candidate in English at UCLA and an assistant editor of Boom. Her research and teaching focus on medieval and early modern English literature and digital and environmental humanities. []