Today, November 5th, marks the day 100 years ago when William Mulholland presided over tens of thousands of citizens at a ceremony observing the first rush of cascading Owens River water to tumble into the San Fernando Valley. The manner in which this precious water traveled, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, had been Mulholland’s masterpiece, his life’s work. For its time, the scale and vision of this engineering marvel was second only to the Panama Canal; the water would give Los Angeles the ability to grow and would make the San Fernando Valley bloom. Before the aqueduct, about 3,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley were under irrigation. With the help of the Owens River, more than 75,000 acres produced a variety of agricultural products and helped a syndicate of prominent Los Angeles citizens become exceedingly wealthy. Their names now line many boulevards, freeways, cultural institutions and cities all over the L. A. Basin – Otis, Harriman, Sherman, Chandler, Huntington. According to Marc Reisner, author of the seminal story of water in the west, Cadillac Desert, the syndicate formed the San Fernando Mission Lands Company and created the largest subdivision in the world. None of this would have been possible without Owens River water.
I bought a copy of Reisner’s book at Wilson’s Eastside Sports store on Main Street in Bishop, California in the early 2000s. As I began flipping through the chapters I was surprised to see an entire section about the Owens Valley. Up until that point I had been writing a novel, or rather, a thinly disguised version of my childhood, set in the Owens Valley. But once I had Reisner’s book in my hands, I realized I had something far more important to explore and to say. Reisner became a guide for me, taking me along on an adventure story that brought the landscape and history of the Owens Valley together in a way I never would have thought so entertaining and thought-provoking. In a way Reisner gave me permission to probe the past and see what I could uncover. I felt like I had discovered a great writer, thinker and chronicler of western lore. Then I noticed the publication date, 1986. This book had been around for more than a decade! I wondered, where is Reisner now? Shortly after what I thought was a terrific literary discovery, I learned that Reisner had died of colon cancer. I was shocked. He was so young, and I had wanted to tell him how important his book was to me; he made me feel that where I grew up actually mattered. Maybe, in fact, that I mattered.
Before Reisner I did not know that anyone studied the Owens Valley or that the ongoing tensions between Los Angeles and the rural valley were the subject of a John Wayne western, a few novels and even an Oscar-nominated film, Chinatown.
When I was twelve years old, my parents announced we were moving from the Owens Valley to San Diego. My heart gladdened at the thought of new kids and extracurricular activities around my hobbies of aerospace and aviation. But above all, I yearned for the possibilities of what I thought was a real city with things to do in pretty green places with palm trees. I had exhausted Bishop and the Owens Valley. Other than skiing on Mammoth Mountain and hanging out with my best friend Tracy, there was nothing for me. At least that’s how I felt at the time. Now, the child inside me remembers my teenage angst, but the adult I have become is fonder than ever of the Owens Valley and its majestic Sierra crest. If it weren’t for Reisner, I may never have realized just how important the landscape I had once taken for granted was to the story of California and to the bigger story of water in the west.
Today, I would like nothing better than to drink some tap water from my best friend’s faucet on Choctaw Drive in Bishop in commemoration of the Los Angeles Aqueduct’s completion. Today’s centennial events are laden with heavy memories of what some people still believe was the “rape of the Valley.” Conflicts remain between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley. But I prefer to spend the day honoring humanity’s ability to solve problems (how to get water to a thirsty city over more than 200 miles of tough terrain) and preserve the gorgeous Owens Valley (the unintended consequences of the city owning much of the Valley).
There will be plenty of time to continue the discourse about who rightfully owns the water. For now I withhold judgment.