Segment from Tapped Out

Fight For Your (Riparian) Rights

Historian William Kahrl tells host Brian Balogh about the water wars between Los Angeles and a far-off valley in California’s high desert, and how the bitter conflict eventually improved the Golden State’s water management.

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*** The following transcript reflects an earlier broadcast of this episode. Some language may differ from the rebroadcast version. ***

PETER ONUF: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

SPEAKER 1: California is currently in the middle of the worst drought it has been since the 1970s, which a new analysis estimates–

PETER ONUF: In January, California’s governor appealed a state residence for a major reduction in water use to head off another year of drought. The result?

SPEAKER 1: They did not listen. In fact, overall water consumption in California’s actually increased, compared to a year ago. So yesterday–

PETER ONUF: Water. We rely on it for life, of course, but also for our American way of life. Today on the show, a history of our thirst for fresh water. We’ve got the story of the early Jamestown settlement, where the only water source was far from fresh.

JULIE RICHTER: “It’s full of slime and filth.”

PETER ONUF: And the story of why swimming pools boiled over with racial violence in the 1930s.

JEFF WILTSE: Entering into a pool, in the minds of most people, historically, at least, was tantamount to physical contact.

PETER ONUF: Water in America, today on BackStory. Don’t go away.

Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

ED AYERS: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN BALOGH: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, here with Ed Ayers.

ED AYERS: That’s me.

BRIAN BALOGH: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER ONUF: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN BALOGH: Now, if you’re one of our listeners in California, you are well aware of the problem that’s been plaguing that state for the past few years. It’s drought. But to Bill Kahrl, a historian who writes about water in California, the state’s main problem isn’t a product of nature, but rather of history.

BILL KAHRL: Everybody lives in the wrong place. People came here and turned left, going south to where the water is not.

BRIAN BALOGH: Most notably to Los Angeles, which by 1920, had over half a million residents. And these residents were thirsty. The city had finished a mammoth aqueduct in 1914 that brought water from the Owens Valley, a lush agricultural region 250 miles to the north.

But the aqueduct only got the water that was left after Owens Valley got its fill. And by the early 1920s, it was already obvious that this wasn’t going to be nearly enough for LA. So it was back to the Owens Valley, and this time, the city started a process of buying up land that allowed them to grab water before the farmers in the Owens Valley got it.

Those farmers were not amused, and they fought back.

BILL KAHRL: It was that process that metastasized into an armed rebellion. Residents of the Owens Valley who were seeing their livelihood and their life savings being placed at risk began blowing up the aqueduct to Los Angeles, and they blew it up repeatedly.

BRIAN BALOGH: Los Angeles sent trainloads of armed Pinkerton Guards to the valley, with shoot-to-kill orders. Owens Valley was not cowed. The resistance hit its peak in 1924.

BILL KAHRL: It happened at the Alabama Gates, a place you can see in lots of cowboy movies. It’s beautiful, rugged, Western country.

The Alabama Gates was where the main gates for the aqueduct were located, and a large group of the farmers seized control of the gates. And they were shutting off the water supply, and allowing the water, instead, to spill directly onto the valley floor.

BRIAN BALOGH: Newspapers around the world carried the story. I asked Bill Kahrl whether this worldwide attention made LA officials consider backing down.

BILL KAHRL: Absolutely and emphatically not. Los Angeles had absolutely no interest in responding to those concerns. This was a battle to the end.

BRIAN BALOGH: LA couldn’t get the authorities in the Owens Valley to do anything. They all sided with the resistance. But the city had an ace up its sleeve. Rumors had been swirling about improprieties at Owens Valley banks, and Los Angeles asked state investigators to look into them.

BILL KAHRL: The banks were owned by a family that was very active in supporting the resistance to Los Angeles. And it was discovered that the owners of the banks were, in fact, appropriating funds from the bank, in order to fund the ongoing resistance to the city.

Appropriating funds for terrorist activities is not smiled upon in the banking community. The banks were shut down. The family was ruined. But more importantly, everyone all of the residents of the valley who had their life savings in the banks lost everything.

BRIAN BALOGH: The resistance died. LA got the land, and in short order, the Owens Valley was dry.

BILL KAHRL: What had been one of the prime agricultural regions of California at the beginning of the 20th century was converted to high desert, scrub land, an area of dust and wind.

BRIAN BALOGH: Owens Valley and Los Angeles remain tethered, in a relationship that Kahrl says is unprecedented.

BILL KAHRL: The city of Los Angeles winds up owning another community 250 miles away. We don’t have, in American government, any kind of procedures for the management of colonies, but that was essentially what the Owens Valley had become, a colony of Los Angeles.

BRIAN BALOGH: There is a silver lining to the story. Bill Kahrl says that in the nine decades since, it’s become kind of a cautionary tale in California. The two major water systems created in subsequent years have built in protections for the communities where the water comes from, and the state has gotten better about attending to the needs of Californians on both ends of the aqueduct.

BILL KAHRL: Which is not to say that we don’t still luxuriate in fighting over water. It is surprising, the degree to which the people in San Jose, for example, or Oakland, if you read their newspapers, really, really want to make sure that people in Southern California don’t have a water supply.

The fact of the matter, though, is that if Glendale, a Southern California community, withers and turns into a raisin, and everyone has to move away, Oakland is not going to prosper from that.

So the question is, have we grown up enough as a society? Do we understand the interrelationships well enough to enable us to work together in the construction of the water system that we need for the next 50 years?

BRIAN BALOGH: Bill Kahrl is the author of Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley.