Jenna Cavelle wants to correct ‘Chinatown’

If you’ve heard any history of the California desert at all, you’ve likely heard of the Owens Valley Water War.

Here’s the canonical version of that War: The Owens Valley is watered by runoff from the immense snowfall from the Sierra Nevada to its west, much of which runs into the Owens River when it melts. The Owens Valley is an endorrheic basin: it has no outflow. The Owens River never reaches the ocean. Instead, it flows into Owens Lake, in the valley’s lowest point at its south end.

Late in the 19th Century a thriving network of agricultural communities was developing due to the river’s water, growing a vibrant local economy along with their crops. Enter the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, led by engineer William Mulholland. DWP quietly bought up water rights throughout the Owens Valley in a series of deceptive land deals, then built a 223-mile aqueduct to bring Owens River water to Los Angeles. The aqueduct was finished in 1913 — 100 years ago this November — and farms started going out of business in the decade after. Owens Valley farmers dynamited parts of the aqueduct in 1924, but the rebellion was short-lived. Owens Lake, which had been a rich habitat for waterfowl, dried up and is now the single largest point source of particulate matter pollution in the U.S.

As canonical histories go, it’s pretty accurate. Or at least more accurate than the version a lot of people have in their heads due to the film Chinatown, which was based on the Owens Valley story. But it’s a woefully incomplete history nonetheless. The history of the Owens Valley didn’t start in the late 19th Century. Before the first European settlers arrived there were people living in the Owens Valley for thousands of years. The Owens Valley Paiute took advantage of the relatively well-watered landscape by gathering seeds, hunting the Valley’s abundant game, and — though this hardly ever gets mentioned in any of the formal histories — diverting the water of the Owens River and its tributaries to irrigate their crops.

Journalist Jenna Cavelle wants to correct the canonical history to include the Owens Valley Paiute, who are still very much alive and shaping the valley:

This film documents the history of Paiute Native Americans who constructed 60 miles of intricate irrigation systems in Owens Valley for millennia long before LA secured its largest source of water through modern engineering a century ago. After the Indian War of 1863, surviving Paiute returned to the Valley from the Eastern Sierra and White Mountains to find their ancient waterworks taken over by white settlers. Today, over 150-years later, the Paiute continue to fight to save their waterworks, which are remnant in the Owens Valley landscape, along with water rights the city of LA never granted. PAYA (“water” in Paiute) stands to recover both Paiute history and water rights by increasing awareness through the powerful medium of documentary film.

She’s working to put together a set of resources, centering around a documentary film, before the last remaining Paiute elders who have some tenuous personal knowledge of their ancestors’ irrigation systems aren’t around to document anymore.  Here’s Cavelle’s Kickstarter trailer:

She’s halfway to her goal with half her fundraising period left. This project combines history, the California desert environment, and social justice, so you won’t be surprised that I really want to see it happen. I’m scratching together a few bucks to throw Cavelle’s way: maybe you’ll want to as well.


  1. says

    I have to replace a dead laptop tomorrow, and I think I’ll go a little cheaper than I planned so I can kick some money Ms. Cavelle’s way. Most people don’t give a damn about Natives or their history, if they ever think about it at all. I’d be remiss in not donating something, being half Oglala myself. Thanks for this post.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Done. Highly unlikely I have any First Nations blood, but wanted to be a Cheyenne Dog Soldier as a boy, when I didn’t want to be a Spartan.

  3. The Mellow Monkey says

    Incredibly valuable work. I’m bookmarking the Kickstarter page and coming back to it after my next royalty check arrives in a few days, so I can be sure I can give as much as I can.

  4. unclefrogy says

    What I find funny is the DWP or MWD who ever is deemed to operate the water project and responsible is now having to use water and money to mitigate the bust problem, they created by removing the water. The dust is also highly unhealthful and very fine grained.
    If I am not mistaken there is another such problem developing of the down wind Salton Sea.

    I hope the documents the current state of Owens valley as well as the historic

    uncle frogy.

  5. Rike says

    Done. We spent four Winters in Death Valley and I remember Owens Valley from our many trips around the area. I recall learning about all the water going to LA, but I don’t remember about the prior history. I’m looking forward to the movie.

  6. randay says

    Also it is worth mentioning the destruction of Tulare Lake once the largest lake west of the Mississippi. It was dried up by the diversion of river waters from the surrounding mountains for irrigation. A result of that was the decimation of the largest Indian tribe in the U.S. Parts of the lake only reappear during years with flooding. It was an ecological disaster.

  7. astro says

    californians have a saying: “whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” riparian rights, appropriations, adjudicated groundwater basins, pueblo rights, public trust and habitat easements, etc. make any fight over water a big one.

    another interesting tidbit: the environmental movement finally caught up to owens valley and LA had to start giving up its appropriations. but in the intervening decades, several profitable mineral extraction companies set up in the dry lake bed, and lost their businesses when the water came back. i’m not apologizing for them – it’s far better to have the water flowing, and not being diverted.

  8. aspidoscelis says

    On one hand, I tend to think Native American rights should be respected. On the other hand… do you want the whole of Owens Valley to look like this?,-118.262&t=s

    As it stands now, irrigated agriculture is a small, isolated phenomenon in Owens Valley; water theft by LA has at least one benefit–some of the negative consequences are outsourced to L.A. I don’t think -any- group with rights to that water, native or not, is going to let it just flow out to Owens Lake and be “wasted”. To me, about the most depressing thing that could happen to that area is for it to turn into the next Imperial Valley.