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.