The century-long relationship between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley was described by one city official as a tempestuous, long-distance marriage that has had some problems, but still needs to be nurtured and can be improved.
The two regions’ shared history and the need to work together to improve their relationship was a reoccurring theme outlined by upper-level officials from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power during a program marking the Los Angeles Aqueduct Intake Centennial, 1913-2013, last Friday inside the Eastern California Museum in Independence.
Outside the museum, about 30 demonstrators made it clear that they think the valley’s relationship with L.A. is, at best, a one-sided affair tipped almost completely in the favor of Los Angeles. At worst, that relationship has become an abusive pairing, with the valley’s environment bearing the brunt of the negative impacts from 100 years of exporting Eastern Sierra water to Los Angeles via the L.A. Aqueduct.
On a more personal note, the weight of the area’s history and its link to her family was not lost on Christine Mulholland, great-granddaughter of William Mulholland, the LADWP’s Chief Engineer who oversaw the entire aqueduct operation, from concept to final construction. Friday marked her first trip to the Owens Valley and the aqueduct, and she admitted it was an emotional journey for her.
Probably the only eye-raising comment during the event came from Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge: “Thank you for the water, on behalf of the people of Los Angeles.”
While many in the audience tried to remember if any L.A. official had ever said “thanks” for the century of Owens River water diverted into the aqueduct to Los Angeles, it was clear from the demonstrators’ signs that they wanted more than kind words from Los Angeles or LADWP.
The peaceful protesters, made up primarily of local Paiute tribal members and other concerned citizens, quietly held their signs, and their ground outside the museum during the event inside.
“The Owens Valley is Thirsty Quit Taking Our Water.” “L.A. Celebrates Owens Valley Mourns.” “A Century of Occupation Is No Reason for Celebration.” “Is This What You’re Celebrating? (with an aerial photo of the Owens Dry Lake).” “Protect – Our Water – Our Land – Our Air – Our Home.”
One sign that symbolized the group’s message was carried by a small boy, and it stated, “I No I Am Just a Tiny Voice But I Will Be Heard.”
LaBonge stopped to listen to some of the group’s comments and share his insights. LaBonge said he would try to promote more communication between L.A. and Owens Valley residents.
Jim McDaniel, LADWP senor assistant general manager and head of the “water” division, told the audience in the museum, “the history of Inyo County and Los Angeles are inexorably linked” by the Los Angeles Aqueduct. In 1904, William Mulholland and Fred Eaton, former city engineer and mayor, concluded that the Owens River could be the answer to the city’s water shortages. Eaton determined locating the intake structure at the river east of Aberdeen at an elevation of 3,800 feet could create a gravity fed aqueduct leading 233 miles south. Mulholland and other officials dedicated the Intake structure on Feb. 13, 1913. Nine months later, in November, 1913, Owens River water tumbled down the Cascades in Sylmar, concluded McDaniel, “and the rest, as they say, is history.”
And while it is fitting to recognize the legacy created by the completion of the aqueduct, “it would be wrong not to recognize the controversy” that has been, and continues to be part of that legacy, said LADWP General Manager Ron Nichols.
The relationship between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley “has been tested, sometimes to a very thin wire,” he said. The relationship relies on communication and periodic reassessment so it can be of “mutual benefit,” he noted. That means working together, he said, to find “reasonable solutions, and shared solutions” to the issues facing Inyo County and LADWP. Nichols said that he felt that LADWP has been “doing a better job” working collaboratively in the Owens Valley.
Nichols also added LADWP has been doing a better job stretching its water supply, pointing out that Los Angeles uses about the same amount of water as it did in 1970, but has added one million residents.
Historically, the Owens Valley supplied 80 to 90 percent of the city’s water, but now water from the valley accounts for about one-third of the city’s water supply, said Nichols. “That’s still an incredibly vital” part of the city’s water needs, he said, which means the residents of Los Angeles and the people of the Owens Valley will continue to have their “futures intertwined for a long, long time.”
One of the signs held by a demonstrator listening to the comments contained a glimpse of what some think that future might hold: “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance.”
“There are a lot of people who care about the land and water here,” noted LaBonge before offering his “thanks” for 100 years of Owens Valley water. When it comes to L.A. and the Owens Valley, he said, “it’s tough being married and living 286 miles away.” In an interview earlier in the afternoon, LaBonge said that listening to all sides is the key to improving that long-distance relationship.
Regardless of the controversy, the Los Angeles Aqueduct has to be accepted as a historical fact and an impressive construction achievement, said Inyo County Supervisor Linda Arcularius. She pointed out that the museum was an appropriate venue for the Intake ceremony, because there are many other aspects to Owens Valley history besides the export of the valley’s water to L.A.
There are definite “challenges” regarding the relationship between Inyo County and LADWP, Arcularius said, and both sides need to “recommit to solve those challenges.”
Christine Mulholland said she had heard all the family stories about her great-grandfather William’s work on the Aqueduct. (Her aunt, Katherine Mulholland, was the family historian, she said, and wrote the biography, “William Mulholland.”) While visiting her favorite Irish pub in San Luis Obispo, where she lives, she told another patron she was making her first trip to the Owens Valley. “They’ll hang you,” was his response, which drew a laugh from the audience, not a call for rope.
On a more reflective note, she said after seeing the scope and scale of the Los Angeles Aqueduct for the first time on Friday, and then standing on the same Intake structure where her great-grandfather and other LADWP officials stood 100 years ago, made the day “a little emotional.”
“I’m honored to be a part of history.”
No one at the podium, in the audience or holding a protest sign had to be reminded that the history of the Owens Valley and the Los Angeles Aqueduct is still being written.