Western Times and Water Wars chronicles more than a hundred years of tumultuous events in the history of California's Owens Valley. From the pioneer conquest of the native inhabitants to the infamous destruction of the valley's agrarian economy by water-hungry Los Angeles, this legendary setting is a microcosm of the development of the American West.
Western Times and Water Wars State, Culture, and Rebellion in California
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A new rebellion swept the Owens Valley during the fifteen years that followed Earth Day and the proclamation of a national environmental movement in 1970. Locally, the movement was new in some respects and a continuation of the old resistance in others. Citizens organized to fight the expansionary policies of Los Angeles, which they believed were again aimed at destroying their communities and the natural environment, by resurrecting the water wars of the 1920s in symbol and strategy. Once more, the valley created traditional citizens' committees to circulate petitions, lobby state and federal representatives, press law-suits, and, in moments of exasperation, to wreak popular justice on city property. Yet in key respects the movement of the 1970s differed from its predecessor. It was, foremost, a legal struggle orchestrated by state and federal environmental legislation and conducted chiefly within bureaucratic arenas. Second, county government shared with citizen groups the responsibility for waging the struggle; insurgent leadership passed back and forth over several stages of the conflict. And finally, this time they won. That is, short of ousting the Department of Water and Power or reclaiming full self-determination, they won most of the major legal battles and forced Los Angeles into an agreement that demanded accountability to local authority.
By means of longitudinal analysis it is possible not only to follow a seemingly defeated movement through its dormancy to rekindled success, tracing both phases to their antecedents, but also to explain the different outcomes. Much of what we know from the rich literature on social movements is based on studies of their rise and fall within a circumscribed historical period—why, for example, populism flourished regionally in the 1880s but succumbed nationally in the following decade. This is perfectly appropriate when movements do indeed end or reappear in totally new forms. In many instances, however, movements that appear new actually revitalize old ones and move forward in ways that depend on the past. When this is the case a longitudinal analysis is capable of addressing a broader range of issues: What is involved in claims that a movement is either new or continuous with the past? What is the meaning of movement success and failure if later victories depend on earlier defeats? How is the legacy of a movement effectively transmitted to its successors? How are we to compare causal explanations of movement outcomes in one period with those of another when later conditions include earlier results—when, that is, the events compared are not independent? Longitudinal analysis is equipped, at least, to detect and deliberate these questions.
The resistance movement of 1904 to 1928 was not so much defeated as arrested—pressed down like a coiled spring. An evolving local culture kept its spirit alive, and the emerging national environmental ethos provided the link between perennial grievances and contemporary opportunities. Movement continuity was further encouraged by the city's decision to construct a second aqueduct and by the project's ill effects that duplicated exactly fifty years later the valley's desiccation of the early 1920s. The strongest evidence for continuity, however, comes from the actions and interpretations of participants in the new movement themselves. Although the valley's population and socioeconomic structure were thoroughly reconstituted by 1970, the renewed protest mobilized in customary ways and defined its purpose in a language resonant with the lessons of experience. Part of its success lay precisely in drawing political attention to problems created in the past and left as unresolved anachronisms in a new age. The new movement's challenge was to win legal support for its moral case, which had changed symbolically but continued to focus on the politics of domination. In local parlance, the central problem was still "colonialism" or "historical domination," and the solution lay in developing new principles and means of self-determination.
Environmentalism provided the vehicle for a revitalized local movement. As a group, Owens Valley citizens were not philosophical environmentalists in 1970. Their mobilizing grievances had to be translated into the new idiom and their action repertoire realigned with new claims of legitimacy. Although that was accomplished in short order, and led directly to a series of local victories, it would be simplistic to explain the new movement exclusively in terms of the opening provided by national and state legislation. Rather, the change can be explained only by a complex set of intersecting forces in local society, culture, and the state. The local movement was not given an opportunity—it had to make one.
New Exploits and Ecologists
In 1959, the federal government and Los Angeles separately embarked on courses that would collide in the Owens Valley. While Washington moved toward a National Environmental Protection Act with Senator Murray's plan to overhaul the Department of the Interior, the city began plans for a second aqueduct. The second "barrel" would run alongside the original transmission line, including its 1941 extension to the streams feeding Mono Lake, increasing overall capacity by roughly 40 percent (the estimates varied; an average estimate was that the new barrel could deliver 210 of the maximum export goal of 666 cubic feet per second). The project was originally pegged at a cost of $91 million. Although Los Angeles faced no shortage of water, there was mounting pressure to build a second aqueduct, stemming from the very imperiousness with which the city had met its previous needs.
Three institutional circumstances combined to recommend the plan. First, as a founder of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) that imported its supply from the Colorado River, Los Angeles discovered itself using proportionately less water than other member communities in Southern California, but contributing a majority of the taxes supporting the district. Other problems loomed, such as an Arizona lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a greater share of Colorado River water; but essentially Los Angeles wanted independence from the MWD. Second, in 1956 California hydrologists learned that the Department of Water and Power was actually exporting far less than the total available water in the Owens Valley. "This revelation prompted the legislature in 1959 to direct the [California] Department of Water Resources to prepare a detailed investigation of how the water Los Angeles left behind could be more efficiently applied to the economic development of the valley." 1 Once again Los Angeles faced the old political imperative of retaining control and maximum discretion while satisfying critics that its policies were beneficent. Finally, economic transformation in the valley had brought two decades of political quiescence. The city no longer feared local resistance and, in the beginning at least, it was reasonable not to.
Construction of the second aqueduct from 1963 to 1970 was greeted by a thoughtful local response. Far from any repetition of the 1905 attempts to block the project, Inyo County supervisors sought an agreement with Los Angeles that would assure the future of recreational projects, continued irrigation of 20,000 acres, restoration to the public domain of federal land withdrawn but not used for city projects, and a limit on groundwater pumping. 2 Successful lawsuits in the 1930s, as we have seen, and the important groundwater protections won by the private owners of 640 acres on the alluvial Bishop cone in the 1940 Chandler Decree, 3 combined with the city's water surplus to end groundwater production for export from 1935 to 1960. 4 To service the second barrel, the DWP initially projected a modest rate of groundwater pumping (89 cubic feet per second), but as time went on estimates doubled, and from 1970 to 1972 the actual rate increased from 140 to 200 cubic feet per second.
The first organized protest of the environmental era, in spring 1970, was only indirectly related to the aqueduct expansion and groundwater pumping. California's U.S. Senators Cranston and Murphy introduced the Inyo-Mono Land Exchange Bill (Senate bill 3191) late in 1969 for the purpose of providing the city with new authority superseding the public-land and right-of-way concessions granted in the 1930s. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management would grant Los Angeles thousands of acres in Inyo and Mono Counties for expanded water collection and electrical power generation. In exchange, the city would turn over 308 acres for residential development in the towns of Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, and Lee Vining. At a public hearing on the bill in Lone Pine, members of the newly organized Committee to Preserve the Ecology of Inyo-Mono voiced two objections: behind the land exchange was a "water giveaway," and the terms of the bill suggested that the city intended to construct fossil-fuel or nuclear power plants in the valley. Mrs. Francis Chitwood, who headed the committee, explained that they favored the land exchange but insisted that Congress write into the bill "absolute protection of all foreseeable water needs and a guarantee of the ecological future of Inyo and Mono Counties." 5
Confident of its support in Washington, the DWP was in no mood to deal seriously with this insubordination. Dissent could be quieted with a blunt reminder of power and patronage. The DWP's resident chief engineer suggested to the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce that water supplied to town properties at a flat rate would eventually have to be metered. Too much water was being wasted by domestic users made indifferent to real costs by generous subsidies. The recreational Diaz Lake south of town would no longer be filled with water diverted from the aqueduct. The engineer suggested that "the chamber take the matter up with the county soon so it can receive budgetary consideration." 6 Whatever the city's explanation for delivering this bad news in the midst of the land exchange controversy, citizens saw it as a reprisal aimed at dividing local groups. With county supervisors still on record in support of the land exchange and the city's wedge driven between business and environmental interests, a new fight was on.
The Committee to Preserve the Ecology of Inyo-Mono, based in Lone Pine, began to cultivate a broader following. It circulated its views valley-wide, and it changed its name to reflect these ambitions. Under the banner Concerned Citizens of the Owens Valley (the second of three groups to use that name; the first was concerned with local development in the 1940s) the ecologists made their debut at a meeting of the board of supervisors in October. A variety of speakers for the committee urged the board to reconsider Senate bill 3191. Realtor John P. "Mac" Davis said the county should draft its own master plan for development and should assert its justified claims on water for the valley's use, rather than having to accept the patronizing consequences of the city's agenda. Local Native Americans joined white citizens in a political initiative for perhaps the first time (Paiutes had withdrawn from joint reparations claims in 1927); Michael Rogers, who headed the Paiute-Shoshone tribal trustees, "feared drying up of the Owens Valley, air pollution through fossil fuel plants, and the fact that such legislation would be a national precedent harmful to the ecology of the nation." Aubrey Lyon of Bishop's Izaak Walton League observed that the bill was in conflict with the state constitution and "could override decrees such as the Chandler decree dealing with pumping of the Bishop Cone, [leaving the] Owens Valley as a dust bowl and a biological desert." 7 The supervisors were convinced, and voted to reconsider their position and hold public hearings.
Los Angeles Aqueduct. The aqueduct as it appears from the highway bridge between Lone Pine and Independence. At this point the gravity-driven water is in a man-made canal connecting the original Owens River bed to the point at which the concrete aqueduct channel begins, leading finally to an iron pipe. (Photo by the author.)
The Concerned Citizens of Owens Valley (CCOV) now began a publicity campaign designed to win over the general public and the supervisors. From October through December 1970 the CCOV ran a series of ads in local newspapers aimed at the land-exchange bill:
Rape of Owens Valley Continues
We are just concerned citizens like yourselves who only wish to protect our homes and valley from the grasp of the monopolistic, dictatorial Department of Water and Power.
We, as concerned citizens, have no axe to grind. However: this may not be the case with a FEW OF YOUR GREEDY BUSINESSMEN who are concerned about a FAST BUCK TODAY and not concerned about tomorrow.
In SB 3191 and HR 15426 there are two phrases that give away the Rights of the people forever: (1) Gives the DWP the right to water—NO MATTER HOW OBTAINED. (2) Gives the DWP the right to raise and lower water tables WITHOUT ANY LIABILITY FOR DAMAGE IT MIGHT CAUSE.
Rumors, started and spread by DWP puppets, split this valley in the 20's so they could gain control of the land and water—REMEMBER—THE DWP WANTS ONLY WATER—PEOPLE ARE EXPENDABLE. 8
Other ads under the same heading stressed the environmental damage that stemmed from sustaining the aqueduct and called for a master water plan developed in collaboration with California and federal agencies. Fellow citizens were urged to write their congressional representatives and to show up at the next supervisors' meeting. 9 The campaign interwove old and new themes. Violation of the valley begun in the 1920s could be reversed if misinformation was exposed and local divisions averted.
The appeal worked. Senator Cranston withdrew his sponsorship of the bill as public opinion came forward on the CCOV side. Local support for the land exchange dwindled to Lone Pine business interests, which were under pressure from the DWP and destined to receive the largest share of residential and recreational development (110 of the total 308 acres) under the terms of Senate bill 3191. In a "supercrowded" meeting of the board, with Los Angeles television cameras looking on, the supervisors voted four to one to rescind their support for the land exchange (Lone Pine's representative sticking with the business minority). An estimated 90 percent of the audience endorsed the board's decision. 10
The CCOV relished this defensive victory and soon decided to take the initiative with Los Angeles and their own county officials. Fifty-five men and women representing the committee made an unscheduled appearance at the board of supervisors' meeting in January 1971, demanding action to reduce the amount of water going to Los Angeles. The volume of groundwater pumping in 1968 and 1970 was high by the standards of the mid-1960s, and the operation of the second aqueduct beginning in July 1970 meant that exportation would accelerate—as, indeed, production from wells alone rose from 48 cubic feet per second (cfs) when the second barrel opened, to 232 cfs in 1972. 11 Aubrey Lyon, the committee's ecological specialist, called the board's attention to the effects of desiccation and suggested that Inyo explore state laws permitting the regulation of water export by local ordinance. 12 The CCOV presented a proposal, simultaneously published in local newspapers, that (1) reminded the officials that their own efforts had produced no favorable response from Los Angeles, (2) called for a master plan following state and federal statutes, (3) proposed that Los Angeles offer a plan containing "reasonable public checks and balances" on water management, and (4) announced the fundamental objective of ending "historical domination." 13
The supervisors were caught off balance by this new assertiveness, with little to say beyond defending their previous efforts and inviting the CCOV to try its luck in Sacramento. On reflection, however, county officials noted the group's praise for their new position on the land exchange, and they warmed to its proposal, which clearly had mobilized favorable opinion. By June the supervisors affirmed a "county watershed and management plan," which drew on the CCOV proposal, and they traveled to Sacramento for meetings with legislators, DWP officials, and the state water resources agency. Inyo's entourage included the full board, the district attorney, the county administrator, the mayor of Bishop, and a representative from the citizens' committee. Rising to a new mission, the supervisors saw themselves as "representing the people of Inyo and speaking for the millions of people who demand the preservation of the natural environment. 14
By now Los Angeles appreciated the wisdom of entertaining environmentalism, especially as it flourished in the sometimes troublesome state legislature. The DWP prepared a water and land management plan for state and county officials that began by emphasizing the city's rights to underground and surface water, but went on to concede that: (1) pumping should observe "safe limits"; (2) irrigation, wildlife, and recreational facilities must be protected; and (3) a third aqueduct would be "impractical." On the question of exactly how these objectives would be ensured, however, the department stated that it "cannot legally agree to arbitrarily restrict or cut back on the aqueduct flow or groundwater production....This is a matter of water rights and neither the state nor the county can require that the Department cut back on these flows." 15 Negotiations over the next nine months showed the city unwilling to compromise its near-monopoly of power over land and water use. The environment enjoyed a good deal of approving rhetoric, but when the DWP was pressed about priorities it noted that sufficient water was available to meet them all. As county officials continued to insist on a real plan, the city got tough again in August 1972 by announcing increases in groundwater extraction that would bring both aqueducts to capacity.
Inyo's last attempt at moral suasion came from the supervisors in September. In a letter to the DWP they disputed the city's right of unlimited export and, with growing interest, identified environmental quality as the standard against which all other uses must be evaluated. The direct challenge to city authority was without precedent since Teddy Roosevelt's decision in 1906. The supervisors wanted an absolute limit on export and a plan stating that Owens Valley needs came first. "The whole purpose of a Water Management and Protection Plan for the Owens Basin is to make a legal definitive decision as to how much water is necessary for the future growth of the Owens Valley . . . and to guarantee the enhancement of the Valley's environmental quality. All water surplus after these needs have been identified may be considered as water available for export to the city of Los Angeles." 16 This represented a radical shift from the supervisors' diffident reception of the Committee to Protect the Ecology of Inyo-Mono less than two years earlier; and their new principle of "Inyo first" went further toward self-determination than anything proposed in the years of rebellion.
The city's response was predictably arrogant. The supervisors' effort to upset long-settled questions about water rights deserved no reply beyond turning up the pumps. Inyo officials probably expected that and were ready with a new initiative. In November 1972, Inyo filed suit against the mayor of Los Angeles under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The city, it was charged, had never filed an environmental impact report on the second aqueduct.
What led to the resurgent spirit of self-determination? The explanation begins with the legacy of struggle, now close to the core of local culture and never far from consciousness. The irritants of city domination, even among a new class of economic interests, were nevertheless a constant and do not explain the timing of the environmental revolt. Proximate causes start with the degrading effects of accelerated groundwater pumping. As the water table went down, stately cottonwood trees began to die, spots of greenery shriveled, irrigated acreage shrank, and the dust thickened.
By 1972 two years of heavy pumping had dried up the valley's most popular and ecologically significant springs. The artesian wells along Mazourka Canyon Road, from which Independence townfolk had for years taken fresh water, stopped flowing; and the vibrant plant and animal community at Little Black Rock Springs was destroyed. The people of Inyo also noticed a dramatic increase in the frequency and intensity of dust storms during the windy winter months. Prior to the pumping, the relatively high water table in the valley supported water-loving plants which gave color and protection to the valley's desert soils. 17As a longtime resident observed, "We've always had dust storms, ever since DWP dried up Owens Lake and turned it into an alkali pit, but it got worse." 18
With the National Environmental Protection Act and its California counterpart now at the center of the domestic political stage, Owens Valley residents were quick to associate their grievances with the broader movement's legitimacy. Environmentalism provided new principles regarding the ownership and use of natural resources, new rights, and new public responsibilities. Among the valley's changing population there were new residents especially keen on environmental protection. George Seielstad, a radio astronomer at the California Institute of Technology Research Station, who narrowly missed being elected the valley's U.S. Congressman in 1974, believed that the city had "no reservation or hesitation concerning the complete destruction of a scenic resource." 19 Mary De Decker, a well-recognized botanist who had lived in Independence since 1935, became an activist in the environmental struggle. Speaking of Los Angeles, she explained:
Department of Water and Power Property. Fenced portion of the aqueduct at Lone Pine. The sign advises: These waters are part of the municipal water supply of the City of Los Angeles." The list of restrictions (no swimming, etc.) that follows is punctuated by bullet holes. (Photo by the author).
I feel that they have been very high-handed in their attitude of demanding and taking the water. They feel they have a right to the water because they own the land. Well, there is much of the land they don't own, and pumping affects any land in the basin. It affects the air, which they don't own. It will, in time, affect climatic conditions which they certainly don't own. They have had a narrow viewpoint focusing on getting water to Los Angeles. Everything is not only centered around that viewpoint, but they have tried to control the situation to force that on everybody else. That is where I've rebelled. 20Finally, the environmental movement began to integrate citizens and officials around the merged objectives of local autonomy, environmentalism, and the economic future based on recreation and services. The initiative came from a small band of ecologists who enjoyed little favor in official circles until they demonstrated both the originality and the popular appeal of their proposal. Once the supervisors were convinced, however, the loosely formulated CCOV proposal was transformed into bold public policy. Environmentalism was the effective vehicle for this new coalition, but it was by no means the heartfelt sentiment of all participants. The founders of the CCOV were ecologists with credentials, and public opinion readily associated local issues with environmental degradation. But the potency of environmentalism owed much to its capacity to absorb long-standing grievances against city domination. The alloyed character of the new movement became clear as time went on, when supporters of the struggle against Los Angeles vigorously opposed the use of valley land for wildlife preserves and opposed growth limitations that would restrict economic development. Environmentalism in the Owens Valley stood for both more and less than the ecological agenda. It embraced a variety of interests united by the overarching desire for local autonomy.
Inyo officials now took the lead, notably county administrator John K. Smith and Frank Fowles, who was appointed district attorney not long after moving his law practice to Bishop from Vallejo, California. With the approval of the board of supervisors, it was Fowles who filed County of Inyo v. Yorty (Sam Yorty was the mayor of Los Angeles) in 1972, claiming that groundwater extraction had caused irreparable harm to the environment.
The plaintiffs asked the Inyo County Superior Court to enjoin any further groundwater extraction until Los Angeles submitted an environmental impact report (EIR) on the effects of pumping, as required by CEQA. With "Independence drying up, more pumping going on," and no help from the state Water Resources Board, Fowles and Smith saw their action as one of "public officials doing their job. CEQA gave us a golden opportunity to get LA to do what we had wanted the state to do all along, to make a report on planned [water] use." 21 The idea of suing Los Angeles under CEQA had occurred to Inyo officials in September 1972, when the California Supreme Court ruled in Friends of Mammoth v. Board of Supervisors of Mono County that government agencies as well as private developers were required to submit environmental impact statements. 22 Environmentalism was beginning to provide effective tools for legal practitioners. As Fowles noted with an aplomb never previously expressed in struggles with the big city, "We know all the department guys by their first names. They're good guys. Their job is to take our water so Los Angeles can keep on growing, and they do it supremely well. Our job is to keep our valley from drying up completely." 23
As Fowles had hoped, by mutual agreement with Los Angeles the suit filed in Inyo County was transferred to the Sacramento Superior Court, where it would eventually come before the California Court of Appeal for the Third District. Fowles believed that the panel of three appellate judges, particularly Judge Frank Richardson, would be sympathetic. The key point of the Inyo suit was that the operation of the second aqueduct, constructed prior to CEQA, should nevertheless fall within its coverage since pumping and its damaging effects continued to the present. Los Angeles "responded with disbelief that the operation of its project could be bound by strictures of a law which had not even been imagined when work began on the second aqueduct, and which still had not taken effect by the time the new system was placed in service. But the city had not reckoned with the attention this new conflict with the Owens Valley would prompt in the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento." 24 In January 1973, without deciding on the substance of the case, the Sacramento Superior Court agreed with Los Angeles to the extent of refusing to issue a temporary injunction against continued pumping while the trial went forward. Fowles appealed that decision. "The court of appeal did not issue the injunction that the county requested. Instead on February 26 it took an action of far greater magnitude and significance: the appellate court elected to treat the county's request for an injunction as a claim for final relief on the merits, and boldly assumed the duty of adjudicating the claim on its own." 25
In June 1973, the Court of Appeal ruled in favor of Inyo and ordered that Los Angeles must prepare an EIR examining both the potential environmental damage from the pumping program and feasible alternatives. Groundwater pumping would be restricted in the interim (although the court subsequently relaxed the initial limitation of 89 cfs). Over the next three years Los Angeles dragged its feet on the EIR, producing several drafts that neglected tough issues, all the while pressing the court to approve more pumping while the study was in progress. The DWP created a local advisory committee to assist in preparing the EIR, but failed to include its evidence of environmental deterioration in draft reports aired at public meetings. Local experts who participated were soon disillusioned, concluding that the city only wanted to blunt their opposition and had no intention of producing an objective report. 26
If Los Angeles was losing on the legal front, it still could work the levers of local control in an effort to divide the movement. When Inyo sought a court order that the first EIR be withdrawn as inadequate, the DWP reacted in September 1974 by announcing the immediate cessation of all its water deliveries to agricultural and recreational users—a gesture the city frankly called "educational." 27 The appeals court promptly ordered restoration of the service. In the months that followed, water and electrical power rates were increased. Water meters were back on the agenda by the end of 1975. The city announced that commercial metering would begin in March 1976 and that it would study the need for residential meters. Meanwhile the DWP indicated that a revised EIR would be ready in the spring. The issues were intentionally conflated—pushed by pending lawsuits and pumping restrictions, the city pushed back by reducing the supply and raising the cost of water for agricultural, recreational, commercial, and domestic use.
Strikes and Violence
The decision to install commercial water meters caused a furor. The city was proposing not only to intrude further into the operation of local enterprises but also to charge local clients at rates equivalent to those paid by Los Angeles residents, whose water was transported hundreds of miles. The action replacing flat-rate with metered billing was justified as a water conservation measure, although the estimated saving was minuscule. Only three-tenths of one percent of the total export volume was consumed by all commercial and residential uses—and even that figure was based on the city's estimates, which residents hotly disputed.
The controversy focused on southern valley towns, because Bishop had installed its own municipal water system at the time of incorporation in 1903, prior to the city's intervention. The DWP provided water service to two hundred commercial users in Laws, Big Pine, Independence, and Lone Pine. In January 1976, a crowd with "no kind words for [the] DWP" met the board of supervisors and requested that commercial users be included in the three-year postponement of metering granted to residential consumers. 28 Los Angeles promptly denied the request. The county government, itself a commercial user under the metering plan, took the offensive. District Attorney L. H. "Buck" Gibbons, Fowles's successor, filed suit to enjoin the rate increase on the grounds that it was exorbitant, unauthorized by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), and in violation of CEQA. When the court denied the county's request for a temporary injunction while the case was pending, Inyo acted unilaterally to the same end by refusing to pay any water bills above the old flat rate and depositing the difference in an escrow account. The county government embarked on a ratepayer's strike against the DWP. 29
The city's actions were now interpreted as punitive responses to the valley's exercise of independence—an impression the city sometimes encouraged. The circumstances of the new struggle were recreating the traditional formula for popular justice, as broad mobilization combined with a growing perception of injustice and the frustrating results of legal methods. The city's water system had been the target of violence in May and September 1975, when rancor over groundwater pumping erupted—in the May incident, locks and control devices were broken on a DWP control gate on the Owens River, north of Bishop; in September some insulators on a DWP power line were shot out, resulting in a power failure. 30 During the metering controversy of early 1976, the DWP neglected to fill Diaz Lake at the recreational park south of Lone Pine. This time the vandals who took charge demonstrated skill and purpose. "The gate had apparently been opened with a blow torch and the water had run into the lake for about 12 hours before the flow was discovered by a DWP employee. The lake had been down to 16 inches but with this illegal influx it is estimated that there will be enough water in the lake to last through June and make it safe for boating activities." 31 The city moved quickly to quell any new outbreak of violence. The oversight was explained as a result of county "confusion" over responsibility for maintaining the lake; but the DWP restored water delivery. 32
But the new insurgency was not so easily quieted. A culture of popular justice persisted in the use of symbols and in the protest repertoire. The legal avenue of dissent now dominated the valley agenda, but city peevishness elicited supporting acts of property violence. The mood of the 1920s was rekindled in one essential respect—citizens believed that the city's methods were unjust. If unprincipled tactics could be used against them, then they could understand, if not always approve of, protest in kind. On September 16 violence returned to the Alabama Gates after a forty-eight-year respite. Once again, front-page news and pictures in the Los Angeles Times reported:
An explosion near Lone Pine ripped apart a spillgate on the Owens Valley aqueduct early Wednesday morning forcing a shutdown of the system that brings Los Angeles nearly 80% of its water.
Alabama Gates, 1990. The refurbished site of the aqueduct occupation and the location of various bombings from 1924 to 1976. The control house and spillway are located just a mile below the beginning of the concrete channel section of the aqueduct. (Photo by the author.)
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which owns the aqueduct and which has been in a heated dispute with Owens Valley residents over an increase in underground pumping, said the system would be closed for two days. . . . The explosion stirred memories of dynamite blasts that damaged the aqueduct during the 1920s. . . . No official was ready to say that the latest incident was related to the current uproar over a DWP project to step up the amount of water being pumped from underground.When the blast was traced to two local youths, the city concluded it was a random act of vandalism. The interpretation not only ignored local unrest and symbolism, but neglected to connect the Alabama Gates explosion with the coincident assault of a dynamite-carrying arrow on the statue of William Mulholland (the DWP's chief engineer at the time of the 1905 protest) in a Los Angeles park. 34 Echoing the valley mood, Aubrey Lyon reflected, "When I read about it, I thought about the Boston Tea Party. Those people are recognized now as patriots. Well, maybe a hundred years from now these fellows will be patriots too, but right now the paper calls them vandals. I don't blame anyone for trying to protect their resources, but I do think we should do it by legal means." 35
Emotions have reached a high level with residents and farmers who lease from DWP fearing that the entire Owens Valley will become a barren wasteland. 33
Indeed, the main struggle still lay in the courts. Inyo retained the legal counsel of Antonio Rossman, a young water expert from Northern California, to assist District Attorney Gibbons, and together the lawyers carried the original suit through three additional stages and established the principle of public regulation of proprietary water rights. In successive rulings the appeals court held that: CEQA applied to public projects with effects continuing after the law's enactment in 1970 (Inyo I); the city's EIR had to satisfy the panel of judges (Inyo II); the first EIR produced by the city was an "egregious misrepresentation" of the environmental impact of groundwater pumping as requested in the original decision (Inyo III), and the city's second effort at an EIR was a "sham" (Inyo IV). 36 All told, eleven major lawsuits were brought against the city's program of water production in the Owens Valley. 37 Los Angeles won a few concessions; the court ruled that pumping should not be held to the level (89 cfs) prevailing at the time of CEQA's enactment and subsequently allowed increases, to 149 cfs and then to 178 cfs.
A serious drought throughout California in 1977 worked to the city's advantage in the appeals court and in negotiations with Inyo officials. City strategists saw the drought as an opportunity to remind political decision makers of the vital public service provided by the DWP. Extralegal pressures to lift the court injunction on groundwater pumping could be exerted statewide and locally. Los Angeles first sought assistance from its sister Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) in negotiations with the state Department of Water Resources. At a meeting with the governor, MWD representatives suggested that the city could help relieve water shortages in the Central Valley if the Inyo pumping restrictions were set aside. State Senator Walter Stiern described the proceedings: "At the recent meeting held in the Governor's office on the drought situation—this was an emergency thing and hastily called—I could not believe my ears when I heard the legal arm of the Metropolitan Water District state to the Governor that if he would interfere or intervene with the injunction that Inyo County has with the City of Los Angeles that the city could in turn send more water north." 38 The MWD next informed the Central Valley's Kern County that a water entitlement of 80,000 acre feet could be turned over for agricultural use if officials in Kern and Inyo could agree to co-operate on drought relief. Kern County officials hastened to Bishop, urging their counterparts to ease up on the DWP. Los Angeles simultaneously asked the appellate court to allow pumping at the aqueduct's capacity rate of 315 cfs. Inyo supervisors rejected the plea from their Kern colleagues, noting angrily that "the various maneuvers added up to a colossal effort by the DWP to get Inyo to relent." 39 Los Angeles should try water conservation and other sources of supply before attempting to purloin Inyo's small gains.
The city also applied pressure to an array of local interests. Irrigation water was withheld from normal spring deliveries to ranchers. Crowley Lake levels fell as more storage water was released to the aqueduct. Bishop business interests reacted sharply to the commercial implications for the popular fishing spot and filed a strongly worded lawsuit charging the DWP and MWD with conspiring to manipulate public concern during the drought. For its ordinary residential clients in the southern valley, the DWP suggested insouciantly that water meters installed at the department's expense would further the conservation effort. 40 Although the court initially held to pumping limitations and ordered the DWP to restore water deliveries to the ranchers, by July drought and politics produced a reversal; the court granted the city's request for increased pumping to 315 cfs until April 1978. 41
One odd consequence of the drought was an incipient split between Inyo officials and the citizens, who had firmly supported the public initiative since the initial lawsuit of 1972. As the drought demanded closer collaboration among agencies, the state Department of Water Resources offered to mediate an agreement between Inyo and Los Angeles. 42 The supervisors were ready to approve "an independent study of the Owens Valley to determine its management that will yield the proper amount of groundwater extraction for export after first protecting the environment." 43 The county reasoned that the recent gains in court, although in the form of temporary injunctions, might be converted into permanent guarantees of local control. The city would welcome an arrangement that returned their discretionary powers, bottled up in the appeals court for the past five years. An out-of-court settlement might also avoid the EIR requirement. The delays and the sketchiness of the draft EIRs clearly indicated that the DWP wanted to evade a full analysis of the second aqueduct. As everyone knew, the effects had been harmful, but to admit that to the court under CEQA would have obligated the city to explore "feasible alternatives" to extraction from the Owens Valley (such as conservation in Los Angeles)—alternatives the city considered worse than protracted legal maneuvering. The parties came to negotiations with opposing motives and were very far apart on the purpose of an independent study; but their willingness to talk about an agreement annoyed the Inyo rank and file.
A resurgent popular movement began to organize in mid-1978, after the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners had voted to install approximately 850 residential water meters in Laws, Big Pine, Independence, and Lone Pine, communities in which the city serviced a total of 2,500 households. 44 Opposition appeared immediately from civic groups and local government. The Independence Civic Club, already on record against metering and city claims of excessive local water consumption, began to hold public debates. 45 Inyo County had sued to stop the installation, saying that the DWP was not yet in conformance with CEQA and that no EIR had been accepted documenting the effects of its own consumption. 46 That suit, like its predecessor that tried to stop commercial metering, was unsuccessful.
As the meters were being tuned up, residents were sent "projected bills," purportedly to familiarize them with the concept of metering, previously unknown in the valley. The recipients suspected that intimidation was the real purpose. Lilian Nelson claimed that her projected bill for forty-five days was $560. "Everybody was getting bills like that. They were trying to scare people out. I can't figure any other reason . . . except wanting to intimidate people here into leaving." 47 When the actual bills began arriving they were more realistic, but they still represented increases over the previous flat rates on the order of one thousand percent—bills of $8 to $10, for example, rose to $60 or $100. 48 A retired woman in Big Pine unable to afford a $52 water bill asked her neighbors, "[S]hall we take this sitting down or shall we fight?" 49 Most of them already had made their decision to fight and were considering the question of means.
Popular justice appealed to a few; new acts of sabotage and arson were perpetrated on city facilities. The following list describes the new wave of property damage in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
|Source of Report||Description|
|Inyo Independent, May 8,1975||Locks and control devices broken on DWP control gate on Owens River north of Bishop|
|Inyo Independent, Sept. 11, 1975||Insulators on DWP electrical lines shot out, causing power failure|
|Inyo Independent, May 20, 1976||Aqueduct gate opened by blow torch to fill Diaz Lake for recreational use|
|Inyo Independent, Sept. 16 1976||Alabama Gates spillway bombed|
|Los Angeles Times, Sept. 17 1976||Dynamite stick attached to arrow fails to explode at Mulholland Statute in Los Angeles|
|Inyo Independent, May 15, 1979||Insulators shot out at Southern California Edison site, causing power failure in Bishop|
|Inyo County News-Letter, June 29, 1979||Shack and platform at DWP well between Big Pine and Independence fired|
|Inyo County News-Letter, June 29, 1979||House, barns, and shop on DWP lease at Lone Pine fired|
|Inyo Independent, Nov. 15, 1979||Two men in possession of explosives arrested for shooting out insulators on DWP high-voltage line|
|Inyo Independent, Mar 13, 1980||Bomb threat at DWP offices|
|Inyo Independent, June 12,1980||City meter reader run off with use of a gun|
|Inyo Independent, July 30, 1981||DWP skiploader parked near office destroyed by fire of suspicious origin|
|Inyo Independent, Aug. 8, 1984||DWP power boat on Mono Lake exploded in suspicious circumstances|
Yesterday in Lone Pine all the talk was about the Molotov Cocktail somebody had hurled into the Independence office of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and none of the good citizens I heard on the street expressed anything but regret that it hadn't burned the place to the ground. [After encountering an armed and bellicose man on a backroad] two days later, in the Inyo Register news office, I overheard a couple of reporters talking about the DWP pump somebody had shot to pieces down along the aqueduct between Big Pine and Independence. The damage done, one of them said, was increased by the use of armor-piercing shells. No wonder my man was a bit curt. Molotov cocktails? Armor-piercing shells? And windows smashed in DWP cars and trucks? Bags of concrete poured into water meters? The Owens Valley water war, cold since 1927, was obviously heating up again. 50The Concerned Citizens of Owens Valley was reactivated by Lilian Nelson and Lois Wilson, who organized a petition drive garnering "more than 1000 signers" and a series of protest meetings. The new CCOV attracted a different membership, with little recollection of the defunct land exchange and little sense of organizational continuity. Environmental issues were secondary to the offensiveness of the city's control extended literally into people's homes. The group was more vocal and gregarious, less given to planning—they were "seeking any kind of relief including the formation of community or county water boards with powers to shape their own destinies." 51 Populism pervaded their mood and strategy.
In the midst of this uproar the board of supervisors unveiled a draft agreement with the DWP that provided for a "five-year operational study" as the potential basis for a mutually acceptable management plan and allowed for pumping at the high-side rate of 200 to 250 cfs during the period of study. 52 Capacity crowds turned out at a series of public hearings on the draft agreement. A train of speakers spoke against the agreement, citing familiar arguments about EIRs, dust, and dried-out habitats and linking those environmental issues to the immediate metering problem. Pumping should be reduced, not increased, they argued. Why make a concessionary agreement when Inyo was winning in the courts? "No one spoke in favor of signing the DWP-Inyo agreement. Some suggested that the Inyo case be the subject of a CBS-TV '60 Minutes' program. There was strong talk that if the supervisors couldn't cope with the matter, then the people should take the matter into their own hands. Both meetings got emotional at times, with some suggesting a recall of the entire board of supervisors." 53
The Concerned Citizens chose independent action by calling a meter strike against the DWP. In the months that followed, the CCOV organized demonstrations and invited Los Angeles television reporters, circulated petitions, picketed DWP offices in Independence, followed meter readers on their rounds, packed public meetings, printed bumper stickers ("Flat Rate Only" and "Let's Stop the Damn Water Pumps"), and generally showed a flair for guerrilla theatre. At a protest party in Big Pine they dyed sheets red and cut ribbons to mark sites of pumping damage. Withering trees along the highway were tied in black mourning ribbons for the benefit of passing tourists and DWP trucks. "Vandalism against city-owned equipment and facilities in the Owens Valley increased, and valley residents took to hissing whenever an official Department of Water and Power vehicle passed by, with the result that many department officials by the late 1970s were traveling in unmarked cars." 54
The meter strike urged valley customers to pay only the original flat-rate sum in response to inflated DWP bills. When the department threatened to shut off service to delinquent customers, the strike faltered; but some persevered. Louis Statham of Lone Pine offered to provide free water from his own well and started looking for a tanker truck. Protesters accompanied the city workers assigned to turn off residential water. The tactics succeeded in drawing sympathetic national attention to their cause. In a two-part feature on California water issues, the Wall Street Journal reported how the owner of the Big Pine General Store, Connie Johnson, "used a chrome-plated Colt .45 revolver a year ago and chased away a department worker who threatened to turn off Johnson's water." 55 Frivolous as some of the protest methods seemed to the more dignified residents and the lawyers, Los Angeles was embarrassed by the publicity. Metered billing was delayed, and strikers were later given hearings to dispute the accuracy of bills while their water service continued. A crackdown on residential strikers risked advertising that the county had not paid its meter bill for three years. The city simply outlasted the meter strike. The CCOV was good at publicity, but had no appealing plan for a long-term solution. Municipal ownership was advocated at one point and later recanted, perhaps because it would be costly and technically involved and would need to be decided by the supervisors, who were pursuing other avenues. The CCOV called off its strike in May 1980 and took its unsatisfied grievances back to conventional politics.
The Politics of Agreement
Popular protest had affected Inyo officials, who moved in a more assertive direction following criticism of the first draft agreement. Stricter pumping limits written into a revised draft led Los Angeles to reject that plan. In response, Inyo filed a new suit with the appeals court, charging the city with unnecessary delays; and the board of supervisors began public hearings on the CCOV proposal to purchase town water systems. The public ownership idea collapsed when the CCOV, still wary from the last agreement, filed a petition in which 155 signers charged that they had little sense of the purchase agreement's contents and what they did know suggested needless concessions such as dropping the water-metering suits. The county, never enthusiastic about purchasing and operating the water system, had a better idea.
The Local Ordinance
Nearly two years earlier, special counsel Rossmann surprised a meeting on the latest draft EIR by announcing that the county was looking into the legality of a local ordinance to regulate groundwater pumping. 56 The idea reappeared in spring 1980 as a carefully researched proposal for a ballot measure. The county had made impressive legal gains during the 1970s. As Rossmann observed, "by use of its injunctive power, the court demonstrated that the county, although not holding any water rights of its own, could nonetheless effectuate restraints on Los Angeles's proprietary water rights." 57 Important as the principle obviously was, the original question of the rate at which Los Angeles could extract groundwater was left open pending an EIR. Interim rates invoked by the court said nothing of what would happen if Los Angeles finally submitted an acceptable EIR. In the aftermath of the drought these issues were absorbed in a statewide study and a governor's commission on groundwater regulation. Although the commission's final report failed to generate any definitive legislation, the process helped bring Los Angeles and Inyo into negotiations, joined by public agencies with jurisdictions in the valley. As the governor's commission on groundwater completed its work with no legislative result, Inyo County was left in limbo over whether and how city pumping could be regulated. From the commission's deliberations, Rossmann drew "two important conclusions: 1. even a so-called vested groundwater right can be redefined by a police power licensing and permitting program, and 2. the California Legislature has not yet exercised that power to the exclusion of regulation by local authorities." 58 Inyo County asked Rossmann to write an ordinance, consistent with existing state law, that would allow local regulation of groundwater. The idea promised a major breakthrough, comparable only to the original 1972 lawsuit.
The Ordinance to Regulate the Extraction of Groundwater within the Owens Valley Groundwater Basin was released for public review in April 1980. If placed on the ballot by the board of supervisors and approved by voters, the law would (1) establish a county water department with a director appointed by the supervisors, (2) create a citizen-advisory water commission, (3) require all groundwater extractors to obtain permits from the water department, (4) require fees for permits, and (5) impose civil and criminal penalties for unlawful extraction. The law's stated purpose, to provide "the maximum long-range benefit of the environment," demonstrated its direct descent from CEQA and the national environmental movement.
Public hearings on the proposed ballot measure drew a divided response. Ranchers and other city lessees opposed the plan. As Tom Fogarty of the Anchor Ranch explained, "our contract with DWP says anything the county does in the way of regulations that cost them (DWP) is passed on to the rancher." Supporters of the citizens' movement, however, were overjoyed. Speaking for the environmentalists, Mary De Decker said: "[A] great step has been taken by Inyo County that should have been done long ago." Flora Nash of the League of Women Voters emphasized that the measure "gives us the opportunity to choose LOCAL CONTROL." 59
As support for the ordinance gathered, Los Angeles moved to head off a public referendum. When the city announced it would sue to keep the measure off the ballot, a county lawyer remarked: "I hope they do sue. That will assure its passage." 60 The DWP proposed reopening discussions on the management agreement it had previously rejected, but new talks went nowhere. The mood in Inyo was too confident for the conventional leverage to work, particularly when the California Supreme Court denied the city's request to remove the ballot measure. District Attorney "Buck" Gibbons ebulliently mixed his metaphors, calling the effort an "unprecedented colonial venture, a regrettable assault by a feudal landlord." By election time in November 1972 the ordinance, now described as Inyo's Declaration of Independence, was a sure winner. Local voters approved the measure by a margin of 76 percent—greater even than the 71 percent given the former grand marshal of Bishop's Mule Days Parade, Ronald Reagan.
The city's regime of "practical colonialism" was never the same afterward. Los Angeles was now losing on two fronts and was in palpable danger of having its discretionary power over the use of Owens Valley water usurped by the courts or the county. Initially the city responded with a combination of sanctions and goodwill gestures. Lease fees were raised, as promised, and the DWP filed a new lawsuit to invalidate the local ordinance. Los Angeles charged that under the state constitution Inyo had no right to interfere in the municipal affairs of a chartered city (by extracting water on its own land) and, in an ironic twist, that the local ordinance violated CEQA because no environmental impact study had been completed on its effects. At the same time, however, Los Angeles offered commercial lots in Bishop for sale and announced a "general policy of getting out of the landlord business, at least in the towns." 61
Inyo adopted the same strategy of thrust and parry. When Los Angeles ignored the new local ordinance, a county crew stopped the drilling of a DWP well that had not obtained a permit. Yet the county decided to end its meter strike early in 1981, with an agreement whereby the money held in escrow would be used to pay the $38,000 differential between the flat and metered rates since 1976, but without penalties or interest. The parties were gradually moving toward an agreement, owing in large part to the city's realization that dealing with local officials was preferable to the alternatives.
The Battle for Mono Lake
Any understanding of Inyo's environmental movement during the 1980s requires an appreciation of the contemporaneous developments in Mono County, where the water war had opened on yet another front. The much publicized campaign to save Mono Lake has a history intertwined with political movements in the Owens Valley. Mono Lake is a unique natural formation, a saline body of water with no outlet that nevertheless supports an ecological network of bird and water life. As early as the 1920s, the DWP began thinking about a sixty-mile north-ward extension of the aqueduct to the streams feeding Mono Lake near the town of Lee Vining. The public first took notice of the plan in 1929, when the city started acquiring right-of-way land and water rights by requesting congressional withdrawals from the public domain and by initiating condemnation proceedings. By 1931, the small settlement around the lake had organized its own Mono Basin Land Owners' Protective Association to protest against the city's preference for condemnation of the desired land rather than straightforward purchase. Mono residents had a "vivid memory of 25 years of bitter struggle in which property owners in the Owens River Valley have had to fight for their rights." 62 Eventually the DWP bought large tracts, and in 1933 it unveiled its plan to tunnel under Mono Basin and divert water to the Owens River from the creeks feeding Mono Lake. 63
The city was slow to exploit this new capacity after completion of the pipeline in 1941. In the early years just one-third of the city's annual entitlement was diverted, and streams continued flowing into the lake, although its level was dropping slowly. As in the Owens Valley, the situation changed abruptly in 1970 with the completion of the second aqueduct. The amount being exported from Mono County doubled within a few years. 64 From 1941 to 1981, the level of Mono Lake dropped 46 vertical feet, one-third of the loss occurring after 1970; the surface area receded from 90 to 60 square miles. 65
Although declining lake waters concerned local resorts, the problem received little public attention