Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The Owens Valley communities of eastern California and their battles with the city of Los Angeles concerning water rights is a classic example of territorial conflicts. Walton presents a historical and sociological study of this largely unsuccessful battle in a community in which violence, rebellion, political activity, and state domination have been a fact of life since 1920. Walton guides the reader through conquest of Native Americans in the Owens Valley, the building of a pioneer economy, conflicts among ethnic groups and social classes, and the struggle to regain their lost dignity through collective action. His analysis shows how the expansion of a state's administrative and coercive power can undermine the autonomy of a local community by placing it in the hands of politicians, bureaucracies, and those with privileged access to state agencies. This book should be required reading for small communities involved in turf wars with nearby urban areas.-- Irwin Weintraub, Rutgers Univ. Libs., Piscataway, N.J.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520084537
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 8/31/1993
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

John Walton is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of California, Davis.

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Table of Contents


2. Conquest and
3. Pioneer Economy and Social Structure
4. Frontier Civil Society
5. Rebellion
6. The Local World Transformed
7. The Environmental Movement
8. State, Culture, and Collective Action

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First Chapter

Western Times and Water Wars

State, Culture, and Rebellion in California
By John Walton

The University of California Press

Copyright © 1991 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-08453-5

Chapter One

The Environmental Movement

* * *

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, thistime 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." 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. 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, combined with the city's water surplus to end groundwater production for export from 1935 to 1960. 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."

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." 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." The supervisors were convinced, and voted to reconsider their position and hold public hearings.

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.

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. 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.

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.


Excerpted from Western Times and Water Wars by John Walton Copyright © 1991 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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