06 June 2022 12:50
When the first whites arrived in the Owens Valley, a remote region of the eastern Sierra Nevada, California, the local indigenous tribes were named paiute, “land of flowing water.” In 1860, settlers, backed by the US military and attracted by the thriving mining and marshy terrain of the valley, forcefully settled in the territories of the paiute and their shoshone neighbors. On the night of March 19, 1863, twenty soldiers and ten settlers attacked thirty-five Paiute Indians, who pushed themselves towards the shores of Lake Owens to defend themselves. Some drowned, others were shot dead.
In 2012, archaeologists found the first physical evidence of the massacre (bullets, cavalry uniform buttons, native artifacts and human remains), hitherto known only through oral testimony and omitted in official US military reports. The settlers thus appropriated nearly 100 square kilometers of intricate irrigation systems built and managed by the tribes, says Sage Andrew Romero, a member of the Paiute Taos Pueblo tribe living on the Big Pine Reservation: “Through these channels our ancestors were able to to bring water throughout the valley, making the land arable and providing a suitable habitat for animals. Today the traces of these canals are no longer visible: in 1980 there was a flood – I still clearly remember the sound of the rocks overwhelmed by the water – which erased the signs. What survives comes from oral stories ”.
Along with the Colorado River and the San Joaquin Valley, the Owens Valley – a 121-kilometer stretch of desert and grassland, which runs along Route 395, surrounded by the Sierra Nevada to the west and the White Mountains to the east – provides a third of the Los Angeles water. Here a hundred years ago the nascent city of Los Angeles took possession of the land and acquired the rights to exploit the abundant water of the Owens River. Thus a dusty coastal town of 15,000 inhabitants was transformed into a metropolis inhabited by millions of people, today overflowing with water, canals and swimming pools.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the city needed more water. Mayor Fred Eaton and his friend William Mulholland, an Irish naturalized American engineer, sensed that the nearby Owens Valley reservoir could become a great resource. From 1907 to 1913, with the approval of President Theodore Roosevelt and through legal tricks and subterfuge, Mulholland directed the work to build an aqueduct, which currently flows into Cascades, in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. A massive engineering feat, 375 kilometers long, which cost 24.5 million dollars and required the employment of five thousand workers. The works ended in November 1913.
“There it is.Take it”, here it is, take it: these were Mulholland’s words referring to water during the inauguration ceremony. The complexity of that work, which was compared to that of the Panama Canal, transformed much of the Owens Valley into a desolate desert and the arid Los Angeles basin into an artificial oasis.
As early as the 1920s, so much water was diverted from the Owens Valley that agriculture became impractical, causing the region’s economic ruin. To testify to this past there are still 29 silos today. Pam Vaughan, columnist for the local newspaper The Inyo Register, explains that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Energy (Ladwp), founded in 1902 to supply water to Los Angeles, wanted to demolish them to eliminate traces of the previous agricultural vocation. . By 1924 Lake Owens, until then one of the largest inland bodies of water in the United States, into which all the water from the Owens River flowed, had completely dried up. Exasperated farmers and ranchers rebelled, sabotaging and blowing up part of the aqueduct with dynamite. The episode started a series of conflicts that have gone down in history as “water wars”.
In 1927, at the height of the fighting, the Inyo County Bank, the main local bank, went bankrupt, damaging the resistance and causing its end. In 1928, Los Angeles controlled 90 percent of the Owens Valley water. Agricultural activities in the region were virtually non-existent, while Los Angeles’ water needs continued to grow. Thus, in 1941 the Ladwp, already the largest municipal company in the United States, also secured the rights to exploit another reservoir, diverting the water of Lake Mono, located north of the Owens valley, into the aqueduct.
Today the Lawdp employs three hundred employees in the valley, owns about 90 percent of the private land in Inyo County, and returns about $ 20 million annually in taxes.
Rusty McKinley, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, who lives in Bishop, says: “Lawdp is a necessary evil. I think the body shouldn’t own land, but a lot of the fields here are hers, I think it’s twelve thousand hectares. It made our lives difficult, but like us we need water, so do the people of Los Angeles ”.
The removal of water from the Owens Valley also resulted in an environmental disaster. The winds that descend from the mountains lift the sulfates and toxic particles present at the bottom of the lake – including arsenic and cadmium – spread into the atmosphere creating violent sandstorms that cause serious health problems for the inhabitants of the area. To contain the problem in 1990 the Ladwp decided to refill a portion of the lake, but the project failed. Temporary shallow pools formed, which only had the merit of encouraging the return of avian fauna. In fact, in 2010 almost forty thousand native and migratory birds were counted in a single day and today the area is a destination for lovers of birdwatching.
Climate change is further aggravating drought in California, threatening communities on both ends of the controversial aqueduct. The snow cover of the Sierra Nevada provides 60 percent of California’s fresh water. A 2018 report is projected to decline by more than 60 percent by the end of the century if global warming continues at its current rate. In the past decade, California has already experienced a much higher than average melt rate.
Rosie Garcia, a 39-year-old woman of Mexican descent, runs a restaurant in Bishop. She grew up in the Owens Valley. She explains that in the area, people of Hispanic origin represent almost 50 percent of the population. Most came in the late 1980s to work in catering, construction and gardening. Rosie Garcia is familiar with the situation in the Owens Valley. Climate change, drought, frequent fires, sandstorms worry her. Much of the land thrives on mountain-related tourism, and the diminishing snow cover of the Sierra Nevada is causing tourism to collapse, and will likely get worse and worse.
Water is a precious commodity. Even the younger generations think so. Harlee Bardonnex, a 17-year-old teenager living in Bishop, says: “Because of my cultural background, I think the water in my land is sacred and special. I believe the Los Angeles Aqueduct steals water from my lands causing drought. I love to talk and get informed on issues related to climate change, it is certainly a topic that everyone should know, because it directly affects our future and that of the next generations. Living in a land where the water will decrease more and more is terrible. Every year the water level of lakes, rivers and other water sources is lowered more and more and the effects it has on the environment are very evident. On social networks I read a lot of propaganda from teenagers of my age who engage in environmental activism and I think it is our duty to amplify their voice “.
With these premises, Los Angeles is reflecting on its water future, also in consideration of the growing competition for the water of the Colorado River. By 2040 the city, in continuous expansion, aims to obtain almost a quarter of its water needs by channeling the runoff of rainwater into storage basins useful for recharging its underground water reserves. The basins should allow the city to store more water during the increasingly violent rainfall. A second goal is to recycle more wastewater. Despite these projects, 42 percent of Los Angeles’ water is projected to continue to flow from the Owens Valley Aqueduct by 2040.
Drought contributes to large fires. The county was hit by a fire this year in February, a month when these phenomena are rare. The flames have lapped the boundaries of the towns of Bishop and Big Pine. Kristina Justice, a proud third-generation resident of the Owens Valley and assistant fire chief at the Bishop volunteer fire department, emphasizes how indispensable water is in these circumstances.
“Our fleet of firefighters currently has four fire engines, which give us the ability to pour twelve thousand gallons of water (45,000 liters) onto the flames in minutes. This ability is essential, especially for fires far from water sources. The scarcity of water complicates an already difficult problem to manage “. He then adds: “Growing up in Bishop I always looked at the Ladwp with distrust. But as an adult I reviewed my positions. As incomprehensible as it may seem, the presence of the agency is crucial for the Owens Valley. But, due to the mistakes he has made in the past, there are many conservationists, ranchers and organizations watching over his every move. I think it is one of the most valuable lessons we can draw from studying the history of ‘water wars’: power corrupts and it is crucial for us to look closely at those who hold it, to make sure they do not abuse it, as it has historically done. the Ladwp in the Owens Valley. Today the situation is better, we must in any case monitor their actions and intervene if necessary ”.
Gerald Lewis, an elder of the Paiute tribe, fears that as the climate crisis threatens to further drain the valley, his community, which lives on a federally owned reserve, will have nowhere else to go. “Whenever it dries here, I imagine the whites will walk away, but we have nowhere else to go.” Sage Andrew Romero instead says: “The Owens Valley is my ancestral home, I lived in many places when I was young but my plans have always been to come back here to be a resource for my people. I still have a lot to learn, but that’s what I want to do ”.
According to Peter Gleick, a water and climate expert at the Pacific Institute, “as long as we see water as an asset that someone conquers and someone else loses, we will never have a balanced and sustainable system.”