Farmers Dynamite the Los Angeles Aqueduct Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Farmers in California’s Owens Valley, angered by the drainage of their lands by the Los Angeles Aqueduct, resorted to the use of explosives when legal negotiations failed to achieve their goals in one of California’s early battles over water.

Summary of Event

Owens Valley, located in central California, is one hundred miles long and ten miles wide, bordered on the west by the Sierra Nevada and on the east by the White Mountains and Inyo Range. This region was long well supplied with water from the Owens River, which ran the length of the valley from its headwaters in the High Sierras to alkaline Owens Lake. In 1913, however, the Los Angeles Aqueduct tapped this river and transported the valley’s water 240 miles south to meet the growing needs of the city of Los Angeles. This was accomplished at the expense of Owens Valley farmers, ranchers, and townspeople, who found their livelihoods threatened. [kw]Farmers Dynamite the Los Angeles Aqueduct (May 21, 1924) [kw]Los Angeles Aqueduct, Farmers Dynamite the (May 21, 1924) [kw]Aqueduct, Farmers Dynamite the Los Angeles (May 21, 1924) Los Angeles Aqueduct Los Angeles;water issues Water;access Owens Valley, Los Angeles Aqueduct [g]United States;May 21, 1924: Farmers Dynamite the Los Angeles Aqueduct[06050] [c]Agriculture;May 21, 1924: Farmers Dynamite the Los Angeles Aqueduct[06050] [c]Business and labor;May 21, 1924: Farmers Dynamite the Los Angeles Aqueduct[06050] [c]Trade and commerce;May 21, 1924: Farmers Dynamite the Los Angeles Aqueduct[06050] Mulholland, William Lippincott, Joseph Barlow Eaton, Fred Watterson, Mark Watterson, Wilfred

Embittered by repeated attempts to come to terms with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) and its chief engineer, William Mulholland, and frustrated by court decisions against them, these citizens finally resorted to violent destruction to call the public’s attention to their plight. On the morning of May 21, 1924, a group of forty men dynamited the aqueduct near Lone Pine. The damage was minimal and the action was largely symbolic, but this was only one battle in the twenty-year war waged over Owens Valley water. The Los Angeles Aqueduct’s impact on valley commerce demonstrated the connection between business and natural resource utilization.

By the late 1800’s, the Owens Valley was populated by miners, pioneers, Chinese laborers, and dislocated Paiute Indians. Homesteaders used the irrigation method previously practiced by the Paiutes. Canals and ditches diverted water from the Owens River, creating rich farmland from barren stretches of sagebrush. By the turn of the century, the Owens Valley was a prosperous agricultural region supporting farmers, ranchers, and the towns of Bishop, Independence, Lone Pine, and Big Pine. In 1903, the U.S. Reclamation Service Reclamation Service, U.S. studied the feasibility of a water system project in Owens Valley. Under the supervision of Joseph Barlow Lippincott, the project was designed to irrigate an additional 100,000 acres. Local citizens supported this plan and made potential reservoir sites readily available. Lippincott, however, also worked for Los Angeles during his employment with the Reclamation Service. According to William Chalfant, editor of the Inyo Register, Lippincott received five thousand dollars for providing the city with government maps and data. In 1905, he was accompanied on a valley survey by Fred Eaton, a Los Angeles city engineer.

Eaton first realized the potential for a gravity-powered aqueduct during a trip through the Owens Valley in 1892. His alliance with Lippincott enabled him to buy up about one million dollars’ worth of land along the Owens River; he took advantage of the popular misconception that this property would be used for the reclamation project. The Reclamation Service decided not to pursue the project in view of the conflicting interests shown by Los Angeles city officials and businesspeople. Mulholland had known for years about Eaton’s plan to bring Owens River water south, and by 1905 he was ready to initiate the aqueduct’s construction. Southern California was suffering through the tenth year of a drought. Los Angeles’s population had grown to 200,000 and was increasing rapidly. In July, the Los Angeles Times publicized the project for the first time. Angelenos were delighted. Owens Valley residents felt uneasy because the city failed to state a definite water development policy for the valley. Negotiations with the city met with resistance or bogged down in legal technicalities. The aqueduct was built with neither adequate storage facilities for excess floodwaters nor any guaranteed water supply for Owens Valley.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct’s gates opened on November 15, 1913. As the water rushed into the northern San Fernando Valley, Mulholland said to the crowd, “There it is—take it.” To the delight of real estate speculators who had purchased land at two dollars per acre, this transported water turned the arid San Fernando Valley into an agricultural gold mine. The “unlimited” water also accelerated the pace of industrial and individual relocation to sunny Southern California.

For the next decade, Owens Valley residents attempted to coexist with the aqueduct, but another drought in 1921 caused the DWP to increase groundwater pumping in the valley. The water table fell, drying out farmlands adjacent to city-owned properties. Farmers tried to consolidate their position by forming irrigation districts. Their efforts were encouraged by Mark and Wilfred Watterson, owners of the Inyo County Bank. While other banks and institutions refused to deal with residents because of the valley’s uncertain future, the Wattersons’ bank took land mortgages and offered financial assistance.

Owens Valley residents’ attempts to unify were broken up by city agents, who often resorted to misrepresentations. Angered by their coercive tactics, the farmers responded with violence. The blast of May 21, 1924, began an alternating pattern of destruction and negotiation. Over the next three years, and despite the presence of armed guards, the aqueduct was blown up eleven times. City wells were also dynamited. On November 16, 1924, a group of men led by Mark Watterson took over the Alabama Gates. They opened the spillway, causing aqueduct water to pour into the dry riverbed. During the next four days, an estimated five hundred to eight hundred valley residents picnicked and camped at the gates. To the protesters’ disappointment, the state militia was not called out, but the occupation received national sympathy.

Despite favorable attention from the press, the controversy continued for several years. The Owens Valley Property Owners Protective Association, led by the Wattersons, advertised grievances in state newspapers. It fought for financial restitution in the state’s courts, where it won, and in the Senate Committee on Conservation, where a resolution died without a hearing. The final blow to the resistance movement occurred on August 4, 1927, when the state superintendent of banks discovered a shortage of funds at the Inyo County Bank. All five branches closed at noon, virtually wiping out the savings of Owens Valley residents. The Wattersons were tried and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin State Penitentiary.


By the early 1930’s, Los Angeles owned 85 percent of the Owens Valley. Although ranchers leased some city lands, their water rights were not guaranteed and could be revoked at any time. The towns of Laws and Big Pine were abandoned. Bishop lost 35 percent of its 1920 population. Agricultural production dropped 84 percent between 1920 and 1930. Orchards were bulldozed, and fields of alfalfa gave way to sagebrush. The Owens Valley, once irrigated into agricultural fertility, reverted to its naturally barren state.

Initially, the aqueduct provided Los Angeles with a surplus of water. Adjacent communities were permitted to use the extra water in exchange for their annexation by the city. Businesspeople supported this plan because it increased real estate values and encouraged development. From 1915 through 1917, the city expanded from 108 to 350 square miles. The population increased from 200,000 in 1905 to 1,192,000 in 1925. To Mulholland’s surprise, Los Angeles soon needed to look for another source of water.

The 1920’s water war collapsed the economy of the Owens Valley, but the following fifty years saw the development of new business in tourism, recreation, and government employment. In 1941, the Long Valley dam granted Owens Valley a new lease on life. Crowley Lake, the reservoir created by the dam, became a recreational center for fishing and boating. Hikers, hunters, and skiers flocked to the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains. Tourist dollars revitalized the valley towns’ economies. City land no longer suitable for farming was consolidated into five-thousand-acre cattle ranches. Economic recovery, aided by jobs brought in by state and federal agencies, aided in tripling the valley’s population between 1930 and 1990.

When the Los Angeles Aqueduct was constructed, no laws prevented the transportation of water from one region to another. The Owens Valley controversy made the public aware that legislation applicable to water-rich states spelled disaster in California. In 1931, the state passed the “county of origin” law, which set guidelines for jurisdiction of water development, guaranteeing that local needs would be considered. No longer could those with money and power appropriate this vital resource.

The law was not retroactive, and so it affected neither the situation in the Owens Valley nor the Mono extension. As early as 1920, Mulholland considered adding sixty miles to the aqueduct to tap several streams feeding Mono Lake. This lake, although saline and with no outlet, was a unique biosphere supporting a network of insects and birds. Following in the footsteps of their neighbors to the south, residents formed the Mono Basin Land Owners’ Protective Association in 1931. Their protests fell on deaf ears, and in 1941 the city completed the extension. The lake level dropped slowly from 1941 to 1970, when a second aqueduct was constructed alongside the original one. The amount of water exported doubled within a few years. By 1981, the lake had fallen forty-six feet, and its surface area had receded from ninety to sixty square miles. In 1974, the environmental crisis at Mono Lake received public attention through the efforts of David Gaines, a biologist from the University of California, Davis. He formed the Mono Lake Committee in 1978 to inform the public and legally challenge the DWP. Although primarily an environmental group, the Mono Lake Committee empathized with the Owens Valley struggle and based its philosophy on the same principle of citizens protecting their natural resources.

Simultaneously, the environmental movement as a whole developed into a powerful force influencing business and political decisions. U.S. government policies began to reflect the public’s concern with natural resources. Beginning in 1969, with creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, federal agencies took a larger role in setting guidelines and influencing state and local decisions regarding the development and allocation of resources. National policy had come a long way since 1906, when Theodore Roosevelt, pressured by Los Angeles businesspeople, put through a bill granting the city free access to federal lands along the aqueduct route.

The 1920’s water war culminated in the economic upheaval of Owens Valley. Los Angeles drained water from the land without considering citizens’ needs. Farms and ranches were sold or dried up. The towns depended on farmers for their economic livelihood and so lost much of their business. The valley managed to survive by making the transition from agricultural production to a service-oriented economy dependent on tourist dollars. The Owens Valley conflict became a California legend, and the story has been retold with varying accuracy in books and films. It showed how the exploitation of natural resources can devastate a region’s commerce. The DWP’s lack of forethought demonstrated the necessity of careful evaluation of present and future demands as well as environmental impact. Finally, almost one hundred years after the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, an agreement was reached to return water to the Owens River, and water began to flow in December of 2006. A new era of revitalized ecology and recreational tourism was predicted, although the option to divert water back through the aqueduct to Los Angeles remained in place. Los Angeles Aqueduct Los Angeles;water issues Water;access Owens Valley, Los Angeles Aqueduct

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arrandale, Tom. The Battle for Natural Resources. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1983. Easy-to-read discussion of government management of natural resources. Concentrates on post-1950’s legislature and Bureau of Land Management decisions. One chapter is devoted to water resources, but it does not mention the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Includes tables, maps, photos, and selected bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">California Division of Engineering and Irrigation. Letter of Transmittal and Report of W. F. McClure, State Engineer: Concerning the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Controversy. Bishop, Calif.: Chalfant Press, 1974. The California state engineer’s official report to Governor Friend William Richardson after the Alabama Gates takeover in 1924. Informal and sympathetic to valley residents. This report facilitated the Reparations Act of May, 1925. Includes reprints of letters and many newspaper articles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, Erwin. Aqueduct Empire. Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1968. Overview of California water resources, legislation, and projects written during the emergence of environmental awareness. Informal and conjectural in style. Devotes one chapter to the Owens Valley water war. Presents extensive information, although the author’s pronuclear, protechnological attitude is dated. Includes photographs, bibliography, and time line.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffman, Abraham. Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy. 1981. Reprint. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992. Lengthy history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct focuses primarily on the personalities involved, especially Joseph Lippincott and William Mulholland. Photos. Extensive bibliography includes archival material and dissertations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hundley, Norris. The Great Thirst: Californians and Water; A History. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Excellent historical treatment of California’s water issues that also provides discussion of how these issues continue to shape the state’s development. Interesting analysis of the Owens Valley conflict and its consequences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kahrl, William L. Water and Power. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Lengthy historical account of the Owens Valley buyout, similar in style and scope to the Hoffman volume cited above. Includes maps of the aqueduct in Owens Valley and water-supply systems for Los Angeles and other parts of California. Extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mulholland, Catherine. William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Written by Mulholland’s granddaughter, this biography sympathizes (unsurprisingly) with its subject, but it is also a good, scholarly treatment of Mulholland’s vision for Los Angeles. Persuasively argues that Mulholland was not at fault—although he was blamed—for the 1928 catastrophe at the St. Francis Dam.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walton, John. Western Times and Water Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Complete history of the Owens Valley, from the days of the Paiute Indians to publication. Emphasis on collective action in a broad historical and sociological context. Well researched, informative, and objective, although esoteric and theoretically dense. Includes interesting photos, statistical tables, graphics showing the layouts of early towns, and comprehensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, R. Coke. The Owens Valley and the Los Angeles Water Controversy: Owens Valley as I Knew It. Stockton, Calif.: University of the Pacific, 1973. Written in 1934 as a master’s thesis. Wood’s viewpoint is surprisingly objective for someone reared in the Owens Valley during the water war. His personal experiences and remarks, although limited to the first chapter and footnotes, are possibly of greatest interest to the general reader. Includes photos and bibliography as well as several poems.

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Categories: History