Thanks to an early start, we reached the Owens Valley just before the storm closed Tioga Pass for the winter. Snow had dusted the peaks cradling Tuolumne meadow. There would be no pie today as we passed the Tioga Pass Resort; the diner long since closed, the windows boarded until the spring snowmelt. We were giddy, caught in the romance of the storm; dark thick clouds promised snow and rain to assuage our five-year drought.
Descending to Mono Lake, we made a right turn onto 395 towards Bishop and the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association’s (ESIA) inaugural conference on the history of the eastern sierras. This is a desolate land, whose emptiness holds so many stories to be shared. The Owens Valley straddles two counties: Mono and Inyo. Mono County defined by Mono Lake and the volcanic fields at an elevation of 7,000 feet and the Mammoth Lakes ski resort. Inyo County, the table drops sharply, thousands of feet in altitude is lost, as we descend into ranch lands, cottonwoods and the meandering Owens River. We stopped often, capturing with camera and brush the conversation between brooding sky, dark mountains, parched landscape, and autumnal trees. A photographer and a painter, drawn to this sacred place, finding poetry at every compass point.
At the ESIA conference, David Carle spoke about water and the historic choices that shaped California. A long-term California State Park Ranger, Carle now writes full-time about land and water issues facing our state. According to Carle, in 1902 Los Angeles was a small town of 100,000 people, with a promising citrus industry, but desperately seeking water. Led by the engineer William Mulholland, businessmen and city planners set their sights on the Owens Valley, a region of 8,000 residents with a 75,000 acres of farm and pasture land producing 51,000 bushels of wheat annually. The Owens Valley also held lakes and rivers fed by the water stored in the snow covered Sierras. The aqueducts were completed in 1913, but it didn’t take long before Los Angeles was thirsty again. By 1924 Owens Lake was a dry lake bed where dust storms raged. Los Angeles had purchased all the water rights in the valley, but by the mid-1920s they owned all the towns too. Communities had been destroyed and ecological disaster created for the region. The author Mary Austin asked “ is all this worthwhile in order that Los Angeles should be so big?” Today, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is working hard to implement water reclamation, and to their credit most of Orange County’s water now comes from reclamation. But for some, there will never be enough water, Southern California’s thirst will not be slaked. The proposed Twin Tunnels Project would move water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to the southland. Recently, LADWP purchased five islands located in the heart of the river delta, just as LADWP purchased the Owens Valley a century ago. Stop the Tunnels provides information about establishing fair water policies in California.
Looking out across the Owens Valley, at a land so near, so precious, it is scary to know that actions taken by a few powerful people, so far away, change the land and communities forever.