Los Angeles

Forget 'Chinatown,' Get the Real Story of California's Most Famous Water War

kim stringfellow

On November 5, 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct began bringing water to the city. 100 years later, KCET is looking at what has happened, what it means, and more across its website. See more stories here.

When asked about my newest audio tour project, There It Is—Take It! most people immediately bring up Roman Polanski's 1974 film noir classic, Chinatown. Beyond the fact that Chinatown is firmly now rooted in cultural lore of Southern California, the film continues to be ingrained in our collective consciousness as the primary narrative of how the Los Angeles Aqueduct came to be.

Understandably this phenomena resulted from Polanski's brilliant direction, superb acting by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston but most importantly it is due to Robert Towne's cleverly conceived screenplay that is ever so loosely based on real events that occurred some 230 miles northeast in scenic Owens Valley. This narrowly defined arid valley about seventy-five miles long laying adjacent to the majestic Eastern Sierra has historically provided, through the surface flow diversions and sustained groundwater pumping of nearly 100 years, up to 75 percent of Los Angeles' annual water supply. Even though Towne's script occurs ten or so years after the actual events took place, the movie continues to be taken as a stand-in for the real story due to the film's lasting success and continued critical acclaim.


As historian, John Walton (Western Times and Water Wars) explains, "For Los Angeles and national audiences who knew little of the historical background, Chinatown, became the LA water story—the political intrigue that made urbanization possible. With its apt power-politics imagery, the film became urban history in the effective realm of popular culture, though its story was largely false."

Interestingly, Chinatown wasn't the first film to mine the Owens Valley saga for its screenplay. Quite a few early Westerns—many filmed against the actual Alabama Hills landscape where the true story played out—wove a greatly fictionalized "stolen water" Owens Valley backstory into their narratives including, "Frontier Horizon," part of the early Three Mesquiteers film series starring a young, upcoming John Wayne.

Audio: Historians William Kahrl and John Walton overview events that led to civil unrest within the Owens Valley during the 1920s.

The real and continuing story of the Los Angeles Aqueduct is perhaps even more fascinating than earlier fictionalized accounts. For instance, how many of you are aware that a group of nearly 700 hundred Owens Valley citizens—deeply frustrated by ten years of covert and deceptive land and water rights purchases and other shady dealings by Los Angeles' operatives overrunning the valley—for four days beginning on November 16th, 1924 took over and occupied without incident an aqueduct control gate at the Alabama Gates just north of Lone Pine? The 'occupiers' drained the entire flow of the aqueduct into the dry Owens Lake riverbed in a great act of non-violent civil disobedience. Or that in 2005, the aqueduct's "second barrel" water supply was nearly entirely shut down by a Superior Court Inyo County judge unless the city of Los Angeles commenced a legally mandated mitigation restoration project on the Lower Owens River by 2007? It is somewhat surprising that no one has made feature film dramatizing the early resistance movement, which led to a string of dynamiting sabotage incidents along the aqueduct by Owens Valley citizenry.

Alabama Gates Occupation, November 16-20, 1924. | Image: Courtesy Inyo County Eastern California Museum.

These are just a few of the fascinating events occurring over the last 100 years of this contentious and divisive history of California's most famous "Water War" illuminated in There It Is—Take It! Designed as a self-guided car audio tour through Owens Valley, California along U.S. Route 395, the audio tour examines the controversial social, political, and environmental history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system. The tour illuminates various impacts this divisive water conveyance infrastructure has created within the Owens Valley over the last one hundred years of aqueduct's existence. Stories of the aqueduct are told from multiple perspectives and viewpoints through the voices of historians, biologists, activists, native speakers, environmentalists, litigators, LADWP employees, and residents from both Los Angeles and the Owens Valley.

Audio: Stan Matlick, retired Bishop rancher

Available as a free, 90-minute long downloadable audio program, There It Is—Take It! seeks to shed light on the mutual past, present, and possible future of Los Angeles and Owens Valley—centered around its complicated and intertwined water history. The project illuminates the historic physical source of drinking water for the Los Angeles municipality while simultaneously revealing the complex relationship these two seemingly polar regions of California share through an innovative aural program incorporating interviews, field recordings, music, and archival audio that educates the listener while experiencing scenic Owens Valley landscape firsthand along U.S. Route 395.

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the construction of the original aqueduct designed by William Mulholland, the Department of Water and Power's (LADWP) first superintendent and head engineer. Much of the backstory of how Los Angeles obtained the necessary land and water rights that enabled the city to construct its aqueduct have been presented in numerous documentary films on the subject. Less is known of the ongoing political and legal struggles of contemporary Owens Valley citizenry, environmental groups, governmental groups, and concerned individuals who have been working tirelessly to keep Los Angeles' water export activities in check to repair past and avoid future ecological damage affecting both humans and the surrounding environment. On the contrary, how many know how the city's colonization of the valley has promoted a mostly undeveloped open landscape lending great appeal for those who want to get away from it all including myself.

Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

The aim of the audio tour is to not only provide a creative platform for Owens Valley concerned citizens to voice their opinions, but to help others outside the area (especially Los Angelenos) to better recognize current issues at stake and provide community awareness that may lead to more active participation in water conservation programs and education. If nothing else, it is my hope is that the tour provides an incentive to travel to the region as a sort of water seeking pilgrimage, which I feel is every Los Angelino's inherent responsibility. The tour as well provides a different and creative way to experience landscape firsthand through one of California's most scenic and beautiful byways.

So forget Chinatown and get the real story of the Los Angeles' infamous water grab and drive the tour!

Download There It Is—Take It! as a podcast to experience while driving U.S. Route 395 through Owens Valley. Optionally, the program may be experienced online at the project website. A mobile device version is also available here.

There It Is—Take It! is a self-guided car audio tour through Owens Valley, California along U.S. Route 395 examining the controversial social, political, and environmental history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system.

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Top Photo: Photo by Kim Stringfellow.

About the Author

Kim Stringfellow is an artist and educator residing in Joshua Tree, California.
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