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Paiute Traditions Inform Water Management Practices in Once-Lush Owens Valley

About 250 miles north of Los Angeles, there is a long valley known to the Big Pine and Bishop Northern Paiute people of the Owens Valley — the Nüümü (Paiute) and Newe (Shoshone) — as Payahüünadü, “The Land of Flowing Water.”

For at least 15,000 years, these Northern Paiute tribes have tended their homeland, more recently also known as the Owens Valley. The beloved region of green, well-tended gardens and wetlands, nestled between mountain ranges to the east and west, along California’s eastern edge, was nurtured by extensive and sophisticated irrigation ditches the Northern Paiute built and maintained to channel water from the seasonal, and wildly fluctuating snowmelt flowing down from the nearby Sierra Mountain Range.

Paiute woman grinding meal on stone metate, Nevada (1900) | Huntington Library
Paiute woman grinding meal on stone metate (1900) | Huntington Library

In fact, their deep knowledge of their region’s water cycles informed their sustainable water usage practices, as the Big Pine Paiute Tribe states on its website: “All the resources our ancestors needed for a subsistence lifestyle relied on one variable which was unpredictable: water.” 

Snow from the Sierra Nevadas melts into creeks and rivers. | Still from Tending Nature
Snow from the Sierra Nevadas melts into creeks and rivers. | Still from Tending Nature

And in tending their sustainable and sophisticated relationships with water, the Northern Paiute tribes not only survived but thrived. “The entire valley was our garden,” says Harry Williams, a Bishop Paiute elder and environmental activist of a time when the tribe’s irrigation ditches were fully operational. “The more you spread the water, the more your garden grew: plants, animals, everything. The valley was plump.”

Harry Williams, an elder of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, observes the Owens Valley | Still from Tending Nature
Harry Williams, an elder of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, observes the Owens Valley | Still from Tending Nature

By practicing careful and sustainable water management practices, the tribe has cultivated wild plants, including taboose (Cyperus esculentus), nahavita (Dichelostemma capitatum), as well as fruit trees and other vegetables. Anna Hohag, a member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, has written, “Our elders and stories tell us of times when our entire valley consisted of wetlands, marshlands, and swamps — making for an abundance of crops, animals, hunting and fishing grounds, and simply put: a good life.”

Portrait of William Mulholland with a surveyors scope on a tripod (1908-1913)
Portrait of William Mulholland with a surveyors scope on a tripod (1908-1913)

However, starting in the mid-1800s with the arrival of European settlers making a claim to water rights in the Owens Valley, this once-lush area was transformed dramatically into a virtual desert in just decades. The heaviest blow to the Northern Paiute’s ancient way of widespread water cultivation came with the diversion of water south to the City of Los Angeles via the Los Angeles Aqueduct built by William Mulholland, which began heavily extracting water in 1913.

These events, along with the construction of a second aqueduct that not only channels snowmelt but also pumps groundwater to quench the thirsty demands of L.A.’s growing metropolis, also caused the near-extinction of a once-massive Owens Lake at the valley’s south end.

Subsequently, the Northern Paiute have struggled to this day to carry forth their ancient practices and maintain their traditional ways of life — a way of life-based on their close relationships with water usage and sustainability. “The truth is, millions of people are now relying on a water supply because we’ve created these big cities in places that really aren’t sustainable,” says Alan Bacock, Big Pine Paiute tribal member and water program coordinator. “As a result, there are unresolved water rights issues our people are having to deal with. Nobody knows the bigger story, how actions in Los Angeles end up impacting those in the Owens Valley.”

As Bacock points out, the Northern Paiute have always known exactly where every drop of their water comes from, in contrast to the millions of people who receive water far away from the small Owens Valley towns of Big Pine and Bishop via massively extractive and endangered water practices in place today, not only by the City of Los Angeles, but throughout southern California and the arid southwest.

A Brief History of How Los Angeles Dried Up Owens Valley’s ‘Indian Ditches’

“Though we never really got a whole lot of water in the form of rain in the sky, we have had a whole bunch from the Sierra Nevada, where the snow would come down on mountains, and then it would warm up in the season, water would trickle down, into the creeks, and the creeks would continue down mountain ways,” says Bacock. “We were able to utilize it, seeing how much water was available from the snowmelt and runoff and created a really extensive ditch network. To move water throughout the land as slowly as possible, throughout the land so that the more the water traveled, the more it absorbed into the land. That then helped raise up the water table and provide for the plants and animals.”

Maps of these many, intricately interconnected irrigation ditches throughout the Big Pine-Bishop area, drawn from a tribal informant’s memory, were sketched in 1927 by Julian Steward, showing just how extensive and durable these waterways had been built and maintained for centuries. Remnants of these ancient ditches, some miles long and as wide and deep as modern canals, are still evident today. In a 1930 essay excerpted in “Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians,” a book by Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson, Steward noted that “ditch irrigation had been undertaken (by the Northern Paiute) ‘upon a considerable scale’ in Owens Valley with its greatest development being near the present-day town.”

Detail of an Paioute subdivisions and boundaries depicting a ditch system in Owens Valley (1933) | UC Berkeley - Anthropology Library UC Berkeley - Anthropology Library
Detail of "Paiute subdivisions and boundaries" depicting a ditch system in Owens Valley (1933) | UC Berkeley - Anthropology Library
Detail of an ethnogeological map depicting Paiute ditch systems in Owens Valley (1933) | UC Berkeley - Anthropology Library UC Berkeley - Anthropology Library
Detail of an ethnogeological map depicting Paiute ditch systems in Owens Valley (1933) | UC Berkeley - Anthropology Library
Tributaries of Pine Creek, Jack Stewart (1933) | UC Berkeley - Anthropology Library
Tributaries of Pine Creek, Jack Stewart (1933) | UC Berkeley - Anthropology Library
Land Survey map depicting "Indian ditches," W. Von Schmidt (1855)
Land Survey map depicting "Indian ditches," W. Von Schmidt (1855)
Detail of land survey map depicting "Indian ditches," W. Von Schmidt (1855)
Detail of land survey map depicting "Indian ditches," W. Von Schmidt (1855)

The Northern Paiute continue to struggle to receive their fair – though greatly diminished - share of water allocations guaranteed in their 1939 “forever and in perpetuity” agreement with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. In 2016, following a decade of historic drought throughout the state and increasing demands on their historic water sources, the Big Pine Paiute tribe posted an open letter to the LADWP requesting a resolution to their years-long diminishment of water allocations due to improperly functioning equipment that was the City’s responsibility to maintain.

In 2017, thanks to its own extensive efforts, the Big Pine Paiute Tribe was successful in its very public appeal to LADWP to fix its broken irrigation pipeline. With the support of tribal leaders, Big Pine tribal members, members of other tribes, tribal staff, and various residents of the Owens Valley, Los Angeles and elsewhere, the message of the #FixthePipe campaign got through as the result of a strong show of solidarity and sovereignty.

Running Ditches and Slowing Water: Paiute People Adapt Traditions to Modern-Day Gardens

But for Bishop Paiute tribal member and farm manager Monty Bengochia, getting the water his reservation is guaranteed by the treaty of 1939 is far more than about justice – it’s also a matter of reclaiming the health of his people and the land itself. Adequate water is critical for the Northern Paiute not only for daily use but to replenish and raise the water table and heal the land and make its soil sustainable for the growth of traditional, healthier food sources. It is a matter of sustainability, sovereignty — localized, tribal self- governance — and reciprocity between people, water, and the land.

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Like the Northern Paiute, other tribes in the rural desert regions of southeastern California have also historically practiced sustainable water usage practices in ways critical to survival, and also struggle with current and proposed water extraction inflicted by municipalities far from the region. “Living water is crucial to the Native peoples of the California desert, and our desert springs are crucial to our way of life as traditional gathering places, sacred sites, as places to rest and restore ourselves,” says Michael Madrigal, a member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians and current president of the Native American Land Conservancy (NALC).  

Southern Paiute / Chemehuevi tribal member Matthew Leivas, Jr., another NALC member who lives on the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe Indian Reservation at Lake Havasu along the Colorado River, is, like Madrigal, actively involved in advocating for the protection of longtime Mojave Desert water sources. In particular, he opposes ongoing efforts for the heavy extraction of the irreplaceable waters of the Cadiz ancient aquifer. Such extractions, as currently proposed, would have an ecologically devastating impact on Bonanza Spring, which nurtures a rare riparian area in the east Mojave near Cadiz, according to a 2018 study published in the journal of Environmental Forensics.

A view of the Cadiz and Fenner Valleys photographed by Kim Stringfellow from the Cadiz Summit off historic Route 66 in the Mojave Trails National Monument.  | Kim Stringfellow
READ: The Trouble with Cadiz | Photo: Kim Stringfellow

Leivas is also helping his tribe regain its own historical irrigation practices with sustainable use of water from the Colorado River.

A sign by the side of the freeway in California asks drivers to "Save California's Water" | Still from Tending Nature
A sign by the side of the freeway in California asks drivers to "Save California's Water" | Still from Tending Nature

Californians stand to learn critical knowledge about their water sources and usage from the Northern Paiute. Ann Hayden, senior director of Western Water at the Environmental Defense Fund articulates this well: “By and large, Californians have little understanding as to where their water comes from, where it’s stored, how it’s delivered, that the flows in the rivers are highly controlled, that the lake levels are highly controlled, all to manage our water supply.”

As Hayden notes, increasing our understanding and connection to the water would go a long way towards getting people to feel more passionate about protecting these resources when developing resilient and balanced approaches to climate change adaptation. “Native Americans have been thinking about that forever. Including those voices in that conversation right now is essential.”

As Big Pine Tribal member and water and wastewater operator Paul Huette puts it: “Tending the water would be respecting it, knowing where it comes from. There’s a whole process. Know where it comes from. It doesn’t just come from the tap.”

From Snow Pack to Faucet: Tracing the Source of Our Water

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