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How the Owens Valley Paiute Made The Desert Bloom

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Harry Williams | Photo: Clarissa Wei

Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m. 

“The whole valley was our garden,” Bishop Paiute tribe member Harry Williams says. He steps out of his white pickup truck and I follow him out to the valley, where water used to flow freely.

“Used to” is the key phrase here. These days, water is scarce, and the ancient ditches that once conveyed water from the mountains into the valley are but archeological remnants.

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I am in the Owens Valley, located in the northeastern corridor of California on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Before the settlers came, the area was inhabited solely by the Owens Valley Paiute. In the 1930s anthropologist Julian H. Steward, who had gone to college in the area, returned to do field work and documented a rock art symbol apparently intended to represent the area:

Paiute symbol
Paiute rock art symbol | Sketch by Clarissa Wei

“I always thought it signified the ditches,” Williams says. “I grew up playing in a bunch of them but I didn’t know what they were.”

Thousands of years ago, the Paiute dug irrigation ditches that routed runoff from melting Sierra Nevada snows into the valley. But unlike modern irrigation practices, the Paiute didn't channel the water onto farms or specific plots of land. “We looked at everything as a garden. The natives had made this place bloom like a rose,” Williams says. The water was used to irrigate “wild” seed plants.

Paiute Irrigation Ditch
Rocks trace the route of an ancient Paiute irrigation ditch. | Photo: Clarissa Wei

“At one point they had realized that spreading water was life. And I have always said this. They say it over at Standing Rock and it’s true: water is life. It creates life,” says Williams.

Trailer for PAYA; The Water Story of the Paiute, by Jenna Cavelle

Over the last two decades, Williams has spent years tracing these ditches by foot. He’s considered an expert on the irrigation systems and in recent years, in partnership with filmmaker Jenna Cavelle who produced a documentary on the topic, he helped map its ancient irrigation systems using GPS and GIS technology. Data was derived from the journals of the late surveyor A.W. Von Schmidt, whose documentation of the irrigation ditches during his work to survey the California-Nevada border in 1872, Williams says, proves the Paiute’s first-user water rights.

“Our ancient ditches made the groundwater rise,” he says. “They were so flat that the water seeped in easily and raised the groundwater levels.”

The irrigation system made the valley into an incredibly lush area teeming with native plants and wildlife. So important was water to the tribe that they had an elected position called the tuvaiju, who carried out the commencement of irrigation. The tuvaiju would use an irrigating tool known as a pavado to direct water into the ditch network.

The valley was divided into northern and southern plots. A dam system was created and only one of these two areas would receive water each year; the plots were purposefully alternated to conserve soil fertility. As a bonus, tribe members had easy access to fish in the creek bed as it now contained less water. The irrigation water helped the growth of grass nuts – tubers that made up a significant part of the native diet. The irrigation canals spanned miles and miles, and distributed the water in abundance across the Valley.

Watch Tending The Wild: Living Desert

Today, the ditches are artifacts of the past. What used to be a lush, slightly swampy area is now dry and brittle. While part of it can be attributed to the California drought and the naturally arid conditions of the land, human influence is another, perhaps more significant factor. 

“In my lifetime, I have realized that water rights are extremely powerful and that’s what Los Angeles came here for,” Williams says.

Indeed, the Native Americans weren’t the only ones who realized the significance of the valley and its water.

In the 1860s, Paiute ditches were taken over by early white settlers and homesteaders, who acquired them by less-than-savory means. In 1863, 35 Paiutes were chased into Owens Lake by settlers and soldiers to drown or be gunned down.

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles came and diverted most of the Owens River, drying up Owens Lake, to quench the growing city's thirst. Their surface water diverted south, settlers dug wells to tap into local groundwater. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power systematically obtained the settlers’ lands along with the water rights associated with them. The water is shunted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct; the Paiute were left empty-handed without much of a chance to claim their water rights.

“If you didn’t apply for water rights you had no right. Well, if we showed up in their courthouse, they’d kill us. That violates human rights but back then it was acceptable,” Williams says.

In an attempt to acquire the water resources that the Paiute were living adjacent to, LADWP returned some parcels of land for the creation of three reservations in Big Pine, Bishop, and Lone Pine.

That’s where many Owens Valley Paiute live today, and to this day, the water wars between Los Angeles and the Paiute have not ceased.

The Paiute claim that their fields are going fallow because LADWP is not giving them their fair share of irrigation water; LADWP says it has fulfilled all of its contractual obligations.

Yet regardless of contemporary politics, the groundwater levels in the Owens Valley have been dropping precipitously. Folks like Williams are at a loss for what to do.

Paiute elder Harry Williams at irrigation ditch
Harry Williams examines an ancient irrigation ditch | Photo: Clarissa Wei

“The water pumps are affecting our private wells. They are going dry. I stand here today and look at this place and see that it’s all dead,” he says. “Two hundred years ago, before the white man came, it was green. Our ditches lifted the groundwater up."

His ultimate goal is to bring back the ditches and rehabilitate the land, as his ancestors did.

“Our culture was beat out of our people, especially in my mom’s generation and the generation above her,” he says. “My mom watched kids get beat up for trying to learn the native language so she didn’t try to teach me anything. So when I found out about these water issues and these ditches, I knew that was what I will be spending my whole life fighting for. Water is the most important thing.”

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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