Watch Desert Wars September 25, 2006 at 8 pm on KUED Channel 7
Interviewer: Let’s start out by talking about the history of Owens Valley. What transpired in Owens Valley and why is it important?
William Kahrl: Owens Valley became the symbol for people throughout the Western states of what can happen when a small, rural area community that has abundant water resources runs into a city that is thirsty and needs to tap into those resources. In the case of Owens Valley, the city of Los Angeles drained the valley and bought out the ranches and then beyond that devastated the region—tore up the orchards and removed the vegetation so there would be nothing to interfere with the flow of water into the aqueduct and down to the city.
Interviewer: What happened to the farmers and the people involved?
William Kahrl: In the battle that occurred in 1927 there was real confrontation. It turned out that the local bank, which was at the center of the economy was also helping to fund a lot of the resistance to Los Angeles. When Los Angeles revealed this and the bankers were arrested for a variety of crimes, the bank was broken and everyone lost their life savings and so a lot of people faced absolute poverty and it was under those circumstances that Los Angeles made it's final set of purchases buying up not just the ranch lands but also the whole towns and cities within the Owens Valley turning it essentially into a colony of Los Angeles.
Interviewer: And what was the result of that on the environment? What happened to Owens Valley?
William Kahrl: There is an irony here. From the perspective of it's economic and agricultural character it was devastated. However, looking at it fifty years later the Sierra Club, for example, said this was a great thing because it preserved that environment and put it back into it's most basic condition and didn't allow any interference because of course Los Angeles would not allow any significant business development or housing of any kind to occur in the valley because that would create competitors for the water supply. So it depends on your perspective. From and environmental perspective maybe it was a good thing. From a human perspective it was terrible.
Interviewer: Tell me about the history of what actually transpired building the aqueduct and taking the water. First of all why did they want it and how did they get it?
William Kahrl: Los Angeles faces a problem that they faced throughout their history. A lot of people come to California from the Eastern states and then they turn left—they go South to a semi-arid plain where God clearly never intended large numbers of people to live. So the question is how do you support them? At the beginning of the 20th century, Los Angeles begins to bump up against the limits of its natural water supply and they used water to overcome the natural limitations of their setting. There were no available supplies close in so they developed what was at the time a very visionary scheme of reaching 250 miles away and creating an aqueduct that would drain the Owens Valley. Initially they only took the water that was left over after the farmers and ranchers of the Owens Valley had used it for their crops. So in a sense everyone prospered under those circumstances at both ends of the aqueduct. But by the 1920's Los Angeles was growing so rapidly and did run into a real drought that they panicked and began to secretly buy up ranches and began pumping them dry and thereby destroying the ground water basin for the adjacent ranchers and farmers… basically a checker-board kind of scheme. At the same time they reached out to the Colorado River and laid the groundwork for what would eventually become an abundant water supply for the entire metropolitan region. The ranchers were hood-winked. What occurred was that Los Angeles was working hand in glove with a federal agency, the Bureau of Reclamation. There was a reclamation agent who was taking the properties… the ranchers were turning the water rights over to what they thought would be a reclamation project to benefit their community. Instead, the reclamation official was turning the water rights over to Los Angeles. So as the local newspaper publisher put it, the federal government held Owens Valley while Los Angeles skinned it.
Interviewer: Tell me about the significance of William Mulholland--who was he and what roll did he play in Owens Valley?
William Kahrl: Mulholland was one of the great city builders and really the father of
Interviewer: Who benefited from the Owens Valley water and why?
William Kahrl: Primary beneficiaries were the land speculators in the San Fernando Valley. The San Fernando Valley was not part of Los Angeles at the part of the time the aqueduct was proposed and when they got the voters support for the bonds to build the aqueduct, they never told the people of Los Angeles that the water wouldn't actually come to Los Angeles, but instead the (determine-ness?) of the aqueduct would be in the San Fernando Valley so that all of those properties that were dry and worthless would suddenly become enormously valuable and the people who owned that property were people like Sherman, the founder of Sherman-Oaks or E.J. Harriman, the head of the Union Pacific Railroad, and most significantly Harrison Grey Otis, who was the owner of the Los Angeles Times and one of the principle sponsors and advocates of the aqueduct project.
Interviewer: You were talking earlier about the conflict being primarily economic. How did that work?
William Kahrl: I don't know that I know an answer to that in a sense that Los Angeles had the wealth and they were dealing with small town bankers.
Interviewer: We were talking that there really wasn't an armed conflict but it was basically an economic conflict of taking the economy of Owens Valley and shutting it down.
William Kahrl: It was an economic conflict in the sense that the war was over when the valley's economy was destroyed but there was not a loss of life or a shooting conflict. That's not to say that there wasn't violence and real confrontation. When the Owens Valley ranchers realized what Los Angeles was doing in the 1920's and that the future of the valley was forfeit, initially they seized the aqueduct. They took a hold of it at the Alabama gates, they held it for several days and they spilled all of the water that was intended for Los Angeles out onto the ground around them. Subsequently the aqueduct was bombed repeatedly. Nightriders would dynamite sections of the pipe and put it out of commission for a few days until Los Angeles could make necessary repairs. As these incidence increased, Los Angeles began sending train loads of armed guards into the valley and we were getting very close to a situation that would have ended in armed conflict except for the fact that Los Angeles was successful in breaking the banks of the Owens Valley and devastating the ranchers and that's what put an end to any possibility to any resistance.
Interviewer: What was the end result of this water going to the San Fernando Valley? What actually happened there?
William Kahrl: This is kind of fun… Los Angeles needed the approval of the federal government to cross public lands with their aqueduct. Teddy Roosevelt, knowing that the land speculators in the San Fernando Valley would get all of the profits from this project, thought he would solve the problem by specifying in the law that the water from the Owens Valley can never be used outside of the city of Los Angeles. The response in Los Angeles was simply, o.k. we will annex the San Fernando Valley. So one of the affects is you suddenly have this sprawling city and they did very much the same sort of thing when they reached south to the San Pedro area to create a harbor. So this vast series of annexations that greatly expanded the city of Los Angeles is really what water made possible and it was also what was required. This means, for example, that the city of Los Angeles, even if they have abundant supplies from somewhere else that are much cheaper than the Owens Valley water, they can't sell the Owens Valley water outside of the city limits. The city of San Francisco, for example, draws a tremendous amount of water from the Hech Heche Project not very far away from the Owens Valley, but most of that water goes to feed other communities. And so as a result, Los Angeles pays to receive water which means that the other supplies that it has rights to from the state water project, for example, go unused and instead go down to benefit other communities in other cities throughout the southern California area, or they are resold to farms in the central valley, but there is no economic benefit whatsoever for Los Angeles from that.
Interviewer: What are the lessons learned from Owens Valley?
William Kahrl: In California the primary lesson was that you must enact strict protections for the areas of origin to ensure that, what in this state would mean the rural and mountain communities where our water supplies originate can never be stripped of those supplies for higher and better uses in the cities and farms at lower levels. So we have strict limitations to protect the areas of origin and their local economies. Those restrictions, in term, dictate to a large extent, how our large water systems can operate in ways that will not devastate the undeveloped areas of the state.
Interviewer: As we were talking before, the ranchers of Snake Valley and White Pine are very concerned about losing their ground water to Las Vegas. Do you consider that to be a parallel to Owens Valley and is there a correlation there?
William Kahrl: I can't speak to the details of that project. If you have a situation in which there are parallels in the sense that Las Vegas like Los Angeles is an area that doesn't have a water supply that can support the population it's attracting, they're reaching out to a rural area and the key element there is for the owners of the land in that area to hire a lot of lawyers and hydrologists to make certain that they are well protected and that whatever the stipulations of the law are to protect those rights are being observed at all times. The watchword here is the same as what Ronald Regan used to talk about—"Trust but verify."
Interviewer: Tell me a little bit about the Colorado River compact. What's your opinion of it and is California using its share or more of its share of the Colorado River water?
William Kahrl: That's a very good example… what has happened on the Colorado River is a very good example of the importance of protecting these rights and being always observant. The basic problem with the Colorado compact is that it drew up a plan for sharing more water than is in fact in the river. This has created problems for all of the states that draw on it, but California has, to a large extent, set the pace for those conflicts and those controversies because we've developed faster than anyone else. We've been using more water than we were ever intended. The important thing about what the state of California has done is that we began taking more water than we were allowed or suppose to take for about forty years before the Supreme Court ruled that we were violating the compact. It has been more than fifty years since that ruling and California is now only beginning to give up the water that it has been taking elicitly for nearly a century. So in other words, you can have the rights and defend the rights, but if you let them slip you may not get them back for a very long time.
Interviewer: Why are the water issues in the West so volatile? What does water mean to development of the West?
William Kahrl: Water is the means we remove other kinds of restraints on the way we can grow. It is the primary engine for shaping the quality of our lives on the land and because it's scarce and because it's distributed between areas of great abundance in areas of extraordinary aridity, unlike the Midwest for example, then there is always going to be an opportunity for real conflict as you attempt to move it from where it is to where someone wants it to be.
Interviewer: What are the recent issues that are going on now as related to the past?
William Kahrl: A number of things have changed. One of the most important is the city of Los Angeles has begun to relax it's control and it has given up the town properties, it's restoring flows in the Owens river—things are getting better. One of the ironic aspects of this is that although the city of Los Angeles continues to control the water rights in the area, the Indians who are residents of the area and have been forever in many ways have superior water rights to the rest of the community and so as a result, a people who have been part of that community forever but have never had a significant role in it's economy could become extremely important. A second major conflict involves the Owens Dry Lake—a lake that was eliminated by the city of Los Angeles when it built the aqueduct and which is a source of a great deal of dust. The federal government has required the city of Los Angeles to begin putting water back into Owens Dry Lake in order to keep down… but this is likely to produce a murderous sump of all kinds of salts that may be devastating to wildlife in the area. It's going to be a very complicated and very messy and certainly a very expensive project for the city of Los Angeles. And then of course there has been an ongoing controversy now mostly solved with respect to the future of Mono Lake—a lake that could also have been dried up by the operation of the city of Los Angeles's second barrel of the aqueduct but the conflict over Mono seems to have been satisfactorily resolved in the creating of a preserved area there that will keep the lake at it's current level.
Interviewer: These cities in the West seem to have very common problems with growth and water--Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles—should these cities have been built in the first place in such an arid environment without adequate resources for a growing population?
William Kahrl: Is Los Angeles a good idea? That's a question we ask ourselves in California every day. The fact is it's a reality. I think you put your finger on it in terms of saying that we have to make certain that before we allow new development to occur that they have a water resource that can sustain them. Part of the problem that we're confronting in the future in California is the tendency to secure distant resources on a purchase basis—water marketing, but the contracts may only be good for a few years. How do you build a housing development on the promise of a water supply that's only going to be available for ten years and what happens to the homeowners when the contract runs out? That's a problem for the person who is selling the water as much as it is for the purchases of the homes because what it says is that if you sell the rights to your water, you may only get to sell it once. You may think it's a lease, but what court is ever going to allow you to recover it if it means wiping out a community? These are real problems as well for the environment because clearly if we're going to begin moving large quantities of water around to supply the cities, this is going to have serious environmental consequences for the communities that are being de-watered and the environmental consequences for the Owens Valley were not recognized in the 1920's but they will certainly be a focus of major consideration once you begin talking about, for example, the changes that are occurring in the desert irrigation districts of California—the Imperial and Coachella Valleys where, just as in the case of the Owens Valley, large quantities of agricultural lands are being taken out of production in order to sell water to San Diego. In that case you have willing sellers and willing buyers, but the effects on the communities that depend upon a continued agricultural community can be very serious.
William Kahrl: Well the so-called grid Delta… the Colorado River is terminus, and is likely to be one of the biggest issues we will face in the next ten years. This is a coming environmental crisis. It is an area of extraordinary beauty and extraordinary environmental resources of extraordinary importance to a wide range of environmental as well as national Mexican organizations. We have obligations, the United States, not only to keep the water flowing but to deliver it in a sufficient quality to sustain agriculture in that Delta region. We're not meeting those requirements. If anything, the changes that are occurring north of the Mexican border in the growth of the cities is reducing the amount of the water and the quality of the water that we are able to spill down into that Delta region. This, as the capabilities of Mexico to develop that region become more real, is going to be a major source of not just international tension, but a conflict of real environmental importance.
Interview: What kind of advice would you have for the ranchers in Snake Valley with this ground water issue in dealing with a large metropolis like Las Vegas and also the Southern Nevada Water Authority based on your historical perspective?
William Kahrl: I'm sure that what will be occurring today will be much more tightly regulated than what occurred in the Owens Valley. We have a more sophisticated system of laws, but I would not rely on the laws alone to protect the region if I were a landowner or rancher in those areas. You're going to need to have attorneys, you're going to need to have hydrologists to constantly monitor what is occurring to ensure that the letter of the law is being observed--that's simple common sense. Ronald Reagan use to say, "Trust but verify."