Water is Life, the Struggles of the Owen’s Valley Paiute People


By James Finch:

As inhabitants of the Owens Valley, the Paiute people were surrounded by breathtaking scenery, until the juggernaut of American expansion came upon them in 1861. Located between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the White and Inyo Mountains, Owens Valley is naturally an arid environment due to the ‘rain shadow’ effect of the Sierras[1]. However, the snow-capped peaks of the nearby mountains bring water runoff to Owens Valley, which pools together in Owens Lake.

Historically, the innovative Paiutes used those limited water resources by developing irrigation channels into the valley, giving rise to a fertile landscape of wild hyacinth and yellow nutgrass[2]. Unfortunately, infringing ranchers to take notice of this oasis, and with military support the Paiutes were forcibly removed, and so was the safeguarding of Owens Valley water. “Paiutes had lived and used the land around Mono Lake and in the Owen’s Valley for centuries. They knew the proper way to interact with the animals and land of the region.[3]” The newcomers did not have the same relationship with the land, and although today the Paiute people continue their fight for water protection.

By the mid-1800s, explorers operating with support of the ‘Discovery Doctrine’ claimed and named their findings as they crisscrossed the West. This meant that according to the federal government, tribes living on newly ‘discovered’ lands were no longer sovereign owners of that land, and were merely occupants. The same treatment would be applied to the Paiute who saw increasing encroachment by miners and ranchers who began using up local resources. This led to conflict as the Paiute sought to defend their ancestral lands from those they viewed as an invading force. A series of battles occurred, beginning in 1861 and is referred to as the Owens Valley Indian War. By 1863, most Paiute had been driven from their lands, and many had died in conflict. On May 19th of 1863, a particularly disturbing incident marked the tone of the one-sided conflict when approximately 35 Paiute were shot in Owens Lake while attempting to swim away in retreat[4].

In the decades after the Paiute displacement, competing interests set their eyes upon Owens Valley to take advantage of the water resources in the area. In the end, a plan by two men, Frederick Eaton and William Mulholland would prevail. As wealthy Los Angeles political figures, they secured access to the Owens Valley waters. In 1907 they began the construction of a massive aqueduct project, and by 1913 the aqueduct was operational. Once complete the aqueduct began transporting millions of gallons of water 223 miles to the San Fernando Valley and the booming population of the Los Angeles metroplex. By 1924, Owens Lake would be completely dried up leaving an altered ecosystem with soil erosion, which greatly damaged the Paiute’s traditional lands. A once delicately managed landscape which was full of life was made barren.

In the 1970’s, the Los Angeles demand for exponentially more water led to the creation of a second aqueduct system. In addition, ground water pumping began in Owens Valley to tap the underground aquifer resources as well, all the while the Paiute tribe protested the actions of the City of Los Angeles, citing the environmental damage that was being caused. “Year after year, we watch the grasses die back. We watch the shrubs move in. We watch the weeds come in,” said Sally Manning, environmental director of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe whose ancestors carved the first irrigation ditches in the valley centuries ago. “Years go by and nothing gets done.[5]” Unfortunately for the Paiute, the abuse of their historical water resources was a profitable venture, and the same cannot be said for restoration projects that would help heal that land.

Western expansion into the Owen’s Valley area has left an incredible scar upon the land, devastating the invaluable water resources there. However, the Paiute are not done fighting for their rights and cultural heritage, and they continue to speak out on the importance of water conservation and protection. One tribal elder in particular, Harry Williams of the Bishop Paiute tribe is making an impact through education. In cooperation with the University of California, Berkeley, Williams has been lecturing and contributing to a course entitled ‘Water in the West’. A new generation of students is being educated on the Paiute history and the importance of water conservation. “The Paiute may have been left high and dry when L.A. won the Owens Valley water wars. But “the story isn’t over,” Williams insists. “The forthcoming documentary and historical records preserved by the Bancroft, along with student contributions building on Williams’ efforts, “will help us fight for the water rights of our people.”[6]




[1] Danskin, Wes. “Evaluation of the Hydrologic System and Selected Water-Management Alternatives in the Owens Valley, California”. Owens Valley Hydrogeology. United States Geological Survey. Last Modified, Feb. 7, 2017.


[2] Sahagun, Louis. “DWP Archeologists uncover grim chapter in Owens Valley history”. Los Angeles Times. June 2, 2013. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jun/02/local/la-me-massacre-site-20130603

[3] Bauer, William J. California through Native Eyes: Reclaiming History. University of Washington Press, 2016. (p. 39)

[4] Madley, Benjamin. An American Genocide: The United States and California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873. Yale University Press, 2016. (p. 313).

[5] Knudson, Tom.  “Outrage in Owens Valley a century after L.A. began taking its water”. The Sacramento Bee. Jan. 5, 2014. http://www.sacbee.com/news/investigations/the-public-eye/article2588151.html

[6] Cockrell, Cathy. “Tribal elder brings water history to life for students”. Berkeley News. Sept. 8, 2015.

About the author: Brian King

Brian D. King lives in Oklahoma and is a writer and blogger who studies and teaches English. He earned his bachelor's degree in Political Science from Brigham Young University, and he is currently working on his graduate degree in English in Oklahoma.

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