Leaving Lake Tahoe, in addition to the above ruminations on Ancient Bristlecones, there were other things I was looking forward to.
One, there are several man-made lakes along US 395 south of its intersection with 108 – the Sonora Pass road – which I’d not yet seen. Again, seeing how man has manipulated the hydrology of land to make life in the middle of nowhere is stimulating – to me. Many parts of Eastern California certainly constitute “the middle of nowhere.”
Two, there was to be Mono Lake. This is a natural lake within yet another endoheric basin with a surface area of 70 square miles. That’s kinda’ big. As per pictures and Google Maps, it seemed to be surrounded by desert. Yet, as the crow flies, it’s only thirty miles northeast of the green and wet Yosemite Valley. Its watershed borders the Merced’s and Tuolome’s. What a contrast! What could the imagination glean from here?
Three, there was “The Switzerland of California”.
This was a description of the Owens River Valley once upon a time. These words were uttered around the turn of the last century by someone who was moved by the snow-capped Sierras towering over the Owens Valley – another endoheric basin – on the Owens’ west side. The Owens River was a south-running river formed by Sierra snow-melt draining eastward, which terminated into the once-existing Owens Lake.
Starting in the 1880’s, agricultural communities developed in this high-desert country. They relied on copious snow-melt draining into this Owens Valley, whose drainage area is much bigger compared to other basins surrounding it. A lot of water was in the Owens. A lot. It was used for irrigation. Thus, colorful orchards and fields growing along a flowing Owens once upon a time evoked bucolic sentiments of this land. Thus, Switzerland.
However, life was destined not to be so idyllic here. Allow me, once again, to refer to Marc Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert. Allow me to refer to that chapter on Los Angeles history called “The Red Queen” – a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass . This chapter introduces William Mulholland, the man who would have dammed the Yosemite. Let me remind you that Los Angeles took the water away from the Owen’s Valley so it could begin its herculean growth in the 20th century.
Literally, the Owens River water became the property of the City of Los Angeles. LA bought up ranches and farms along the river, which thus allowed them to acquire the water rights. It then built an aqueduct, funded by municipal bonds, which brought water from the Owens to Los Angeles. Because the lake is at 4000′ above sea-level, and LA is roughly at sea level, gravity could easily push the water the 200 miles. No pumps were necessary.
But it’s a lil’ more complicated than this. Marc Reisner says…
“There is a widely held view that Los Angels simply went out to the Owens Valley and stole its water. In a technical sense, that isn’t quite true. Everything the city did was legal (though its chief collaborator, the U.S. Forest Service, did indeed violate the law). Whether one can justify what the city did, however, is another story. Los Angeles employed chicanery, subterfuge, spies, bribery, a campaign of divide-and-conquer, and milked the valley bone dry, impoverishing it, while the water made a number of prominent Los Angeleans very, very rich. There are those who would argue that if all of this was legal, then there is something wrong with the law.”
Why Reisner says the U.S. Forest Service violated the law is because it annexed desert land into the Inyo National Forest for the specific purpose of depriving future homesteaders of winning water rights not yet purchasable by the City of Los Angeles. Got that? It wasn’t the prerogative of the Forest Service to annex and, thus, take land out of the public domain for the sake of enriching a municipal corporation, by giving it more water flow. It had no right to act in such a scheme. It had no right to annex land better served agriculture purposes, through irrigation, especially if the land wasn’t a bloody forest in the first place, as per its own charter. This federal agency was overtly serving the interests of rich businessmen in a far-away municipality.
But Teddy Roosevelt approved of all this… and the following piece of history is what I find most fascinating about “The Red Queen.”
FEATURED IMAGE FROM: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wpdms_shdrlfi020l_owens_river.jpg