Owens Valley

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Those are the memorable last lines of the movie Chinatown, a 1974 fictionalized account of the early 1900s ‘California water wars,’ when Los Angeles surreptitiously acquired land and water rights in the Owens Valley (running along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains). The city then built an engineering marvel — a 233-mile aqueduct to take that Owens water down to L.A. William Mulholland, the project’s chief engineer, was called ‘Hollis Mulwray’ in the movie — and was quickly bumped off. In real life, however, he lived a much longer life (79 years), and is best known for being the namesake of L.A.’s Mulholland Drive.

Given recent visits to Southern California and my ‘engineering tourist’ proclivities noted in earlier postings, it’s probably not surprising that I’ve wanted to check things out — & so, in addition to re-watching Chinatown, I picked up a copy of Les Standiford’s Water to the Angels and Marc Reisner’s modern classic Cadillac Desert, and headed over to L.A. on HNC’s semester break.

After stopping at scenic overlooks on Mulholland Drive, I made my way to The Cascades in the San Fernando Valley — a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark marking the aqueduct’s terminus, where 40,000 people gathered in November 1913 to see the initial Owens water flow, and to hear Mulholland’s taciturn remarks: “There it is. Take it.”

The Cascades

Since the Owens Valley is at roughly 4,000 feet in elevation and L.A. is at sea level, one remarkable aspect of the aqueduct is that it didn’t require any pumping. There are mountains in-between, however, so the 233 miles did include 53 miles of tunnels — and where that didn’t work (because of geology or faults), they used monstrous “siphons.” These took the water over the top instead [and strictly speaking, these are now referred to as ‘sag pipes’ or sometimes ‘inverted siphons’]. About twenty miles north of Mojave, several miles off Route 14, is one of the most famous: the Jawbone Siphon, seen in the photos below.

Jawbone Siphon

It’s almost 200 miles from L.A. before you actually enter the Owens Valley, at the site of a much-depleted Owens Lake. The lake lost so much water that it became a major source of air pollution, and the city ultimately spent considerable sums trying to regenerate marshlands. Owens Lake was also the point of departure for a much-anticipated side trip, into Death Valley (noted in the posting above).

The remainder of the Owens Valley was scenic, but Mono Lake — further north, and a later L.A. withdrawal target — was another reminder of the radical impacts of taking so much water. Besides L.A., Cadillac Desert does a great job of showing how the government spent billions & billions of dollars on irrigation projects in the West, creating new farms from borderline scrubland — while paying farmers in the East funds NOT to grow the very same crops.

The valley trip ultimately led north to other tourist destinations: Lake Tahoe, the Comstock Lode & Virginia City mining meccas, and the casinos at Reno. But one other notable site lay deep within Owens Valley itself: Manzanar, the internment site for Japanese-American citizens during World War II. A cemetery there still holds several graves, and is marked by a memorial whose inscription reads: “soul consoling tower.”

Manzanar memorial

And those Chinatown final lines? They really are effective in conveying that feeling of being in a strange & foreign land, where things aren’t always quite what you’d expect — accompanied at the same time by an undeniable world-weariness.

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