Capitol Alert

Museum tells story of California water conflict

An exhibit titled “Building Bill’s Ditch” at the Eastern California Museum in Independence commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct’s completion. The “Bill” of the title is William Mulholland, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power when the aqueduct was conceived.
An exhibit titled “Building Bill’s Ditch” at the Eastern California Museum in Independence commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct’s completion. The “Bill” of the title is William Mulholland, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power when the aqueduct was conceived. Special to The Bee

The jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada that tower over Independence are almost all granite and no snow this year, one of the most visible signs of drought in Inyo County.

Thousands of feet below in the Owens Valley, the Eastern California Museum, which houses an exhibit on a pivotal moment in the state’s water history, has failed to see an uptick in attendance.

“The thing with the snow is almost shocking,” said Jon Klusmire, services administrator at the museum. “Even last year, there was snow on the peaks and some of the fingers sticking out.”

The museum holds vast collections of pottery and beadwork from the Owens Valley Paiute and Panamint Shoshone tribes alongside exhibits on ranching, mining and Norman Clyde, a pioneering mountaineer famous for bagging the first ascents of numerous Sierra Nevada peaks.

But the exhibit most relevant to California’s current predicament with water is also the museum’s most recent addition, an exhibit titled “Building Bill’s Ditch.”

The exhibit commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct’s completion. In a series of black-and-white photographs and century-old letters and pamphlets, it showcases how the city of Los Angeles bought and controlled strategic plots of land throughout the Owens Valley in order to absorb tributaries of the Owens River. Bill was William Mulholland, then chief engineer of the city’s water department.

Mulholland understood that the combination of a booming population in Los Angeles and an arid environment meant that water scarcity would eventually thwart the city’s growth. He saw in the Owens River a distant yet potential source of water for the fledgling metropolis he believed was destined for greatness.

There was only one thing that could slow Mulholland’s efforts to hoard Owens River water: the people of the Owens River Valley, many of whom had an inconvenient desire to retain their main source of water.

The first wave of land deals and options was pretty sneaky.

Jon Klusmire, services administrator for the Eastern California Museum

Agents of the water department were careful not to alert the populace during some of the first land buys. A former mayor of Los Angeles, Fred Eaton, shopping for land on behalf of the water project, kept his true motives closely guarded while scouting and acquiring the future locations of key sites of the aqueduct.

“The first wave of land deals and options was pretty sneaky,” Klusmire said. “The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the city of Los Angeles were heavy-handed in getting what they wanted.”

Even while Klusmire and the exhibit tell a story of swindle, they offer visitors a full perspective of the controversy that refrains from assigning all blame to Los Angeles. “Local people kept selling land to them (LADWP), and they have ever since,” Klusmire said.

“In ‘Chinatown,’” Klusmire added, referring to the 1974 Roman Polanski film about a detective (played by Jack Nicholson) navigating his way through a maze of corruption and water rights in Southern California, “everything is a big secret.”

But during the actual events of the early 20th century that inspired the film, he said, not all the agents of Los Angeles were as secretive as the movie portrays. Eventually, Los Angeles even placed advertisements announcing its hunger for land in newspapers throughout the Owens Valley. Some of those ads are now behind glass in the Eastern California Museum.

While drought dominates local, state and national headlines, the Eastern California Museum’s attendance has held steady at about 10,000 annual visitors, although slightly fewer visitors have been stopping by during winter. The reason is less snowfall in Mammoth Lakes, the Sierra resort town popular with skiers and winter recreationists. Tourists heading north for Mammoth Lakes during the winter often stopped at the Eastern California Museum, which is just off U.S. Highway 395.

But in a strange balancing act, the visitors lost during winter are regained during the summer months, also due to changes in Mammoth Lakes’ tourism.

“Summer (attendance) is increasing enough to make up for the drop in winter. Partly, that’s because of Mammoth, too. They’ve gotten pretty aggressive with summer programs and events,” Klusmire said.

The whole landscape has changed.

Student researcher Krystal Kissinger

Visitors who do come – some from as far as New Zealand, England and Hungary – also learn that the Owens Valley has seen great changes in the last century.

“The whole landscape has changed,” said Krystal Kissinger, a graduate student from California State University, Northridge, conducting research in the museum’s archives.

Seen from a car window, Owens Lake, once deep enough to float a steamship, is now a shimmering puddle drying under the sun. The surrounding valley is distinctly dry and crisp around the edges.

Chuck and Jon Shuey, brothers road-tripping through the Owens Valley and recent visitors to the Eastern California Museum, said they think LADWP should do more to assist the Owens Valley in displaying landmarks of the aqueduct. But LADWP is not eager to showcase the tactics it used in acquiring Owens Valley land, they said.

“I think they’re bashful,” said Chuck Shuey. “If it weren’t for DWP, the whole valley would be green.”

The department says it’s doing its part to educate the public. “The Department of Water and Power not only opens its lands up for public use, but we also provide tours of the aqueduct system several times a year,” said LADWP spokeswoman Amanda Parsons.

According to Klusmire and Roberta Harlan, the museum’s curator, LADWP actually owns the land where the museum sits. LADWP has no say over the content of the exhibits, Klusmire said.

In order to raise attendance, Klusmire and Harlan plan to hold more events that involve speakers, presentations and book signings, hoping to entice larger crowds into the museum’s diverse collections on eastern California history.

Harlan, for her part, would like a bigger building to house the museum. Since LADWP already owns the land, maybe it would be willing to fund an expansion?

“Don’t think we haven’t suggested that,” Harlan said with a laugh.

Daniel Davis-Williams is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

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