Owens Valley Committee presents follow-up to original film
When it was released in 1974, “Chinatown” used William Mulholland’s greatest coup, the construction of the Owens Valley aqueduct, which provided Los Angeles with a steady source of drinking water, as part of its plot line. The film itself (and most of its use of the so-called “water wars” story) was largely fictitious, but on the 2009 Centennial Collection DVD release, the movie’s original studio, Paramount, thought enough of the underlying subject matter to produce three new documentary shorts about the background, aftermath and other aspects of the Eastern Sierra and its decades-long love/hate relationship with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Earlier this month at the Sierra Club Range of Light chapter’s January meeting, current Owens Valley Committee (OVC) president Mark Bagley (himself a Sierra Club member), screened two of the three films as part of a presentation looking at the state of the water wars 35 years after “Chinatown.”
One of the Eastern Sierra’s more prominent activist groups, the OVC has been heavily involved in water issues since the late 1980s, and is well versed in the history. Bagley, who is seen several times in the documentaries, started with the short on the aqueduct’s history, which features among others, Carol Mulholland, granddaughter of William, and “Chinatown” screenwriter Robert Towne, who visits the aqueduct for the first time since he wrote the movie and acts as something of a guide.
Viewers are taken back to the waterway as a concept in the late 1800s, then through the construction between 1911 and 1913 that routed water via the Owens River to the intake between Independence and Lone Pine. Next is the tapping of the Mono Basin in 1940 and the second “redundant” aqueduct in 1970, which ran alongside the original and nearly doubled water capacity.
After the first film, Bagley spoke in more detail about the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) passage, and its impact on a 1972 court ruling on an Inyo County suit against the City of Los Angeles, in which the judge determined that, while the aqueduct itself pre-dated CEQA, the actual project to fill it with water was subject to a CEQA analysis, one of the first major victories for Eastern Sierra interests.
On one hand, construction of the aqueduct is an engineering marvel, “a long black tube feeding the city,” as Towne observed. Gravity fed, it utilizes no pumps of any kind along its 233-mile route to southern California. Its effects on the life and livelihood of the Eastern Sierra have, Bagley thinks, been equally monumental. “As a gravity flow system, technologically it’s great,” he said. “As an environmental disaster, it’s equally great.”
Also interviewed in the documentaries are LA Councilman Tom LaBonge and “Western Times and Water Wars” author John Walton, as well as LADWP engineers, PR spokesman Chris Plakos and former CEO David Nahai.
As illustrated in the first film, Mulholland’s name may be somewhat tainted, but most of those interviewed didn’t consider him part of any skullduggery. (One of his more ruthless aqueduct associates, Fred Eaton, is perhaps more likely to have manipulated things in his favor.) Even the OVC’s Mike Prather indicated Mulholland’s interest was “water and the good of the city.”
Carol Mulholland goes to great lengths to point out that the history is “a complex story,” full of “shades of gray.” The good guys don’t always wear white and the bad guys aren’t always dressed in black. The movie’s perception by mass audiences has also colored public thinking. “Chinatown” and its detective story likely overshadowed the backstory of the water grab. “It’s been accepted as a historic document,” she opined, “but it’s not an accurate depiction of history.”
Towne echoed her remarks, saying he set the story in the 1930s, well after the aqueduct project, and only used the real players as models for his fictional versions. For example, one character is written as a hybrid of Mulholland and Eaton.
The second of the three films examines “The Aftermath” of the aqueduct and the effect it had on the Eastern Sierra in particular. Private owners were offered triple or more what their property was worth, allowing LADWP to amass a huge amount of land up and down U.S. 395. A few holdouts still remain, including Bishop rancher Stan Matlick, whose family still owns its homestead and property. (Another is the Valentine property in Mono County, which LADWP has coveted all along.)
For all its technical simplicity, the aqueduct’s quenching of LA’s immense thirst has led to pumps being used to pull groundwater for irrigating parched meadows, and enormous dust storms emanating from the now dry Owens Lake. LADWP is rewatering the lake, but it may never return to anything close to its original state.
The 2009 Centennial edition of “Chinatown,” which includes the documentaries, is available at Amazon.com.