Pictured: Harry Williams and Jenna Cavelle/
Do you know how long the Los Angeles Aqueduct is? How many workers died during its construction? Do you know when it was first bombed? Or how the Paiute Indians fit into the history of the Owens Valley ‘Water Wars’? If so, as the instructors of Thursday night’s first Cerro Coso course on the history of the LA Aqueduct observed, you should be teaching the class. If not, you could learn a great deal from this 6-part course.
Inspired by the 100-year anniversary of the LA Aqueduct, the course began with the earliest Owens Valley water systems, irrigation ditches created and managed by the Paiute Indians, and will conclude with a lively debate over the positive and negative impacts of the 223-mile LA Aqueduct.
Instructors Nancy Hadlock and Richard Potashin explained, the impetus for the course came from their own desire to know more about the history of the Aqueduct. “There wasn’t much out there,” Potashin said. “It’s a very complex story. There’s lots of minutiae, but it’s fascinating minutiae.” Potashin acknowledged the challenge of squeezing 100 years of history into 6 classes, and expressed his hope that the discussions sparked by each class would carry on outside of the classroom.
With a diverse array of guest speakers, from Paiute tribe members to Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) staff, Potashin and Hadlock hope to capture the multi-faceted history of the LA Aqueduct.
The first class on March 7 served as an introduction to the scope of the course, as well as a lesson in the history of the Paiute Indians’ ancient water irrigation systems. On hand to discuss this history were Paiute tribe member Harry Williams and UC Berkeley Visiting Scholar Jenna Cavelle.
Williams recalled his first contact with the irrigation ditches when, as a boy, he ran across an old head gate while hunting rabbits. According to Williams, it turns out that about 70% of all ditch systems in the Bishop area were already present when white settlers arrived and claimed water rights in the 1860s. The irrigation systems were so central to tribal life in the Valley that the tribe would elect only the most respected member to oversee them. This person was called ‘tuvaiju,’ Williams said.
“The things that are here were here before,” he concluded. “The history of this place has always been about water, and will always be about water.”
Cavelle argued the importance of exploring the Paiute history of water management in order to obtain a fuller understanding of what the 100-year anniversary of the LA Aqueduct means to all residents of the Owens Valley. The conflict over water began long before the Aqueduct broke ground, she pointed out, considering 2013 also marks the 150-year anniversary of the Indian Wars of 1863, in which white settlers took Paiute water and land rights, expelling tribal members from their homes. History has largely overlooked the story of the Paiute presence in the Valley, and the water management system they created.
A curious investigator, however, can still find traces of the ditches in the Owens Valley. Cavelle’s research unearthed an account by ethnographer Julian Steward in 1933 of a Paiute irrigation system that “featured a dam along Bishop Creek Canyon with one ditch per plot of land to be irrigated.” Harry Williams noted that remnants of the dam, and a ditch referred to by Steward as “Paiute ditch,” which he traced from Bishop Creek Canyon all the way across the Valley, “are still present in modern-day Bishop.”
The impact of the LA Aqueduct is not felt by white Valley residents alone, Cavelle noted. “Paiute tribe members are still not properly compensated for water by the DWP,” she said. “The Bishop Paiute Reservation doesn’t even own the water beneath their land.” For the Paiutes, the loss of water rights in the 1860s meant the loss of cultural knowledge. To ignore this loss, and the richness of the original history of the irrigation systems, “would be a disservice not just to the tribe, but to American history,” said Cavelle.
The conclusion of Thursday’s class brought home the compelling, complex nature of the Owens Valley ‘Water Wars.’
The LA Aqueduct course is open to the public and does not award college credit. Complete registration and course information is available at http://www.cerrocoso.edu/communityed.