By: Alex Schmidt
Working on a documentary project in the Owens Valley on land owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) can be a little dicey. A truck zooms by as UC Berkeley scholar Jenna Cavelle and Paiute elder Harry Williams begin one of their mapping expeditions.
“Is this DWP land?” Cavelle asks Williams. “’Cause they’re right there, looking at us.”
DWP is aware of the project, but the two haven’t asked permission to make trips onto department property. Still, Cavelle feels generally secure when she’s with Williams because of a sanctuary agreement between DWP and the natives that allows them to come onto the land.
“This is our homeland. Kick me off, you’re gonna have to drag me,” Williams remarks.
The water wars that drained the Owens Valley 100 years ago to feed the Los Angeles aqueduct are today the stuff of literary and cinematic legend. But the Paiute story has been left out of the tellings. Before the arrival of white settlers, this tribe had a sophisticated water system of their own. This year marks the centennial anniversary of the aqueduct's construction, and Cavelle and Williams are working to uncover this lost part of California’s water history.
Using archival maps and GPS, the two start at the bottom of the valley floor and ascend into the foothills, plotting different points of the extensive system that crisscrosses this landscape, about 250 miles north of Los Angeles.
“A river or stream could not make it through here,” Cavelle explains as she looks out across the valley. “So the Paiute would create these ditches to bring water out into these valley floors to exploit the plants and the life and bring life into this area because it’s much easier for them to hunt and gather in a landscape like this than up in the mountains.”
To their west is the hulking backside of the snow capped Sierras -- Yosemite beyond them. East are the huge, chunky brown Inyo Mountains. The tan and grey valley floor in between holds countless of these unassuming-looking drainage canals, some of which feed into the aqueduct, though most are empty. Cavelle says they’re significant, especially now.
“The fact that we can talk about this 100 years of diverting the water supply to L.A., and to not talk about the fact that the water was being engineered by the native population prior to that," she says, "it’s historically inaccurate.”
Paiutes are known to have inhabited the Owens Valley for at least 800 years, but possibly thousands. No one knows for certain when the irrigation system was built. White settlers began arriving in the mid-1800s and soon after, the Indian Wars began. Paiutes were pushed up into the hills for years. When they returned, their water systems had been taken over, and their previous way of life was gone. Then in 1905, the L.A. DWP started buying up land from farmers, diverting the water to feed the aqueduct.
As they head deeper into the landscape, the sound of flowing water is sweet and mellow as it makes it way down from lakes in the Sierras. Using the data they collect, Cavelle will create maps of reservation irrigation systems, museum exhibits and a documentary film. But Harry Williams was curious about the ditches for a long time, since he stumbled upon a relic of an irrigation dam when he was 12 years old.
“I was a mile that way, playing around," he recalls. "There was a headgate. I’m in a desert. 'Why is this irrigation headgate out in the middle of the desert?"
Williams never asked his parents about the ditches because history simply wasn’t discussed. Once Williams started researching the irrigation system, Paiute elders older than he would ask if he knew what they were. Many elders today have never heard about the wars that ravaged their tribe 150 years ago. For Williams, documenting the ditch system means resurrecting his history.
Higher up in the landscape, Williams and Cavelle come upon a truly impressive ditch, around five feet deep. The Paiutes dug this with a huge stick called a povado.
“It means a lot to me. It means, this is what my people created, without anybody else’s thought and ideas. They did it on their own,” Williams reflects. “Think of the genius it took for somebody to convince the rest of the people to do this system and what they would get out of it. I’ve always went off that. I’ll be the genius guy who brings it back alive.”
The L.A. DWP doesn’t have plans to include Paiute water history in its centennial ceremonies. Still, Harry Williams and Jenna Cavelle hope that this year, the Paiute story will become a real part of California water history.