Owens Valley Committee » Blog Archive » Victims and Saviors

Victims and Saviors

The numerous problems with LTWA management (discussed in the issues pages) raise the question of why Inyo County residents aren’t taking more aggressive action to protect the valley.  Historically, residents have tried everything from civil disobedience (the occupation of the Alabama Gates) to violence (dynamiting the aqueduct) to litigation.  Since the 1991 signing of the LTWA, the county has largely acquiesced to DWP save for occasional blustering and challenges to DWP’s annual pumping programs in 2000, 2001 and 2007.

The most frequent rationalization among residents for acquiescence to DWP is, “this place would look like [name the ugliest developed area you can think of] if it weren’t for DWP.”  Gratitude for being able to live in an area largely devoid of urban sprawl outweighs indignation at the injustice of colonial rule, the drying of Owens Lake and all the major springs in the valley, and the ever-increasing desertification of wellfields.

DWP has, indisputably, protected open space (and even enlarged it through destruction of historic buildings on property it acquires).  However, the fact that DWP has protected open space up to the present does not guarantee it will do so in the future: consider DWP’s proposed Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch.  Nor is DWP colonial rule the only way to protect open spaceThe possibility of a DWP-free future, in which open space is protected and the valley re-hydrates never gets discussed.  Nor does the idea that settling for anything less than such a future may be selling the valley short. The “This place would look like…” rationalization seems to be an example of the “Stockholm Syndrome” – captives identifying with their captors — on a grand scale.

This rationalization has interesting implications because it is an implicit acceptance of DWP’s narrative that DWP is not the destroyer, but the savior of the valley.  While the notion of DWP as savior may be preposterous, DWP promotes it vigorously, claiming the valley is a “pristine landscape”, and “without Los Angeles’ land ownership developers would long ago have begun converting large tracts of Owens Valley land into housing, businesses, and industrial facilities.” As a result, many residents have cognitive dissonance regarding the valley and its future.  Evidence of DWP’s devastating dehydration of the valley cannot be denied but, in accepting the “This place would look like…” rationalization they nevertheless accept DWP’s narrative of salvation.

Environmentalists seem particularly vulnerable to this narrative.  Prominent water activist Dorothy Green wrote, in 2007, “Most residents of these Eastern Sierra Communities are grateful to DWP for purchasing the land in the region.  There is very little development and no billboards on Highway 395” (Managing Water, UC Press, pg 34).  In 1976 the chairman of the Eastern Sierra Task Force of the Sierra Club said “We recognize that Los Angeles is probably the savior of the valley.” (National Geographic Magazine, January 1976).

William Kahrl responded to the Sierra Club statement, “These remarks reveal the danger in confusing effects with motivation.  By the logic of this Sierra Club spokesman, so might Genghis Kahn be admired today as an early advocate of open space preservation for his work in obliterating the cities of central Asia. The conservationists’ accolades for Los Angeles ignored the essential fact that the city’s interest was not in the preservation of the environment in any general sense but in the protection of its water resource.” (Kahrl, William 1982. Water and Power, University of California Press. pg. 400).

Among DWP staff, the “DWP as savior of the valley” narrative is deeply held, and some take it one step farther.  If one accepts the notion of DWP as savior of Owens Valley, the fact that DWP has been widely condemned for its Owens Valley activities means it is a victim, as well as a savior.  Indeed, to hear some tell it, DWP is virtually a martyr!  Kathleen Mulholland (William’s granddaughter) writes, “What, after all, made this venture [LA’s conquest of Owens Valley]  more reprehensible than those undertaken by other American cities that had gone distances to find water: New York to Croton, Boston to Quabbin Reservoir, and San Francisco to the Tuolomne River…?  Who still rails against the New York Catskill project…?” (William Mulholland and the rise of Los Angeles, University of California Press, pg. xv).  Poor, victimized Los Angeles!

There are thus competing narratives of salvation and victimhood regarding DWP and the valley: 1) Owens Valley is the victim (of DWP); 2) DWP is the victim (of hatred by ungrateful OV residents and misplaced sympathy for the underdog among outsiders); and 3) DWP is the savior (of Owens Valley).  The unending contention among these narratives in the court of public opinion is a constant background to political discussion in the valley.

The contention occasionally comes to a head.  In October 2005 the Bishop Mural Society unveiled a mural on a Bishop building which addressed Owens Valley history.  Had the artist intended to inflame passions, he could have depicted DWP bulldozing farmhouses on the land it acquired and dried up, or Owens Valley residents dynamiting the aqueduct.  Instead, the mural shows the Bishop area Sierra crest, a grassy meadow, a small orchard, a creek, and a DWP drainpipe surrounded by an area where the paint appears to have fallen off exposing the underlying pencil sketch.  Only upon seeing the very small “LADWP” on the drainpipe does the historic narrative of DWP’s draining of the valley start to become clear. The overall effect is pastoral and understated.

DWP’s response was anything but understated.  After the mural’s unveiling, the wife of the local DWP manager reportedly threatened the tenant of the building (who had nothing to do with the mural) with a DWP boycott of her store. The DWP manager then wrote a letter to the mural society (with copies to county political leaders) claiming the mural presented a “false and negative depiction” of LA ownership, that DWP was “deeply offended” (DWP as victim), and Owens Valley is, “one of the last areas in California virtually untouched by development and pollution precisely because of DWP’s excellent land stewardship” (DWP as savior).  He also withdrew a $500 donation DWP had made to the mural society and wrote that DWP would scrutinize funding requests much more closely in the future.  The letter was so intemperate it generated national publicity and became an embarrassment to the Mayor of Los Angeles who subsequently ordered the $500 donation to be re-donated.

The mural also generated noteworthy discussion in the letters-to-the-editor of the Inyo Register.  One author invoked Shakespeare (“methinks he doth protest too much”) to argue the vehemence of the DWP letter was a manifestation of the guilty consciences of DWP staff.  A DWP employee replied with more invocations of DWP as savior and victim.

The DWP responses to the Mural were enlightening precisely because they were not calculated responses of a public relations expert, but, instead, very personal reactions.  As such they provided a window into the self-deception prevalent among DWP staff. The success DWP has had in promulgating its narrative of salvation (among the public, as well as its staff) is the best explanation for the reluctance of Owens Valley residents to seek alternatives to DWP rule.  This reluctance is the biggest single obstacle (apart from DWP itself) to a better future for Owens Valley.

— Daniel Pritchett