Beyond the ranchers-versus-city narrative: reassessing the Owens Valley water conflict

Authors: Sophia Borgias*, University of Arizona School of Geography and Development
Topics: Water Resources and Hydrology, Cultural and Political Ecology, Environment
Keywords: water conflicts, rural-urban water transfers, California, indigenous rights, legal geography, political ecology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Roosevelt 4.5, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


As cities across the United States look to distant rural watersheds to meet the needs of their growing populations, they are met with resistance from rural communities who point to the dangers of becoming “another Owens Valley.” In referencing Los Angeles’ acquisition of more than 95% of the land and water rights in Owens Valley, California, these debates tend to invoke a ranchers-versus-city clash in the distant past. But this popular narrative fails to capture the diversity of actors involved in the Owens Valley water conflict, most notably overlooking the indigenous peoples of the valley, whose lands were withdrawn, sold, and traded to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) by the federal government to provide watershed protection for the city. Conflicts between valley actors and LADWP continue to this day, having evolved over the course of more than a century of legal, political, and environmental change. Drawing on political ecology and legal geography, this paper takes a fresh look at the emblematic Owens Valley case in the context of this shifting socio-environmental landscape. Preliminary results from eleven months of in-depth ethnographic, legal, and archival research shed light on the processes by which public, private, and tribal interests have been weighed and reconciled over time in the wake this large rural-to-urban water transfer, with implications for other cases across the West.

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