About 250 miles north of Los Angeles, there is a long valley known to the Big Pine and Bishop Northern Paiute people of the Owens Valley — the Nüümü (Paiute) and Newe (Shoshone) — as Payahüünadü, “The Land of Flowing Water.”
For at least 15,000 years, these Northern Paiute tribes have tended their homeland, more recently also known as the Owens Valley. The beloved region of green, well-tended gardens and wetlands, nestled between mountain ranges to the east and west, along California’s eastern edge, was nurtured by extensive and sophisticated irrigation ditches the Northern Paiute built and maintained to channel water from the seasonal, and wildly fluctuating snowmelt flowing down from the nearby Sierra Mountain Range.
In fact, their deep knowledge of their region’s water cycles informed their sustainable water usage practices, as the Big Pine Paiute Tribe states on its website: “All the resources our ancestors needed for a subsistence lifestyle relied on one variable which was unpredictable: water.”
And in tending their sustainable and sophisticated relationships with water, the Northern Paiute tribes not only survived but thrived. “The entire valley was our garden,” says Harry Williams, a Bishop Paiute elder and environmental activist of a time when the tribe’s irrigation ditches were fully operational. “The more you spread the water, the more your garden grew: plants, animals, everything. The valley was plump.”
By practicing careful and sustainable water management practices, the tribe has cultivated wild plants, including taboose (Cyperus esculentus), nahavita (Dichelostemma capitatum), as well as fruit trees and other vegetables. Anna Hohag, a member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, has written, “Our elders and stories tell us of times when our entire valley consisted of wetlands, marshlands, and swamps — making for an abundance of crops, animals, hunting and fishing grounds, and simply put: a good life.”
However, starting in the mid-1800s with the arrival of European settlers making a claim to water rights in the Owens Valley, this once-lush area was transformed dramatically into a virtual desert in just decades. The heaviest blow to the Northern Paiute’s ancient way of widespread water cultivation came with the diversion of water south to the City of Los Angeles via the Los Angeles Aqueduct built by William Mulholland, which began heavily extracting water in 1913.
These events, along with the construction of a second aqueduct that not only channels snowmelt but also pumps groundwater to quench the thirsty demands of L.A.’s growing metropolis, also caused the near-extinction of a once-massive Owens Lake at the valley’s south end.
Subsequently, the Northern Paiute have struggled to this day to carry forth their ancient practices and maintain their traditional ways of life — a way of life-based on their close relationships with water usage and sustainability. “The truth is, millions of people are now relying on a water supply because we’ve created these big cities in places that really aren’t sustainable,” says Alan Bacock, Big Pine Paiute tribal member and water program coordinator. “As a result, there are unresolved water rights issues our people are having to deal with. Nobody knows the bigger story, how actions in Los Angeles end up impacting those in the Owens Valley.”
As Bacock points out, the Northern Paiute have always known exactly where every drop of their water comes from, in contrast to the millions of people who receive water far away from the small Owens Valley towns of Big Pine and Bishop via massively extractive and endangered water practices in place today, not only by the City of Los Angeles, but throughout southern California and the arid southwest.
“Though we never really got a whole lot of water in the form of rain in the sky, we have had a whole bunch from the Sierra Nevada, where the snow would come down on mountains, and then it would warm up in the season, water would trickle down, into the creeks, and the creeks would continue down mountain ways,” says Bacock. “We were able to utilize it, seeing how much water was available from the snowmelt and runoff and created a really extensive ditch network. To move water throughout the land as slowly as possible, throughout the land so that the more the water traveled, the more it absorbed into the land. That then helped raise up the water table and provide for the plants and animals.”
Maps of these many, intricately interconnected irrigation ditches throughout the Big Pine-Bishop area, drawn from a tribal informant’s memory, were sketched in 1927 by Julian Steward, showing just how extensive and durable these waterways had been built and maintained for centuries. Remnants of these ancient ditches, some miles long and as wide and deep as modern canals, are still evident today. In a 1930 essay excerpted in “Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians,” a book by Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson, Steward noted that “ditch irrigation had been undertaken (by the Northern Paiute) ‘upon a considerable scale’ in Owens Valley with its greatest development being near the present-day town.”
The Northern Paiute continue to struggle to receive their fair – though greatly diminished – share of water allocations guaranteed in their 1939 “forever and in perpetuity” agreement with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. In 2016, following a decade of historic drought throughout the state and increasing demands on their historic water sources, the Big Pine Paiute tribe posted an open letter to the LADWP requesting a resolution to their years-long diminishment of water allocations due to improperly functioning equipment that was the City’s responsibility to maintain.
In 2017, thanks to its own extensive efforts, the Big Pine Paiute Tribe was successful in its very public appeal to LADWP to fix its broken irrigation pipeline. With the support of tribal leaders, Big Pine tribal members, members of other tribes, tribal staff, and various residents of the Owens Valley, Los Angeles and elsewhere, the message of the #FixthePipe campaign got through as the result of a strong show of solidarity and sovereignty.