The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1982, Volume 28, Number 1
Edited by Thomas L. Scharf

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy. By Abraham Hoffman. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1981. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 308 pages. $18.50.

Reviewed by Michael F. Konig, Doctoral Candidate in Urban History at Arizona State University.

As the Owens Valley-Los Angeles water controversy continues into its eighth decade, it remains a generally misunderstood phenomenon. According to Abraham Hoffman, the controversy remains ambiguous because it has evolved from a struggle between the “heroes and villains of an earlier age,” who sought water and thus prosperity for their respective regions, into an entangled conflict between “government agencies and ongoing arguments over the degree of environmental impact a given area can stand.” Hoffman’s volume makes clear the motivations and actions of the main participants in this controversy and judges the merits and shortcomings of previous historical interpretations which he claims have cast a villainous hue on the water-securing efforts of Los Angeles.

Hoffman re-evaluates the role of Reclamation Service engineer, Joseph Barlow Lippincott, which he maintains is central to the controversy. The author states that Lippincott was accountable to his superior, Secretary of the Interior Ethan A. Hitchcock, in his suggestion to terminate the proposed Owens Valley reclamation project. Hoffman also maintains that the Department of the Interior conducted an investigation into Lippincott’s conflict of private and governmental interests in the Owens Valley affair at the behest of a “self-interested” minor federal employee, Stafford Austin. Despite the investigation’s negative recommendation, Hitchcock, after hearing Lippincott’s personal appeal, did not compel the engineer to resign. Hoffman points out that Lippincott’s decision to retire from governmental service was due to an attractive offer by William Mulholland to work as chief assistant on the original Los Angeles Aqueduct and to plans by the Reclamation Service to relocate its far-western headquarters.

The author further depicts the “discontented” Stafford Austin as a source of the accusations of conspiracy involving Lippincott, Frederick Eaton, Mulholland, and the Otis-Sherman-Chandler land syndicate. Another conspiracy advocate, Henry Lowenthall, editor of the Los Angeles Examiner, challenged the secret methods which the city of Los Angeles employed in obtaining Owens Valley water rights and the handling of the initial bond campaign. Hoffman rebuffs Austin’s accusations by portraying the governmental official in the compromising position of one who was himself involved in divers land speculations. The author further states that according to the findings of the Aqueduct Investigation Board of 1912, Eaton, Mulholland, and Lippincott were unconnected with San Fernando Valley land speculations and that only circumstantial evidence joins the Los Angeles Board of Water Commissioners and the Otis-Sherman-Chandler land syndicate.

Yet Hoffman claims that where Owens Valley was concerned, the city of Los Angeles was especially shortsighted. The completed aqueduct from Owens Valley removed much more water than the city needed and Mulholland ignored the needs of Owens Valley residents by failing to construct a storage reservoir at Long Valley. Frustrated valley residents dynamited the aqueduct during the 1920’s in response to the increasingly imperialistic aspirations of Los Angeles toward their land and water. But the spirit of resistance in the valley fell with the arrest and conviction of the Watterson brothers, who embezzled the ranchers’ bank deposits for their private business affairs. Even Mulholland is depicted as an eventual casualty of Los Angeles water policy when he was forced to accept responsibility for the carnage wrought by the failure of the Saint Francis Dam.

Hoffman is particularly adept at portraying the deficiencies of works dealing with the water controversy such as Morrow May’s Los Angeles and W.A. Chalfant’s Story of Inyo. The author claims that Mayo and Chalfant were influenced by an amateur historian, Andrae Nordskog. Nordskog examined Bureau of Reclamation letters and evolved a conspiracy thesis which held that political and business manipulators in Los Angeles benefited directly from the city’s water policies and that these persons sought to repeat the same type of practice with the proposed Boulder Dam. The author states that Nordskog’s work is blighted by “single-mindedness” and that Nordskog reached his conclusions before beginning his research. Yet according to Hoffman, neither Mayo nor Chalfant bothered to investigate the Reclamation Service records and determine their true meaning. Even Carey McWilliams, Remi Nadeau, and Vincent Ostrom depended upon Nordskog’s biased conclusions. Hoffman claims that because of Nordskog’s faulty conspiracy thesis the complexity of the Owens Valley affair has been obscured and that the vision of the architects for Los Angeles’ growth after 1905 has been slighted while “their alleged villainy enlarged.”

Hoffman demonstrates superior expertise with published and unpublished primary sources relevant to the controversy. The volume’s bibliography is extensive and should be regarded as the most complete enumeration of sources applicable to the Owens Valley affair. The volume should be of particular use to reclamation specialists, western historians, and urbanists because it addresses the issues of western urban imperialism, environmental protection, and governmental responsibilities in adjudicating a balance between the two.