The first in a two-part Summer Vacation series

As of the beginning of this month, I’ve been in California, more specifically Los Angeles, for seven years. For one reason or another, I’ve never got around to exploring the Golden State all that much. So when the question came up of where to go for summer vacation, I brought up not going too far, for a change. It shouldn’t be difficult, it takes 11-12 hours to drive across the state, north to south. Surely, there’s something to see.

Of course there is. We chose Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierra Nevadas, home of Mammoth Mountain, a hot spot for skiing in the winter.

As with all summer vacations that I can remember as a kid, we required a road trip; this one, being around five to five to six hours, was easy. We drove north on US-5, connected with CA-14 through a section of the Mojave Desert and cruised up US-395 through Owens Valley. Mammoth Lakes sits on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, which stretches 400 miles north to south. It’s a fact that water is one of California’s environmental issues du jour. Thus, driving past the dried up lakebed of Owens Lake and the shadow-of-its-former-self Crowley Lake (or so it would seem), I found myself wondering how it got that way.

Image from the Owens Lake Master Plan website 

And so, allow me to begin my summer vacation set of posts with a subject that we don’t talk about much in relation to beer and brewing. Still though, it’s completely vital: water.

Water makes up approximately 95% of the ingredients in beer, you need it for sanitation, for the irrigation of grain & hops, and for the malting process. So yes, while beer needs malt, hops and yeast, without water, you literally have nothing.

As a resident of Los Angeles, Owens Valley should pique my interest… Have you ever seen the movie, Chinatown?

Video from

Chinatown, inspired by actual events, tells the story of LA oligarchs attempting to gain complete control of the city’s most important municipal resource: water. In reality, their target was the Owens Valley, approximately 200 miles north of the city, which is fed by the runoff of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  The conflicts that arose between the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP) and the Owens Valley farmers are collectively known as the “California Water Wars.” These “Wars” are better suited as topics of books, not blog posts. But, I’ll offer a primer, at least.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Los Angeles was a very different place. At a population of a little more than 100,000, the city ranked only the 36th largest in the country (it is now the second). But then-mayor Frederick Eaton and the superintendent of the newly created LADWP, William Mulholland, had a vision of LA as a major player in the United States landscape. They knew, however, a major obstacle to their hopes was access to water. Mulholland famously quipped, “Whoever brings the water brings the people.” With the quantity, quality and proximity of water available in the Owens Valley, it was an ideal candidate for an aqueduct project. The LADWP began what is widely viewed as a series of shady dealings with the local ranchers and farmers. At home, a campaign of speeches, interviews and newspaper articles began to garner the support of Angelenos by implying a city on the brink of a water crisis. The issue eventually made it to President Teddy Roosevelt, who supported the venture saying that shifting the water to LA presented “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed and began diverting water from the Owens River. “There it is. Take it.” proclaimed Mulholland as the water started to flow. By 1924, fifty miles of the Owens River were dry as well as Owens Lake, which was at its largest, twelve miles long, eight miles wide and fifty feet deep. As a result of the obvious effects on their land, farmers and ranchers began to rebel by organizing a series of violent actions. By 1927, there had been 10 instances of dynamiting sections of the aqueduct. Resistance was eventually stymied by the closings of the local banks, the owners of which were later tried and convicted of thirty-six counts of embezzlement.

The city of Los Angeles marched on and by the 1930s, owned about 95% of the farm and ranch land in the valley. In an attempt to help the valley farmers and stimulate local employment, the LADWP sponsored various repair and maintenance programs in the area. In 1970, a second aqueduct was completed to meet the ever-growing water needs of the city. The list of litigation between the farmers’ coalitions and Los Angeles is long and complicated (and conflicting depending on your source). LA seems to have not followed through with most of the agreements until slapped on the wrist by the state. In 2006, during one instance of water being returned to the valley, a top LADWP official said, “Our message of friendship and gratitude is ‘there it is, take it back’.” Interesting.

Despite all of this, Owens Valley still provides 50% of LA’s water.

Image from the Owens Lake Master Plan website

It’s worth noting a few extra points:

  1. Now, Owens Lake is the single largest source of dust pollution in the United States.
  2. Last year, Los Angeles celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the Aqueduct. I purposefully used the word, “celebrated.”
  3. The Los Angeles Aqueduct actually didn’t end in Los Angeles proper, but rather in the San Fernando Valley, which wasn’t part of the city at the time. Guess whose friends owned the land that had to be developed in order to make full use of the newly available water? Refer to the classically smarmy line by John Huston in Chinatown, “Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.”
  4. The St. Francis Dam, part of the Aqueduct about 40 miles north of LA (in what is now Santa Clarita) collapsed twelve hours after William Mulholland had personally inspected the site. The accident killed almost 600 people, 108 of whom were minors. Mulholland took full responsibility and resigned. His career was (obviously) over, though he went on to consult on the Hoover Dam project before his death.

Water’s importance to the growing community of breweries in Los Angeles is obvious. With almost 60% of California in “Exceptional Drought” (the worst possible rating), including the entire Los Angeles region, you had better believe all these water issues are coming to a head, and the beer industry is hardly immune. Brianna Sacks of the LA Times wrote about it just last week – here is the article.

Summer Vacation Part 2: The Local Brewery in Mammoth Lakes, CA will be posted tomorrow.


Further reading:

  1. At first mention, LA residents will most likely immediately get a bad taste in their mouths (no pun intended…maybe) from the LADWP. Hoping not to get too deep into their current reputation, I’ll just add that, in 2011, theAmerican Customer Satisfaction Index rated LADWP the 13th worst company in America.
  2. At the end of July, a water main burst on Sunset Boulevard spilling 20 million gallons of drinkable water over the nearby grounds of UCLA. LADWP and mayor Eric Garcetti blame a “poorly engineered joint” in the piping. Here’s an article from the LA Times the day after the flood.Apparently, LADWP might revive a program to test for overstressed pipe, as a result of this incident. Here’s that article in the LA Times. And, say what you will about Buzzfeed but here’s an article to put the amount of water spilled into better context.
  3. Here’s a link to a great short video from the series, Tom Explores LA, where he goes out to Owens Lake
  4. Water and Power: The Conflict Over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley by William Kahrl can be found on
  5. Los Angeles Aqueduct Centennial 2013 official website