In California, a native people fight to recover their stolen waters

A study of centuries-old irrigation ditches suggests the Nüümü people could rightfully lay claim to the waters of Owens Lake.

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The California Report

Noah Williams, the water program coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute tribe, at Owens Lake in Owens Valley, California. April 3, 2024.

When Noah Williams was about a year old, his parents took him on a fateful drive through the endless desert sagebrush of the Owens Valley—which the Nüümü call Payahuunadü—in California’s Eastern Sierra. Noah was strapped into his car seat behind his mother, Teri Red Owl, and his father, Harry Williams, a Nüümü tribal elder who loved a teachable moment. “Hey look—that’s our water!” he liked to tell Noah whenever they drove past the riffling cascades of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

As they sped toward their home on one of the Nüümü’s reservations in the valley, the family passed the dry lakebed of Patsiata, also known as Owens Lake. In the 19th century, Patsiata was a 110-square-mile behemoth, but in the decades since, it’s been largely reduced to a brine pool ringed by a vast salt flat.

As the family traveled on, the wind picked up, spinning dust from the lakebed into a volcanic gray cloud that engulfed the car. Williams and Red Owl rolled up the windows and closed the vents, but the toxic dust seeped in anyway, slowly clouding the car. They could taste it, fine and metallic. 

Owens Lake, or Patsiata, on April 3, 2024. The lake was once a 110-square-mile behemoth, but water diversions have reduced it to a brine pool ringed by a vast salt flat.

Years later, Harry told Noah about that harrowing drive. “How do people live here?” he remembered asking himself. Then he answered his own question: Oh, right. We live here.

“We are a people who have experienced a tremendous amount of grief,” said Noah, who now works as a water program coordinator for one of the Nüümü tribes. “You’ve got to learn the history—and if you really get down into the details, it’ll make your bones sort of chill.”

In a state shaped by water grabs, drought emergencies, and “pray for rain” billboards, Payahuunadü is the locus of California’s most infamous water war—the fight between Payahuunadü residents and the city of Los Angeles, over 200 miles away. In the early 1900s, Los Angeles was a small city that was running out of water, and Payahuunadü, which means “the land of flowing water,” had lots of it. Renamed the Owens Valley by white settlers, the valley was a snow-capped patchwork of pear farms and cattle ranches. Around 1904, Los Angeles city officials came up with a plan to take the valley’s water for themselves. Today, about a third of LA’s water comes from Payahuunadü and other parts of the Eastern Sierra, the city’s population has ballooned to nearly 4 million, and many of the valley’s streams and lakes—including Patsiata—have all but disappeared.

The saga has been told scores of times, most famously in the Academy Award-winning movie Chinatown, but the Nüümü (also known as the Owens Valley Paiute) are often treated as a footnote to the story. The tribes have been fighting to get their water back for the better part of 170 years. And by the time Harry Williams died, in 2021, he was convinced he’d discovered a way for them to do it. His strategy, he believed, would help the Nüümü win back their water in one clever move—and upend California’s arcane and inequitable water rights system along the way.

For the Nüümü, the water war started in the 1800s, with the arrival of white people in their homeland. At the time, the valley was lush and green, its river banks lined with willows and cottonwoods. The occasional fur trapper and mountain man quickly gave way to a steady stream of sheep and cattle ranchers, and by the 1860s, a community of farmers and ranchers had seized tracts of Payahuunadü for themselves. The settlers used federal laws to consolidate control of the land and the state’s fledgling water laws, passed in the 1850s, to gain control of that vital resource.

California’s water laws quietly determine who has power and who does not.

California’s water laws govern a landowner’s legal right to divert and use water from a river, lake, or stream, and they broadly operate under three basic principles. Under “first in time, first in right,” water went to the first landowner who filed a claim to use it. Under the law’s second principle, claimants were required to make continuous use of that water, otherwise known as “use it or lose it.” 

Today, this system can still quietly determine who has power in California and who does not. “It may have made sense to the people in power at the time,” said Felicia Marcus, a visiting fellow at Stanford and the former chair of California’s State Water Board, which regulates water rights across the state. But she argues that the system is fundamentally inequitable and long overdue for reform. “There’s a day of reckoning coming where we need to think about how we’re going to rectify this very obvious wrong.” 

In the 19th century, a flurry of explicitly racist laws prevented many people of color from participating in California’s water rights system. While California was busy awarding water rights in the 1850s, it was also bankrolling a genocidal campaign against its Native communities; the legislature legalized Native Californians’ enslavement and sanctioned the violent removal of tribes from their traditional lands. According to Noah’s mom, Red Owl—an expert in Nüümü history who has long served as executive director of the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission—it’s likely that the Nüümü were unaware of the finer points of state water law. And even if they had filed a water rights claim, many tribes would have run afoul of the law’s third principle, “beneficial use,” which held that a water right owner had to use their water for something that California considered worthwhile. Diversions for agriculture were considered “beneficial,” but many California Native peoples did not farm. Before they knew it, the Nüümü had no legal right to the water they’d relied on for basic survival. 

Tensions in the valley intensified, and in 1861 war broke out between the Nüümü and the white settlers. In 1863, the U.S. Cavalry and a group of settlers drove more than thirty Nüümü into Owens Lake, then shot them as they tried to swim to safety. Later that year, the military forcibly marched nearly 1,000 Nüümü out of Payahuunadü to Fort El Tejon, more than 200 miles to the south. Many tribal members died of thirst or starvation along the way.

Teri Red Owl, executive director of the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission, says the fact that Nüümü tribal members were denied the chance to address Congress in 1937 about the theft of their water still “hurts my heart.”

By the time the Nüümü returned to their valley, the settlers had turned it into a constellation of cattle ranches and orchards. Some Nüümü found jobs as farm laborers and ranch hands, and by the early 1900s a small group had used the federal government’s Indian allotment system to recover some of the land and water they’d lost. 

But by then, a new power player had entered the valley. Through a series of technically legal maneuvers, Los Angeles officials began buying up land in Payahuunadü, and along with that land came its associated water rights. Next, they built an aqueduct to carry that water to the city—a move that would effectively drain the valley dry. 

By the early 1930s, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) owned nearly all the valley’s farmland and water rights. It was during this period that the utility authored a report, the “Owens Valley Indian Problem,” which suggested removing the Nüümü from the valley—or, if that failed, containing them on reservations. According to both Red Owl and Sophia Borgias—an assistant professor at Boise State University and an expert in this period of Payahuunadü history—the federal government stepped in on the city’s behalf, and in the late 1930s Congress created several Nüümü reservations in Payahuunadü. Through this flurry of legislation and years of political maneuvering, LADWP further consolidated its control of the valley’s land and water, including the water that flowed through the Nüümü reservations. To this day, LADWP holds the rights to the drinking water on the Bishop Paiute Reservation, where Noah grew up.

The Nüümü did not accept this situation quietly. They refused to leave Payahuunadü, even when LADWP and federal officials pressured them to relocate; at one point, LADWP even hired armed guards to prevent Nüümü landowners from using the water they had rights to. In 1937, several Nüümü tribal members traveled to Washington to plead the tribes’ case, but Congress refused to let them address the lawmakers. “Those Indians never, ever got to be heard,” said Red Owl. “When I think about it, it always hurts my heart.”

Harry Williams wasn’t a particularly patient person, and the Nüümü’s endless fights against LADWP infuriated him. So sometime in the late 1990s, he started working on an ambitious new strategy. By the time Noah was in middle school, Harry was obsessed with a network of narrow channels that crisscross, according to one estimate, at least 60 square miles of the valley’s low, rocky hills. As a kid, Harry used to play in these channels, which look like dry, overgrown creek beds, two to three feet deep.

To an untrained eye, the ditches don’t look like much, but Noah says they sometimes follow a pattern, branching off of the valley’s former creeks like veins from a leaf’s midrib. According to Harry, there’s a reason for that: the shallow ditches were part of a massive system the Nüümü had developed and maintained over hundreds of years to irrigate crops like tüpüs and nahavita, also known as yellow nutsedge and wild hyacinth.

Other Nüümü knew about the tribes’ ditches, but it was Harry who obsessively researched and mapped them—and Harry who became convinced of their political implication. Remember that under California’s water laws, many Native peoples were ineligible for water rights because they hadn’t put their water to “beneficial use.” But by diverting Payahuunadü’s water for irrigation, Harry theorized, the Nüümü had, in fact, demonstrated beneficial use, and they had done so long before white people arrived in the valley. Which meant, he argued, that the Nüümü had been the rightful owners of the Payahuunadü’s water all along. 

Of course, getting that water back would mean taking on LADWP. 

Harry’s next step was to gather proof that the ditch system was as old and sophisticated as Nüümü traditional knowledge said it was. He enlisted researchers to help him pore over 100-year-old maps and dusty ethnographies, and he quickly realized that some government officials had known about the ditches in the 19th century. When whites first made contact with the Nüümü back in the 1800s, some were impressed enough by the tribes’ agricultural system to write about it in letters and newspapers. Academics had even published anthropological research on the Nüümü’s agricultural practices back in the 1970s.

Lines of rocks like these in the Owens Valley indicate where water once flowed through Paiute irrigation ditches.

At least some of the white settlers who violently displaced the Nüümü had clearly known about the ditches, too. In an op-ed published by the Inyo Independent in 1870, the authors state that “many of the principle irrigating ditches now in use by the whites were originally constructed by the aborigines.” 

“To me, that’s just the ultimate slap in the face,” said Greg Haverstock, an archeologist with the Bureau of Land Management who’s studied Nüümü agricultural ditches. The settlers “must have recognized that these were developed areas,” he said—even as they claimed the valley’s water for themselves.

Haverstock started studying those systems because of Harry, who reached out to him in 2017; even with all of the historical documentation he’d collected, Harry still didn’t have scientific proof that the ditches predated the arrival of white settlers, which could make a Nüümü water rights claim more persuasive with the state. 

According to Noah, Harry always had “a bit of a cough,” and as he hiked through agricultural ditches with Haverstock and read through historical documents, it was hard not to notice that his cough was getting worse. When Noah was fresh out of college, Harry was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and interstitial lung disease. No one can pinpoint the exact cause of Harry’s illnesses, but Noah believes the toxic dust storms that whipped off Patsiata’s dried lakebed were at least partly to blame; his father was far from the only community member who developed respiratory disorders. 

The dust from the lakebed is laced with naturally occurring arsenic and other carcinogens, and the dust’s tiny particles have also been shown to harm human health. While there haven’t been any published studies on the long-term health impacts of Payahuunadü’s airborne dust, this kind of pollution has been studied in other places, where it was found to cause cancer, lung disease, and premature death. Since the late 1990s, LADWP says it has spent $2.5 billion on dust mitigation strategies, like putting gravel on the lakebed and using sprinklers to dampen the dust. The utility says it has reduced the lake’s dust emissions by more than 99 percent, but a 2020 National Academies of Sciences report found the area still doesn’t meet air quality standards.

Harry was deeply annoyed by his illness. He had archeologists to meet and county leaders to yell at. But in 2021, his oxygen levels dropped, and Noah rushed him to the emergency room. “Are you ready?” Noah remembered asking him. “And he said, ‘Yeah—I’m ready to go.’” The doctors removed his oxygen, and Noah began singing ceremonial songs he’d learned from Harry. He held his father’s hand. 

“We tend to underestimate the ingenuity and the ecological knowledge of people before us. That’s a big mistake.”

Greg Haverstock

The storm clouds rolled in a few minutes after Harry’s last breath. As Noah gathered up Harry’s things, it began to rain. “I was really comforted by some information that someone shared with me,” he says. “It only rains when the great ones pass away.” The rain pooled in the valley’s parched ditches, its dry creek beds, and on the dusty lakebed. Some of it coursed into the aqueduct and was taken to Los Angeles.

In 2022, Haverstock and his team published their peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology. (Harry Williams is listed as a co-author and reviewed a draft before he died.) According to Haverstock’s radiocarbon dating, the Nüümü had been using the ditches to irrigate their valley for more than 400 years, long before their contact with white people. Harry had been right all along. “We tend to underestimate the ingenuity and the ecological knowledge of people before us,” said Haverstock. “That’s a big mistake.” 

Despite the paper’s publication, Noah says Nüümü tribal leaders have yet to file a water rights claim. The tribes don’t have the money to fight for Harry’s dream, Noah says, and are focusing on water fights against LADWP that are less of a legal moonshot. 

LADWP representatives declined interview requests, but in a written statement the utility said it “recognizes tribal members’ traditional knowledge” and strives to respect Eastern Sierra communities. It also noted its attempts to reduce the amount of water Los Angeles imports. The city’s population has grown rapidly in the past 30 years, but LADWP says it has still managed to reduce its water imports from the Eastern Sierra by 50 percent since the 1990s; the utility is also investing in water recycling and treating stormwater for drinking. LADWP declined to answer any questions about the Nüümü agricultural ditch system or the validity of any tribal water-rights claims.

Several water-law experts have found Harry’s argument compelling. “It makes their water rights—in theory—very senior,” said Felicia Marcus, the Stanford fellow. But the Nüümü’s claim would be vulnerable to a range of legal counterarguments. For example, the tribes didn’t file a claim within the statute of limitations, and they did not use their water “continuously,” as California water law requires. 

Of course, the Nüümü likely didn’t know they needed to file a water claim in the 1800s, and the tribes stopped using the valley’s water in the 1860s because the U.S. military had forcibly driven them out of the valley.

This is clearly unjust, said Marcus, and an excellent example of why California should reform its water rights system to better include marginalized communities. The state could implement some kind of water reparations, she suggests, or the state legislature could pass a bill enabling tribes to file water rights claims retroactively.

For Noah, the worst-case scenario isn’t just that the Nüümü never get their water back. It’s that all the history his dad fought to recover and devoted his life to preserving could be forgotten. “It’s frustrating,” he said. “I’d ask people [in Los Angeles] time and time again, ‘Where does your water come from?’ One of the most common answers that I would get would be, ‘From the tap.’”

If we don’t tell people what actually happened here in the Owens Valley, he added—who lived here, and who made use of the water—“it could just become a memory that’s lost.”

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