Environmental aspects of settlement in Owens Valley, California

Owens Valley, lying in eastern California’s Basin and Range Province, is a graben, built through the action of block faulting. Sedimentary deposits of the Tertiary period overlay granitic intrusions of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The climate of Owens Valley is arid. Temperatures average 16.6 degrees Celsius while precipitation averages less than 100 millimeters at Valley floor stations. Winds flow lengthwise through the Valley at an average speed of 3 meters per second. Clear skies predominate, but a short freeze-free period limits agriculture. Owens Valley hydrology is highlighted by its groundwater storage capacity, estimated at over 38 million acre-feet. Water enters the Valley through precipitation, runoff from streams in the Sierra Nevada, and surface and sub-surface flow. Water leaves the Valley through exportation to Los Angeles, evaporation, and sub-surface flow. Water has played an important role in the settlement of Owens Valley. Groundwater, especially, supports a variety of natural vegetation. For an undisclosed period of time, the Paiute Indians of the Valley subsisted off these native seeds and roots. Their domination of Valley activities ended in 1850 when its mineral and agricultural wealth were discovered. The next ten years were a period of transformation, after which white man dominated activities. Mining, initially, and farming brought settlers to the Valley. Here, water was transported up the mountain slopes to feed both smelters and miners, and diverted from streams to fertile soil to transform the desert landscape. Los Angeles sought to bring this water to their city and, in 1905, began preparation for the construction of a 370 kilometer aqueduct. The subsequent removal of water from Owens Valley has changed its natural environment. With its agricultural economy reduced and mining fading, tourism became the source of wealth for the Valley. Future changes can be found in more hydroelectric power plants, and the development of geothermal and wind power.