Public Interest Environmental Law Conference 2017: One Cause, One Voice
Eugene, Oregon March 2–5, 2017
Film Presentation of Paya: The Water Story of the Paiute
Presented by: Jenna Cavelle, Director; Harry Williams, Bishop Paiute Tribal Member & Activist; Jacklyn Velasquez, Big Pine Paiute Tribal Member & Vermont Law School; and Chris Morrow, Viterbi Graduate School of Engineering.
The landscape in Owens Valley—in arid Inyo County—contains evidence of long-standing irrigation practices predating the American West’s colonial era. These dried up channels and diversions come from the people who traditionally inhabited Owens Valley. Today, the descendants of those people belong to the Bishop Paiute, the Big Pine Paiute, and a number of other tribes. The film Paya: The Water Story of the Paiute explores a series of extensive pre-historic irrigation systems in the Owens Valley and argues that evidence of early beneficial use may help establish a substantial water right for the region’s present Indian tribes. The film frames the exploration by discussing intervening historical injustices that prevented local tribes from conducting irrigation.
To establish a substantial water right, the local tribal members recognized a need to establish evidence proving long-term use. To this end, it is easy to establish that pre-historic irrigation channels actually existed, but it is much more difficult to show the water quantity used. Nevertheless, there is much evidence verifying the extent of prehistoric irrigation channels. First, there is historic evidence proving the the existence of an irrigation system from 1856, when surveyor Alexey W. Von Schmidt marked ancient irrigation channels on maps he prepared. Second, oral traditions suggest that irrigation practices occurred. Harry Williams, a Bishop Paiute tribal member, remembered hearing about the channels when he was a child. Third, various archaeological studies suggest the existence of these channels. Finally, many of these channels are still visible today. Combining data, the film estimates that native people constructed over sixty distinct networks of ditch systems in the Owens Valley.
The more difficult task for Williams and others is to prove the quantity of water that flowed through these irrigation systems. So far, the local community has only been able to gain a rough estimate of the water quantity that could flow through one of the streams. Scaling this estimate up area-wide, local tribes could have access to tens of thousands of acre-feet each year if they successfully applied for a water right. Unfortunately, estimating hydrologic flows could be cost prohibitive.
The indigenous people of Owens Valley irrigated the land until the Owens Valley Indian War, which ended in 1863 and resulted in the removal of the native populations. Even after being allowed to return home, Indians could not purchase land. As a result, the Bishop Paiute and other tribes experienced a “forced, sudden amnesia,” and lost their irrigation practices.
The rapid population growth of Los Angeles exacerbated this sudden amnesia. In 1905, the City of Los Angeles approved the Los Angeles Aqueduct and began purchasing water rights and land in Owens Valley. Since then, the City of Los Angeles has pumped hundreds of thousands of acre-feet per year from Owens Valley. Williams says that the way his elders described the land in Owens Valley is very different from the way it appears now. He links this change to the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
If tribes can establish beneficial use predating the aqueduct, they could prevent the Los Angeles from diverting massive amounts from the Owens Valley. However, Los Angeles has long been militant in its Owens Valley litigation and owns vast quantities of the area’s land. For local Indian tribes to establish a water right, they must identify and prove the existence of evidence that can accurately describe the prehistoric beneficial use of people in the area.
After the film concluded, the film’s director, Jenna Cavelle, along with Williams and two other contributors, hosted a question-and-answer session. Cavelle stated that the film has created a movement within the local community that sees this effort as chance to establish a substantial water right. Unlike many tribes, the Big Pine Paiute and others in the Owens Valley never received a federal “Winters” right to water, so the prospect of establishing a first-in-time, first-in-right beneficial use for the tribe is a first step that has invigorated many locals.
The largest issue facing the tribal communities is the funding needed to accumulate enough evidence. Developing and presenting this portfolio would require archaeologists, biologists, attorneys, hydrologists, engineers, and geologists. The cost alone of estimating water quantity flows would be astronomical. Cavelle hopes that screenings of this film will help raise awareness and encourage viewers to contribute to the tribes’ efforts.
Image: A small rainstorm over the Owen’s Valley. Flickr User, JesseLeeRoper, Creative Commons.