Historical events in Owens Valley inspired aspects of the film Chinatown.
The Owens Valley stretches from Haiwee Reservoir in the south to the Sherwin Summit in the north (just north of the town of Bishop). Other towns in the Owens Valley include Lone Pine, Independence and Big Pine. The major road in the valley is U.S. Route 395.
Owens Valley is a graben; a downdropped block of land between two vertical faults. Owens Valley is the westernmost graben in the Basin and Range Province. It is also part of trough which extends from Oregon to Death Valley called the Walker Lane.
The western flank of much of the valley has large moraines coming off the Sierra Nevada. These unsorted piles of rock, boulders and dust were bulldozed to where they are by glaciers during the last ice age. An excellent example of a moraine is on State Route 168 as it climbs into Buttermilk Country.
This graben was formed by a long series of earthquakes, such as the 1872 Lone Pine earthquake, that have moved the graben down and helped move the Sierra Nevada up. The graben is in fact much larger than the depth of the valley infers; gravity studies suggest that of sedimentary rock mostly fills the graben and that a very steep escarpment is buried under the western length of the valley. The topmost part of this escarpment is exposed at Alabama Hills.
The Sierra Nevada casts the valley in a rain shadow, which makes Owens Valley "the land of little rain," wrote native author Mary Austin in her eponymous essay.
The valley was inhabited in late prehistoric times by the Timbisha (also called Panamint or Koso) in the extreme south end around Owens Lake and by the Eastern Mono (also called Owens Valley Paiute) in the central and northern portions of the valley. The Timbisha speak the Timbisha language, classified in the Numic branch of Uto-Aztecan language family. The closest related languages are Shoshoni and Comanche. The Eastern Mono speak a dialect of the Mono language which is also Numic, but is more closely related to Northern Paiute. The Timbisha presently live in Death Valley at Furnace Creek although most families also have summer homes in the Lone Pine colony. The Eastern Mono live in several colonies from Lone Pine to Bishop. Trade between Native Americans of the Owens Valley between coastal tribes such as the Chumash has been indicated by the archaeological record.
In 1845 John C. Fremont named the Owens valley, river and lake for Richard Owens, one of his guides.
In the early 20th century the valley became the scene of a struggle between local residents and the city of Los Angeles over water rights. William Mulholland, superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) planned the 223-mile (359 km) Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913, which diverted water from the Owens River. Much of the water rights were acquired through subterfuge, with purchases splitting water cooperatives and pitting neighbors against each other. The purchases led to anger among local farmers, which erupted in violence in 1924, when parts of the water system were sabotaged by local farmers.
Eventually Los Angeles acquired a large fraction of the water rights to over of land in the valley such that inflows to Owens Lake were almost completely diverted. The lake subsequently dried up completely, leaving the present alkali flat which plagues the southern valley with alkali dust storms.
In 1970, LADWP completed a second aqueduct from Owens Valley. More surface water was diverted and groundwater was pumped to feed the aqueduct. Owens Valley springs and seeps dried and disappeared, and groundwater-dependent vegetation began to die.
Years of litigation followed. In 1997, Inyo County, Los Angeles, the Owens Valley Committee, the Sierra Club, and other concerned parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding that specified terms by which the lower Owens River would be rewatered by June 2003. LADWP missed this deadline and was sued again. Under another settlement, this time including the State of California, Los Angeles promised to rewater the lower Owens River by September 2005. As of February 2005, LADWP announced it was unlikely to meet this extended deadline. At this time 2008 Los Angeles has rewatered the lower Owens River.
In July 2004, Los Angeles mayor James Hahn proposed barring all future development on its Owens Valley holdings, by proposing a conservation easement for all LADWP land. As of October, 2004, Inyo County officials seem to be resisting the offer of the easement, perhaps due to the prior history of mistrust over LADWP actions.
One of the earliest American explorers in the area reported over "ten thousand acres [40 km²] of fine grass", but today, visitors are hard pressed to find verdant meadows. While most local residents place the blame on LADWP's aqueduct and groundwater pumping programs, the situation is not that simple. Throughout the Western United States, sagebrush, greasewood, and other woody shrubs are replacing grasslands through the process of ecological succession, and the Owens Valley is no different. Due to factors such as fire suppression, grazing patterns, and generally changing climate patterns, woody shrubs are certain to overtake grasses and weeds. To restore the valley to grassland, land management practices must be reversed.