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Beginning about 3 million years ago, the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains fault systems became active with repeated episodes of slip (earthquakes) gradually producing the impressive relief of the eastern Sierra Nevada and White Mountain escarpments that bound the northern Owens Valley-Mono Basin region.
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.
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 California Highway 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 10,000 feet 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 valley is the site of conflict of the California Water Wars. These wars were a struggle between Los Angeles, California and the local residents of Owens Valley over water rights. William Mulholland, superindendent of the Los Angeles District of Water and Power planned the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which took water from the Owens Valley. The aqueduct was completed in 1913.
Unfortunately, the water rights were acquired through subterfuge. Purchases of the water rights split water cooperatives and pitted neighbors against each other. This led to anger amongst the Owens Valley 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 the Owens Valley. Inflows to Owens Lake were almost completely diverted, which caused it to competely dry up. The Sierra Nevada casts the valley in a rain shadow, which makes Owens Valley the land of little rain. The southern Owens Valley is affected by alkali dust storms arising from the dry lake bed.
During World War II a Japanese American Internment camp operated in the valley at Manzanar near Independence, California.
See also: Inyo and Mono Craters. Small versions of the Devils Postpile, can be found, for example, by Little Lake.