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L.A. soon may atone to valley it left high and dry

By Rene Sanchez
The Washington Post

BIG PINE, Calif. Looking out from the banks of the river that once ran through the rugged Owens Valley beside the Sierra Nevada, Mike Prather sees only stumps, weeds and dried mud.

The water is long gone. It's been that way for nearly a century, ever since Los Angeles began quenching its insatiable thirst by buying nearly all the land and building what some folks in Big Pine bitterly call "the big straw," the 233-mile aqueduct that swiped the local water supply and gave the metropolis its life.

The Owens River was the first casualty of that monumental engineering feat, sucked dry and all but left for dead.

Until now.

Prather, an environmental activist in the Owens Valley, no longer comes to the river to lament its loss. He comes to savor a remarkable new plot twist in the ceaseless water wars of the West: Los Angeles soon may have no choice but to restore the river's old flow.

"There's a lot of people here who feel that this battle was lost long ago," Prather said. "They completely accept the omnipotence of L.A. and think it's always going to get whatever water it wants, no matter what you do. But I think we're about to show them that's not true."

To revive the river, which curves for more than 60 miles through the Owens Valley, Los Angeles would have to modify the aqueduct and give up millions of gallons of precious water, an amount equivalent to what it sends annually to about 40,000 families in the city.

That step would create an environmental-restoration project like none other in the West, launched as the arid region is urbanizing at dizzying speed and getting ever more desperate for new water sources.

For residents in the valley, it would also be a historic milestone, a sign that Los Angeles is at last atoning for what they regard as its original sin.

"This has been a long time coming," said Greg James, director of the water department in Inyo County, which includes the Owens Valley. "There aren't many places in the West where 65 miles of a river have been dried out, and now 100 years later there's an opportunity to get it back. I'm optimistic it's going to happen."

"Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water."


John Huston as Noah Cross, in the film "Chinatown."

The year was 1904. Los Angeles' population had doubled since the turn of the century, to about 200,000 residents. But the city needed more water, badly.

Former Mayor Fred Eaton had an audacious idea: Why not get it from the Eastern Sierra, about 250 miles north, using an aqueduct to send water from the high country down to the Los Angeles basin?

Eaton and his associates began buying farms and ranchland in the Owens Valley. The deals included water rights, but no one said anything about an aqueduct.

Eventually, they purchased several hundred thousand acres: one of the biggest, most cunning water grabs in the history of the West.

"They wound up buying whole towns, literally," James said.

Locals hardly knew what hit them. Construction of the mammoth aqueduct, orchestrated by famed engineer William Mulholland, soon began. It took six years to build, opened in 1913 and soon provided Los Angeles with 75 percent of its water supply. The valley would never be the same.

First the Owens River dried up. Then the 60-square-mile Owens Lake into which it flowed became a giant dust bowl. The local economy collapsed.

Even now, Los Angeles officials bristle at charges that the whole plan was a dirty trick and suggest that mostly public ownership has brought the valley lasting benefits. The valley today is a place out of time, a collection of quaint towns along Highway 395 that is one of the few places in California not beset with traffic, smog or runaway development.

"Yes, there was a certain amount of subterfuge back then," said Jerry Gewe, chief operating officer for water at the L.A. Department of Water and Power. "But the fact is, it was all willing buyers and willing sellers."

The aqueduct spurred growth in Los Angeles that has never relented. By the 1960s, the city had another water-demand problem, looked again to the Owens Valley and built a second aqueduct 177 miles long, to be filled by pumping underground water.

Local officials and civic groups said that tactic devastated wildlife and vegetation. They sued Los Angeles for damages in 1972 and spent 25 years squabbling.

In 1997, the city agreed in a court settlement to restore the Owens River, but that pact appeared to stall until the state last year filed a lawsuit demanding that Los Angeles get moving on the project. Soon afterward, the city agreed to new deadlines for returning water to the river.

"While the city relies heavily upon the Owens River for our high-quality drinking water," Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn said at a ceremony this year announcing the restoration plan, "preserving the Eastern Sierra and the Owens Valley is just as important."

The reckoning is at hand. Maybe.

"On a map, the Owens Valley was still there, but it had ceased to exist as a place with its own aspirations, its own destiny."

Marc Reisner, "Cadillac Desert."

Water could be returned to the Owens River next year, but a few technicalities remain, and lingering tensions over them could become deal breakers.

Los Angeles has until the end of this month to submit a final environmental report on the river renewal to a court. It is unclear whether the city will meet that deadline, but Gewe expects the project to proceed. "We've stepped up to the plate," he said. "The question mark is the timetable."

To Owens Valley residents, that sounds like a ploy. "We've been hearing it for years," said Mark Bagley, who leads the local Sierra Club chapter.

"The city seems to be continuing not to make the best effort to move forward. They're looking for every advantage they can find to save water."

Los Angeles has already persuaded more than 1 million residents to install toilets designed to use less water and is giving away low-flow showerheads and offering cash rebates to families that buy water-saving washing machines.

The city uses roughly the same amount of water now as it did 20 years ago, even though its population has grown by about 700,000 residents.

But it will have to do more conserving. Los Angeles currently relies on the Owens Valley for about one-third of its water.

"Without question, filling the river is going to cost L.A. a significant supply," James said.

The plan calls for pumping enough water into the river to create a waist-deep flow, far below historical levels but enough to cultivate trees along its banks and create a habitat for fish and game.

A restored river also could bring recreational crowds to the Owens Valley for fishing, kayaking and bird-watching.

"It will really help the local economy if more people come up here to bait a few hooks," Prather said.


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